“Get the Discussion Going Quickly:” An Interview with Frank Bruni

By Patrick Reilly

May 4th, 2016

On May 4th, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni visited International House to discuss the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Bruni’s perspective on the rise of Donald Trump and the path to the White House is informed by a decades-long career in journalism. He has covered topics ranging from restaurant criticism to sex abuse in the Catholic Church, and has written a biweekly column in the New York Times since 2011.

Before the event, Mr. Bruni sat down with Global Voices Interview Editor Patrick Reilly to discuss his work in journalism and today’s media landscape. This interview has also been published in the Gate, the partner student publication of the Global Voices Interview Series.

Global Voices: Your column on Ted Cruz dropping out of the race for the Republican nomination went up on the New York Times website within a few hours of him making the announcement. How do you turn around pieces that quickly?

Frank Bruni: One of the skills I have, against the many that I don't have, is that I'm very very fast. Number two, I had worked on some of those descriptions of Ted Cruz earlier in the day, in case that moment were to arise. So there are paragraphs in an article like that that were done, or were partly done, in advance, or that come out of notes that read almost like paragraphs that are ready for the taking. Sometimes, on an evening like that, you prepare multiple stories for different outcomes.

Global Voices: How can aspiring journalists develop a really fast turn-around time without compromising quality?

Bruni: The only way that you can become fast at doing this is to do it often. There is no magic formula. There is a mindset that I think is helpful—whoever said, "Journalism is the first draft of history" made a very smart statement. Embedded in that assertion is the important truth that journalism is imperfect. It is imperfect by nature, and you have to sort of get comfortable with that. To write quickly you need enormous practice, but you really just need to absorb the mindset that this is not going to be perfect, that I'm going to look at this a day from now and there will be things about this that will bother me. But part of the function I'm serving here, part of the function of journalism, is to get the discussion going quickly and to get some information and some perspective out there right away. Even if it’s not the most complete, polished, thought-out dialogue on this topic that will ever happen, you really just have to resign yourself to that.

Global Voices: Last weekend, the Gate hosted a skills-building workshop for student journalists.  During that workshop, David Axelrod told us that he thinks Donald Trump caught so many journalists by surprise because they didn't pay enough attention to the people who wound up voting for him. Would you agree?

Bruni: I think there's quite a bit of truth to that. I think that more and more, because of the nature of the news business and the economics of the news business, the reporting tends to be more focused on the players and less on the audience. Because of that, I think we are sometimes slow to notice the temperature of the audience, and that was one of the dynamics happening here.

Global Voices: Since you covered George W. Bush’s first campaign in 2000, how has journalism become more time-intensive with the internet and social media?

Bruni: In a weird way, it has changed in terms of how quickly people in the marketplace see the news. I remember the first situation in which I was writing at true lightning speed was during the Bush campaign, when I was doing something that was as close to a column as a news reporter gets. It was sort of a color analysis of all of the Bush-Gore debates. And those were written as the debates were going on, even though the reading audience didn't see it until the next morning because of when our print deadlines were. I usually wrote three versions of each of those, and two of those versions were filed before the debate was over. So I was watching and writing at the same time. That's as quick as one has to work. The difference is that back then, we were doing that in the service of getting that copy in a paper that was then going to be on your doorstep at 4:30 a.m. Now we are doing it in the service of something that is going to go up on the internet ten minutes after the debate ends. So in some ways, you don't have to be any faster, but the audience gets it more quickly.

Global Voices: So your work as a journalist has ranged pretty widely—politics, food, religion, college admissions—am I missing anything?

Bruni: Cocktails . . . you said religion, right? I did a lot of health and AIDS reporting when I was younger. I have done a lot of social issues stuff and a lot of gay issues stuff. I was a movie critic for a while too, doing a lot of celebrity profiles.

Global Voices: Have you ever felt the pressure to specialize in a certain topic?

Bruni: I haven't, because to feel the pressure to specialize, you would have to have something you would need to do to keep your job or fill a role. I have been lucky enough that the New York Times has let me or encouraged me to change jobs numerous times, and I am lucky enough that the job I have now is probably the one in which I can feed as many of those interests as is conceivable. Because if one of my interests doesn't fit into a column, I can put it elsewhere. For example, last weekend I had a long profile of Jodie Foster in the Arts & Leisure section. A columnist can control or budget his or her time in a much better way than another person. Because I'm not a slave to a candidate's schedule or the schedule of a beat, it enables me, when I feel the urge to write something that doesn't fit nicely into column form, to stray there. I can contribute something to the Dining section. I can contribute something to the Culture section.

Global Voices: Your previous job at the New York Times before becoming a columnist was as a restaurant critic . . .

Bruni: There was a little bit of a lag. There was more than a year between being a restaurant critic and doing this, when I was a writer for the Times magazine.

Global Voices: Has working as a restaurant critic informed your journalism in other fields?

Bruni: Not really, no. I mean, I had worked for more years in journalism before I was a restaurant critic than I have worked from the moment I began as a restaurant critic to now.  So being a restaurant critic was more of a digression.

Global Voices: Did you find that the techniques you used were very different than those you used in covering other topics?

Bruni: I don't really think so. I think, at the end of the day, your story structure changes based on the genre. Your ratio of pure fact to fanciful reflection changes, but every single one of these things is based on this process: gather information, observe, synthesize, and then render. I mean, it's all that same process. I think everything I've done is more similar than it is different.

Global Voices: In your career as a journalist, is there any one story that stands out as particularly memorable?

Bruni: You know, the story that I put the most time into—and the story that caught the eye of the New York Times and is why I ended up there, and was probably the most risky of anything I've done—was a story I wrote for the Detroit Free Press. In the five years that I worked there, that was at the time, and probably still to this day, the longest story that I've ever published. It was a profile of a convicted child molester, a true pedophile, and I think it's probably the most unusual thing I've ever done.

Global Voices: In your new book, Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be, you try to strip away a lot of the mystique that surrounds elite colleges. Do you see a way for current students at places like UChicago to change the discussion around college admissions?

Bruni: The only way in which I think students at these elite schools could change the discussion around college admissions is to be more humble and cognizant of the way they wear the banner of the school that they go to. I feel like one of the vestiges of this process—and it's an inevitable vestige, given human nature and given the system—is that of those who go through this horrible psychological wringer, some may end up in the winner's circle. And funnily enough, and you know this, there are people at your school for whom this wasn't the winner's circle. Harvard or Yale was the winner's circle, and this is what they settled for—which is ridiculous. But I think that because of what people go through psychologically, when they end up somewhere that they feel is boast-worthy, it's very very hard not to boast about it. And that boasting, when it gets out of hand, reinforces higher education as a kind of status-driven marketplace. It reinforces the ideas that people coming into the application process have about where they are going to end up—in a winner's or loser's circle. So I think if people at UChicago, and people at any school with an acceptance rate of fifteen percent or twenty percent, were more cautious about the way they wear and talk about their schools, it would be very helpful for the next generation.