Roy Gutman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Witness to Genocide: Conversation with Roy Gutman, correspondent, Newsday, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; 4/10 97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

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Background

Roy, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Tell us a little about your background. Where were you educated?

I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. I went to Haverford College, studied history, and then I went to the London School of Economics and did a degree in international relations.

Did you plan to become a journalist or did you just become one?

Somewhere during college I decided that this was a field that needed me, or that I needed it. I wasn't sure which. I felt that if you had a lot of expertise, there was a need for well-educated reporters.

And what period are we talking about?

I graduated from college in '66. And somewhere about halfway through college I just had the bug bite me on newspapering.

At the early stage of your career had you decided that you wanted to go into national security as a field?

Gutman with Adolf von Thadden, Nationalist Party leader, Germany; September 9, 1969, Hannover I had an image of myself as "our man in somewhere," you know, the correspondent out in the field, somewhere in Eastern Europe. I really thought East/Central Europe was the place I wanted to be. It was communist then. It was repressive. I thought things were going to change one day and I wanted to get the feel of it before it happened.

Did you study the right things, looking back now, when you were in college and graduate school?

Probably not. But you know, sometimes it's just getting the discipline of study that's the important thing in college. I studied British medieval history as my major focus at Haverford. And at London I specialized in Russian and Chinese politics. I mean, those were all very useful and they give you a method of approach. It left me totally unqualified to start journalism, or over-qualified, because the academic approach is not the journalistic approach. It took several years to overcome my handicap, but then later it became immensely useful.

Clarify that difference between academics and journalists.

Well, academics study abstract things and they use time and materials to produce almost a perfect version of what happened, a very nicely shaded and presented version. Journalists, they say, do the first cut of history (sometimes it's not even that), but the deadlines make it almost impossible to do it well enough to get a complete view. I once did a book, about 10 years ago, on Latin America. I had been very careful in my daily reporting, so I went back over my daily reporting when I was doing the book and I discovered that maybe one time in ten my stories had it absolutely right, I actually had all the factors where they should be. So that gives you a kind of humility. You realize that journalism is a very limited field. You're out there first, you can do a lot, you can really get a feel of events, and yet you don't have it down right.

But this time urgency allows you to explicate an issue so that the information is more relevant for the public.

Well, if something is going on, the public wants to know about it. Somehow our editors get the feeling that we should be writing about it and so they say, "Well, there's a slot. We have space for a story." Or they send you out to do something. And you have to fill it. You hope you fill it with relevant and timely and actually important material, but sometimes you can't because at 6:00 the gong sounds and if you don't have the story in, they have to take somebody else's story, a wire story. So there's a real limit.

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