Steve Coll Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Rise of al Qaeda: Conversation with Steve Coll, Associate Editor, The Washington Post; March 15, 2005 by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Steve, welcome to Berkeley.

Thanks, Harry. Thanks for having me.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Washington D.C. and its environs, suburban Maryland.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My father was a lawyer and my mother was a Protestant minister, so I had two sides of the brain working in the household. My father is very articulate and analytical and my mother was very interested in social issues and political issues, and so the conversation between the two of them brought me towards words and the way the world works. I think that was what I walked away with.

Where were you educated?

I went to high school in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside of Washington D.C., a typical public school education, and then I went off to college in Los Angeles at Occidental College, a small liberal arts school.

What did you major in there?

I ended up majoring both in English and history, unable to choose between literature and history.

What drew you into journalism?

I worked on my school paper from an early age, even in high school, and when I went off to college I knew I wanted to write for a living somehow. I wasn't quite sure what that would mean and I certainly didn't have newspapers particularly in mind, but I thought maybe novels, maybe screenplays, something. I always tried to live and work close to the language in one way or the other, and by the time I finished college I realized that as a practical matter, the only way anyone was likely to give me a salary to write was either to write advertising copy or to write journalism. So, I set out to try to break into that.

What was your first entry point into the work of journalism and investigative reporting?

I had done semi-serious work in college in a collegiate context, and so that was the main portfolio I brought into the world when I finished college, but I didn't really have a job, or any contacts, or any prospect of a sensible entry. So, when I got out of college in Los Angeles, I just looked in the Yellow Pages under "magazines and newspapers" and walked around to different offices and dropped my resume off, and I ended up working for a group that was publishing magazines for aspiring rock musicians. It was called Music Connection magazine. They had a couple of different products, and I was brought in initially to type classifieds and write news stories about the music industry. I worked there for about a year and I did an investigation about how independent promoters got hit songs on the radio, the old payola subject updated, and that came to the attention of this investigative reporting group that public television called "Community Information Project," and they brought me in as a writer. That was the serious beginning of my journalism career.

When did you land at the Washington Post? Had you done a story that drew their attention?

I graduated from college in 1980; by 1982, 1983, I was working through the auspices of this investigative reporting group for California magazine. I became a contributing editor there. I wrote some cover stories for them, doing investigative reporting about business subjects and litigation, San Quentin Prison in California, just a general-interest portfolio. I had some good teaching early on by editors there, and some visibility. I then, because of the work I did for the magazine, had a book contract offer, did the book, moved to Washington, and I was just walking down the street one day, literally ran into one of my old editors from California magazine. She had since moved to the Washington Post. She said, "You should come work for the Post," and it turned out to be, more or less, as easy as that. So, I entered as a reporter in 1985.

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