Josef Joffe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power and Culture in International Affairs; Conversation with Josef Joffe, editor and co-publisher of Die Zeit, 1/20/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Journalism and Writing

After Swarthmore you went on to Harvard, you got a Ph.D., but you chose journalism over the academy. Why?

Life is full of coincidences. The academy ... when you leave this wondrous world of undergraduate life, which we all tend to idealize and sentimentalize for very good reason -- it is an extraordinary existence, both socially and intellectually -- you become a graduate student. As we used to say, life for a graduate student is nasty, brutish, but not short! It lacks all the pleasures that your first four years of university have given you. It's a lonely existence. It's an unrewarding existence. It's a narrowing existence. And though there is the pleasure of really pursuing knowledge to depths previously not plumbed, suddenly an offer comes along to go into high-class journalism, I mean not to do the city beat (though that's a very, very important school for journalism, probably the best), but you can sit down and write for a weekly paper, the paper I'm going back to now, Die Zeit, and more like essays and features rather than hard news and reportage. That's a very enticing thing if, as I think of myself, you take a certain pleasure in writing and playing with words and paragraphs. That was part of my genetic make-up, I would think.

So when the opportunity came along, I grabbed it, and I've stayed there ever since, with very important exceptions. I always came back to the academy. And so I've taught at Johns Hopkins, I've taught at Harvard, I've taught at Princeton. Now Stanford. I've taught at the University of Munich, interspersed with my journalistic work. And why? Why would I do that? Because journalism is a dumbing-down exercise. You live out of your intellectual suitcases and the batteries are being slowly run down, and you have to go back to activities where you can read whole books again rather than the introduction or the book review. And so you try to do this by working at home, by doing footnotes in the privacy of your bedroom. But that's not the academic experience, because the academic experience is more than just footnotes. It has to do with interaction, meeting people, talking to people, testing ideas, having them challenge your ideas. And that's why I've always gone back.

Your journalism, whether in English or German, is again and again informed by history and theory which you acquired in your education and in your continuing education.

Right. It makes the journalism better, too. And it improves the academic stuff. I mean, I would hope that my academic writing is maybe more readable than classic, straightforward academic writing, and I hope that my journalism is more interesting because it is, as you said, informed by history and theory.

What do you think makes a writer a good writer?

Well, I mentioned just now in passing there has to be a certain kind of verbal skill which is part of your genetic make-up. I mean, I'm the kind of guy who scored very high on the verbal SAT and I scored pretty low on the math SAT. So there must be something, left brain, right brain, whatever it is, over which you have no influence, which is what your parents and grandparents gave you. Verbal intelligence, verbal skills.

The second step is you have to take pleasure in writing. You may be verbally skilled but you may not like it. You still might rather tinker with bicycle chains. So the second condition is taking pleasure in playing with words and crafting sentences.

Third, I think there has to be, how shall we put it, a certain kind of vanity. You have to be carried forward by your own conviction that you have something to say, that what you have to say should be or maybe is of interest to others. So that is called attention-seeking or excessive confidence in yourself or what have you. In addition to the talent or the genes as it were, the pleasure, there has to be a sense that what you have to say other people might want to read. So that's a three-step process of becoming a writer.

In your writing -- and we should say that your pieces appear in places like the New Republic, the New York Review, and The New York Times Magazine -- in addition to all that we've talked about, it's characterized by a lucidity and a wit.

Sounds great.

It is. In fact, I can cite an example from a piece you did on the issue of American power in the world. You are asking your reader to come to terms with America's power.

Attractiveness.

Yes, attractiveness. And you say, "Are people risking death on the high seas to get into China? How many are willing to go for an M.B.A. at Moscow?" and so on. Do you do that naturally?

"Or dress like the Japanese?"

That's right. So does this come naturally or is it several drafts?

No. I forgot something when you asked me about what you need to become a writer. We had this three step process, the genetic make-up, the pleasure in words, the urge to trumpet what you have to say. The fourth thing is routine. Routine, and that's true of course for any profession whether you're a plumber or a neurosurgeon. Routine is what helps you to work efficiently and speedily and gives you confidence, that you don't have to sit there and agonize over each sentence.

So, wit and lucidity, as you so nicely put it; well, if you take pleasure in writing, you want to amuse yourself and you want to amuse your audience, and so you work hard on trying to get your message across lucidly so they can get it without too much effort and, as you so nicely put it, with wit, because that adds an entertaining element to the enterprise which might make people even more interested in what you have to say. Let's put it in more general terms. I think for whatever reason, and it certainly has to do with the overflow of information, we now have to work harder to attract and hold the interest of our readers, and that invariably means, even when you write for the highest-brow magazines, that you entertain them. You can no longer take their interest for granted. You must drag them in and keep them bound, or spellbound if you wish.

Is it a struggle for you to avoid jargon because of your training in the social sciences?

Yes.

What helps you get beyond the jargon?

Well, the jargon, as you know, in any profession is a shorthand. It makes communication between us who are members of the same priesthood much faster. We hit each other with jargon -- shorthand. Now, as soon as you start writing for a general audience you can no longer presuppose the understanding of that jargon, because out there are many, many different priesthoods, many different special arts. So that, in fact, is one of the large intellectual efforts in journalism: that you find ways and metaphors to take something, like in strategic discourse there's a MIRV, which is a Multiple Independently Retargetable Vehicle, aka a missile with many warheads that you can send on their different courses. You can't use the word "mirv." You also can't write it out, because that takes up three lines. So then you have to start wracking your brain, how am I going to make this concept clear to the reader? So you think about Greek mythology, you think about Hydra. Hydra, that monster that had many heads. So then you say, oh, it's a hydra-headed missile. It won't satisfy the tech boys, but your audience will understand, "Ah, it's not like a bullet with one warhead, it has many."

Another component of your work as a journalist, and we'll talk briefly about this and then move on to substantive issues, is the interview. I read your work, the people you talk to, especially at the highest policy levels in Germany and in the United States. What is essential to doing a good interview?

Well, you're doing it right now.

Okay, so what am I doing?

You read the stuff. You know, for whatever length of time you spent with it, with me, with my writings. You looked at my biography, you looked at my writings. So you get an idea of the person, how that person thinks. And that, of course, gives you a whole plethora of questions to ask. In a way, by knowing him from his writings, you also know what second and third question to ask after he gives you certain answers. A good interview is a little bit like a chess game, you've got to be at least one or two moves ahead. Then one has to be respectful, as you are, and then you just have to pretend in a credible way that you're interested in what I have to say. So there's a slight amount of flattery there, which you have already taken care of by having read the materials as we would when we interview some politico, we would read his previous utterance, and so on. And then you have to be very attentive to nuances, to body language, to eye movement. It's almost an intuitive process once you are caught in an interview, where to go next. So you have to have a very nicely calibrated antenna for all kinds of cues which are happening, which are being emitted from the other side. Then, as you do, you have to always nod very assentingly to encourage ...

You're going to make me self-conscious.

To encourage, so he is being rewarded, your vis-à-vis is being rewarded and encouraged to go on and perhaps divulge more than he originally wanted to.

Then how do you use the interview? Do you then incorporate it into the ideas you already have?

Sometimes we just do something that has become rare in the American press, we take the whole interview, qua interview, and print it. If you are a good and fair and benign journalist you will make your interview sound better than he did when he spoke. So what I do is I edit this stuff and try to figure out: what did he really want to say. I'll take a sentence that goes on for three minutes without verbs and objects and periods and try to figure out what he really meant to say, and put in words and sentences. And if that becomes a very complicated process I will then consult with that person, "Is that what you wanted to say?" Now, if you want to be mean to somebody you just just print them the way they speak.

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