John Pomfret Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Covering Human Rights: Conversation with John Pomfret, Foreign Correspondent, Washington Post; 11/18/97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by L. Carper

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John, welcome to Berkeley.

Thanks very much.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you wind up in journalism? Do you come from a journalism family?

I do. That wasn't the initial motivating factor but yes, my father was a journalist with The New York Times. Initially he started with the Milwaukee Journal and he worked with The New York Times on the domestic side for a long period of time. He was a correspondent covering the White House, the Supreme Court and labor. And then he moved into the business side and he moved up the ranks of the executive ladder and ultimately became the general manager and head of The New York Times' operating groups. So initially, his remonstrations to me were, "Do anything but become a journalist!" So I became a journalist.

But you were watching him, right?

I was. Watching and listening. I grew up in New York City in the late '70s, at a time when U.S. - China relations were something that was on the front page of The New York Times on a regular basis. I was fourteen when Kissinger made his secret trip to China, and then there was subsequently Nixon's trip to China, and I was very much seized with an interest in China. And I went to Stanford University with that interest very much close to my heart. So I started studying China very early.

As a political scientist?

Stanford had a program of East Asian studies, so it was anthropology, economics, political science, history, the whole bag ... art. It was something that I was very much interested in. And then I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to China in 1980, which was quite early. Obviously a bunch of Americans had been there before, during the Cultural Revolution, but the first large group of real students started going there around '79 - '80. I lived in a dormitory, a 10' x 15' room, with seven other Chinese guys. Four bunk beds. Very intensive environment for getting into a culture.

I found that I loved the place, and I was confronted with a decision about what to do, business or something else, something closer to academic or intellectual pursuit. I chose journalism. I fell into it really. I was hitchhiking in Japan north to Hokkaido one day in the fall of 1984 and I walked to the other side of the highway and started hitchhiking back toward Tokyo because I came to the realization that I had to get a job. The fun was over. I went back to the States and started at a small newspaper in Riverside County, California, covering the police; I was making $280 a week covering the police. They gave me a full-time job after I helped to write a profile about a couple that had a successful multiple-birth pregnancy. That really struck their eye. They said, "This guy's a golden boy," and so they decided to give me a job. I worked with that paper for a year and then joined the Associated Press. And the AP sent me to China very quickly.

And this was because of the background that you had?

Yes, I had an East Asian studies background, I spoke Chinese, and so they figured that this was a good person to have in China. I was sent to China in 1988. The desire to become a journalist came really because I very much like living abroad, and like to travel, and wanted to be paid for it. That was the best thing for me, I thought. I didn't have the mind to do a good business deal.

And you never took any journalism courses? You actually just practiced it?

I just practiced it. Stanford had no journalism program so I just learned by doing, effectively. I was fired from the Stanford Daily, but then I was a photographer. So that was for different reasons. I think I was one of the only people ever to have been fired from the Stanford Daily and I'm not really proud of it, but it happened.

It was a learning experience? As more and more newspapers close, I guess, you'll be prepared.

I'll get used to it.

But your first assignment then, after the Riverside job, was to go to China and report.

No, first I got a job at the AP in New York City and I was covering night cops. So I was working from 10:30 p.m. to about 9:00 a.m. five days a week, the graveyard shift. That was my first real job, with the AP in New York. I did that for about a year and a half and then I was moved to the foreign desk, which is an editing desk. So I worked for two years in New York before they sent me to China. They gave me a pretty intensive training in New York.

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