Karen DeYoung - Washington Post
Washington Post associate editor and senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung is Joe’s guest on today’s SPX podcast. DeYoung, who has been with the Post for nearly 50 years, grew up in St. Petersburg, and wrote for the St. Petersburg Times in the early 1970s. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist discusses her many years as a foreign correspondent, her encounters with global heads of state and her love of travel – along with her thoughts on the role of the journalist in today’s society, objectivity vs. subjectivity, and what it’s like to have Jeff Bezos for a boss (Bezos purchased the Post in 2013).
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Karen DeYoung 00:00
I’d spent a lot of time in Cuba did a lot of interviews with Fidel Castro but what was satisfying to me was that I got to spend a long time in these places; weeks, months, years. It’s very funny when you go on a foreign assignment, and then after about six months you start to think, “Oh, this isn’t so hard, yeah, I got this, I know this place” and it takes you about another six months to say “I don’t know anything.” That’s when you really start learning.
Joe Hamilton 00:34
You’re listening to St. Pete X Today’s episode is brought to you by Cityverse. Cityverse brings the community together on a new Civic Platform powered by Catalyst News. St. Pete Cityverse launching soon. You can learn more and reserve your Homespace at Cityverse dot life. Now, enjoy the conversation. Joining me on SPX is the Associate Editor and senior national security correspondent for The Washington Post. And Sister of our beloved catalyst writer, Bill DeYoung, Ms. Karen DeYoung. Welcome.
Karen DeYoung 01:28
Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Joe Hamilton 01:30
So you are 30 years out of University of Florida, or 50 years out of University of Florida, 3 decades at the Post. A lot of journalism.
Wow, is it 50 years? Almost 50 years, yeah.
Joe Hamilton 01:43
Yeah, I think I started at the Post in 75.
Joe Hamilton 01:49
And UF in ’71. So that’s a long time.
It is a long time. Thanks for reminding me.
Joe Hamilton 01:56
A lot of miles flown, a lot of countries visited. It’s been quite a ride. L:et’s jump back towards the beginning. You did work for local St. Pete times, way back when? Why do you think it was important to start sort of at a smaller paper before jumping into the big boys?
Well, you know, I grew up in St. Petersburg. And I don’t know that I actually consciously thought that I wanted to be a journalist. It was a place to work when I was in school. And then when I was at the University of Florida, I left for a time and went and lived in Europe. I came back, finished school and went to work at the same time. So because again, I wasn’t real sure where to go or what to do. It’s like going to the University of Florida. It didn’t occur to me to go anywhere else. Anyway, I worked there and I when I started, they offered me two jobs. Either being the fashion writer or the religion writer, none of which neither of which was something I knew very much about. So I said I would be the religion writer. And I had a great time. I did, you know, the traditional religion stuff, but I also did tent revivals. I did what I thought was all the interesting stuff in terms of journalism, about religion, and eventually became a feature writer there and again, did whatever crazy stuff I could come up with. They were happy to have it. I went to the National nudist convention in Kissimmee, I wrote about dogfights, went up to Stark and found where they raised the fighting dogs. I traveled with professional wrestlers for a while. And so it was that kind of journalism, it was really, really interesting. And I left after about, I don’t know, a year and a half, and went to Asia. Because what I really wanted to do was travel. I ended up spending a lot of time in Afghanistan, finally ended up in Bangkok, where I needed money and got a job at the Bangkok Post, which is the English language paper there, where if you were a native speaker and knew how to spell you could get a job. So that’s what I did. I came back to St. Petersburg, tried to get a job at the St. Petersburg Times again. They wouldn’t give me a job. They just said they didn’t have a job. Then I ended up in Washington, where I had a friend. I’d never seen a copy of The Washington Post. I didn’t know anything about the Washington Post. It was kind of right after Watergate. And so there were lots of people looking for jobs at the Washington Post. And they didn’t give me a job at first. I did some other things in Washington and finally they gave me a job. I was put on the Metro staff, which meant I went out to one of these suburban counties outside Washington, which I’d never heard of, and covered cops and courts and the county council, and it was really the best thing that happened to me because I actually didn’t know how to be a reporter. I didn’t know how to write on deadline. I didn’t know how to cover government.
Joe Hamilton 05:20
So there’s some confusing stuff out there, because you went to school for journalism? And so you at least had some inkling. What was the motivation for that? Was it a way to get you traveling?
Karen DeYoung 05:25
It was traveling. Yeah, I just wanted to go, that was a way, and I want somebody else to pay forit .
Joe Hamilton 05:39
And joining the Times, it sounds like you kind of earned your way up. I mean, becoming a feature writer in that short of a time means that people have respected your work enough to say, you know, go cut loose and and do what you think’s good, because we know it’s going to be good. So that’s kind of a nice badge of honor, which means that you know, you were excelling at your craft, even early stage. Yeah.
And it was a very kind of loose placement. I still have friends from who worked there at that time. I mean, a lot of people have passed away. But among the kind of younger crowd there at that time. We had a lot of fun. It was fun. Journalism was fun, and particularly doing features. I mean, you could just do whatever you wanted to do, as long as you could write it and make it interesting, and, you know, get somebody to take some pictures. And yeah, I mean the St. Pete Times had a very big and quite prominent features section then. And so they were happy to have it.
Joe Hamilton 06:41
And that didn’t prove at the time to be enough of a vehicle for travel. So that’s why you just stuck out on your own. Right. And you mentioned, you know, you went to Asia and then ended up in Afghanistan. And you were doing some freelance work at that point.
I did. I think I recall, I sent some stuff back to the Times. I later went to Africa for about a year before I went to Washington and at that time, I just cold-called the foreign editor at the Washington Post, which was, again, because of Watergate, it was a newspaper that everybody knew at the time. And it was very nice man named Lila Scas. And I said, Look, you know, I’m a reporter, sort of, and I’m going to Africa, if you want some stories. And he said very kindly to me, sure, if you come across something, let me know. He gave me their telex number, because we use telexes then, to communicate. And I ended up after a very long time in Nigeria, and happened to be there when there was a coup and sent some stuff back. But of course, sometime later, when I went to Washington and sort of showed up at the Post and said, Here I am, I’m your stringer from West Africa, they were like, get lost. And it took some time to actually get a job. And then, you know, they sent me to the suburbs, which as I say, I was sort of insulted at the time in my foolish youth. But it was the best thing that could have happened to me, because I learned how to write fast.
Joe Hamilton 08:19
I mean, I think it is noteworthy then that you chose on your own volition without even a story to go to Afghanistan and to go to Africa. So you were drawn to the more rough and tumble places in the world?
Yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, this, this was during the sort of days when, when people my age, in their early 20s, you just traveled. I mean, you just went on the road. It’s something, you know, with my own children, it sort of makes me sad now, because it’s much more dangerous to do something like that. And, you know, it was probably more dangerous than I thought it was at the time, because I was young and stupid, but it really was great. You know, hitchhiking, taking buses, taking trains, taking whatever was available. It was cheap. And people were not sort of people were happy to see you, by and large. And I learned a lot and again, it’s sort of sad that it’s difficult to do that in many parts of the world now. Certainly in West Africa, and certainly in much of Asia.
Joe Hamilton 09:30
I did about five years as well. Where did you go? I did some West Africa, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal. A lot of time in Asia. And of course, India, Nepal.
I went by train across Turkey, and Iran. Buses in Afghanistan. I mean, you certainly couldn’t do it in Iran now. You absolutely couldn’t do it in Afghanistan. I spent a long time in India. And it was it didn’t cost very much. And yeah, that’s great.
Joe Hamilton 10:04
I love that sometimes you just wake up in the morning and like, it would take anybody in the world a month to find me right now. You would just be in the weirdest places.
You certainly didn’t have cell phones. I mean, I remember when I lived in Europe, I was there for a year and a half. And I called my parents once on Christmas, and I had to book the call, like, I worked for the US Army for a while in Germany. And I had to book the call, like, a month in advance to call them and it was so expensive, and you would just disappear.
Joe Hamilton 10:37
So that’s the start of many decades at the Post. So talk about your sort of trajectory within the Post. What kept you there for so long?
Karen DeYoung 10:47
I went, after I’d kind of done my time on the metro staff, then I became a foreign correspondent and went to Latin America, which was strange, because it was really the one part of the world that I knew nothing about. And it was kind of, again, in that era, it was sort of the girl’s job. It was the lowest point on the foreign correspondent totem pole. I was lucky, though, because there were wars, there were coups, there were things that from a foreign policy perspective, Washington was actually interested in, as opposed to the sort of, you know, don’t you want to talk to coffee farmers? Don’t you want to look at rural development? The answer was no. But there were a lot of things to cover. And I moved first to Buenos Aires in Argentina, but I was the only correspondent from Mexico to Antarctica for the post. So I was on an airplane all the time. And it was great. I spent two years in South America and then all the wars started in Central America. So I moved up, theoretically, to Mexico City, but really spent almost all my time in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba.
Joe Hamilton 12:07
You were there during some of the hardest fighting in the Sandinista Rebellion. How was that situation?
Well, it’s it’s not like being in Beirut, where people are blowing up the embassy. I think that and maybe it was because I was very young, but you almost felt like because you were just watching, nothing bad was going to happen to you. And this was long before American journalists were at risk of being kidnapped and stuff. And obviously, in Central America, countries are very small. And you could know everybody there was to know. You could talk to both sides in a single day. You knew how to run and hide. I could run a lot faster. And it was fascinating, because in a place like Nicaragua, you actually saw a revolution happening. And I think it’s quite sad what has happened there now, I think. But it was just the most brilliant education on a manageable scale, how war worked, how politics worked, how a culture worked. So yeah, it was great.
Joe Hamilton 13:30
How much of a gap is there between what’s really happening, going through the spin filters, concerning the secrecy what’s really happening? And the narrative that makes it out to the general public? How big is that gap?
Well, that’s, I mean, that’s our job. We’re supposed to span that gap. And obviously, in Argentina, it was fascinating, because it was the beginning. It was all through the Carter administration, where they were concentrating on human rights. And there was one story being spun in Washington. And it was very different what was happening on the ground in Argentina, where they did have an insurgency, they did have guerrilla groups, but their size and their impact there in no way justified what was happening, what the military coup did to that country. And so your job was to try to explain that to an American audience and a Washington audience, you know, that the post was not really an International Paper, that it was a parochial paper. The audience was both the city of Washington and the surrounding areas, but also the government itself and Congress and the White House and the Pentagon. So you were are exposing things, you were telling them things that they didn’t know, in a place like Nicaragua during those wars, they didn’t have access to the people that I had access to, that other reporters had access to there. I spent a lot of time in Cuba and did a lot of interviews with Fidel Castro. And it was a way of explaining what was happening, you know, and that’s part of your job. I mean, the criticism was “this big, rich country, and you come here and you drop in, and then you’re explaining us to other people.” And there’s some legitimacy, obviously, to that. But what was satisfying to me was that I got to spend a long time in these places, weeks, months, years. It’s very funny when you go to a country, or you go on a foreign assignment, and you get there and you’re sort of like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know anything. What am I going to do, I’m going to be wrong.” And then after about six months, you start to think, Oh, this isn’t so hard. Yeah, I got this, I know this place. And it takes you about another six months to say I don’t know anything. And that’s when you really start learning about it.
Joe Hamilton 16:09
So you know, when we talk about spanning the gap as the job and how, over time, I feel like it would get frustrating just to constantly see one thing and have a constant endless supply of distorted misinformation coming out in other places. You’re constantly having to battle against the current.
I think it’s a question of experience. And sourcing, you know, it’s that time on a beat, whether that beat is a country, or Department of Government or an agency, or a social issue, or whatever. It’s immersing yourself in it, talking to people, listening to people, reading. And there’s a very sort of magical thing that happens, when you get to that point. As I say, after the first six months, and the second six months, or however long it takes where you say, yeah, I get this, I understand, I know who to call, I know who to trust, I know who will tell me what I need to know, I know how to talk to people who don’t want to talk to me, I know how to find them, I know how to make them talk to me, you know, I think that if you if you are not providing value, and you are not providing accuracy, you can’t do it for very long. I mean, you can’t fake it for very long. Because people know, you know, the people who know, know, and the readers who want to know, they get it after a while and you just can’t fake it. After a while, if you want to stay in the business, and you want to work for a reputable publication or network or whatever–And I mean, that’s it’s a lot more difficult now because of the polarization, the political polarization and the media polarization–And I think that you just have to stick with first principles of accuracy and just work hard. You know, we had a wonderful editor at the Post, Marty Baron, who’s now retired, during the Trump administration. There were a lot of accusations and a lot of charges. And the Trump administration wasn’t very happy with us. And, you know, they would say we, you know, the mainstream media has declared war on us, on our administration. And he would say we’re not at war, we’re just at work. And you just put your head down, and you just do your work. And again, you know, bias, obviously, is a form of untruth. And so, you know, that gets exposed after a while too, again, it’s things are different.
Karen DeYoung 16:56
So I feel like you have to have had own internal struggle to get through all of that for your own pieces. But then in parallel to your piece are thousands or hundreds of other pieces that are maybe about the same topic, but are either not doing that work and just taking whatever is fed to them or have an agenda to put out, you know, and your work kind of gets lost or not, it gets diluted by the sheer number of people who aren’t doing as good of work.
Yeah, but you can’t be distracted by that. You just have to focus on what you’re doing. You know, there are other people whose work you respect, who you want to see what they’re doing, the other people that you’re, you know, you’re in competition with because they’re doing really good work. So you want to read what they’re doing. But you just have to focus on what you’re doing.
Joe Hamilton 19:44
And so you know, in the battle for attention, do you feel like good journalism is winning, or that marketing and spin and just the different mediums that are coming through now mean that the general average person out there is probably not finding their way to the good stuff?
I think there’s such a proliferation of sources of news, you know, you have online, and you have many, many, many people, particularly young people, and I think this is a challenge for us that are only getting news online. And many of them are getting them from algorithms that select what they see. And so one of the challenges for us is to make our online presence more compelling to them, where they will go to it, obviously, we have to figure out how to get our stories put on the places that are feeding information to people. So it’s not only on our site, that if you’re getting your news from Apple news, or you’re getting it from Google, or whatever, to, you know, and we have endless discussions about how do you write a headline so it shows up in the right place on Google News and all of that. We all have sort of titles now, like I’m a content provider, you know, you’re not a reporter, you’re a content provider. And there are other people who are platform people, and distribution people and audience specialists. And, you know, the whole concept of journalism, sort of Major League journalism, I think has changed. So there’s that there’s television, there’s cable news, so I think it’s much more challenging. Now, you know, people have this huge menu to choose from, and not only are they being left to choose, they’re being bombarded by stuff. So they don’t even have to choose if they don’t if they don’t want to. So it’s a challenge.
Joe Hamilton 21:49
And you mentioned bias, we talk a lot about the evolution of objectivity. And I feel like there was a more singular path to be being acceptably objective in the past. And now, with the proliferation with the internet, we have a proliferation of expertise, you can go deeper on things, you start to understand the layers and nuances. An example that I use for myself is if you look at a house from the front, or from the back, or inside the house, or from a telescope, or through a microscope, it’s all the same house. But each of those perspectives, they have their own elements of truth to them.
Karen DeYoung 22:23
Like the blind people feeling an elephant.
Joe Hamilton 22:28
That’s an even funnier one. I like that better. You know, but it seems like the modern face of objectivity is actually holding these different perspectives together, extracting elements of each of them, and then trying to mesh them, which still involves some element of judgment, you know, but what are your thoughts on that?
There’s a whole school of academic journalism about objectivity versus subjectivity. The general consensus, or the sort of midpoint is that pure objectivity is not what you’re after. That you have to bring something to what you’re writing. And what you bring is your expertise, not only your own knowledge of something, but your knowledge of where to go to get differing perspectives about it. And so, if you end up after you’ve reported a story, and you have 50 pages worth of notes, you’re not going to republish, or 50 pages worth of notes that are interviews, other things that you’ve written down or collected, you have to choose; you have to have a theory of the case, what is it you want to say? And if that’s a sort of daily news story, a sort of breaking news story, then it’s easy. Then you’re doing, you know, who, what, when, where, how, you know, what happened? When did it happen? How did it happen? Who did it happen to? Then hopefully, at some point, you’re saying, “and this is why you should care about it. This is what it means. This is the context.” That’s the kind of stuff that, if you’re a good sort of journeyman journalist, you can do that. Where it becomes tricky is if you’re doing like, I’ve spent much of the past year writing about Ukraine. You’re deciding ahead of time, you know, what do I want to say about Ukraine today? What about the weapons shipments? Where are they coming from? How are they producing them? What’s running out? What does that mean? Why is it running out? Is it running out? Because the defense production system doesn’t work? Is it running out because we’re sending too much or sending the wrong stuff? The Ukrainians say we need this, you’re sending that? Why aren’t we sending what they say they need? And so all of that you’re saying, well, what’s the story here? What what do I know about this? What have I learned talking to people upon applying what I knew before, and what is it I want to say about it, that’s a subjective thing, because you’re picking and choosing. And hopefully, you’re giving people a comprehensive enough picture that they can understand what they need to know. And I was doing a story like that to go back and say, if I were just reading this story, what questions would I ask? Would I say, Yeah, but what about this? Or Yeah, but that or this person said this, and you never explained what it is? And to try to answer all those questions.
Joe Hamilton 25:34
With those stories, there’s the facts of what’s happening, right. But the reader, if you look through the readers’ eyes, the questions they ask or the feelings they have, they’re going to be emotional about it, right, because they either have a fear of this being a precedent for Russia, or they have outrage for the perceived injustice, so they’re really matter what you put in there, they’re going to be largely–not everybody, but–filtering that to satisfy this emotional need, and to that end, there’s a little bit of a powder keg of emotion that a story could could ignite, so when you’re conscious, you’re thinking about the reader and knowing that there’s just a lot of energy tied to the act itself that is going to be infused into the facts that they’re reading and potential repercussions of that. How much does that play into the fact that Washington Post can influence a lot of people? I mean, you can influence a lot of people. So how, how much does that knowledge play into your writing?
Karen DeYoung 26:42
Well, nobody comes to anything they read as a blank slate. And so as a reader, I think you’re always interpreting what your reader was bringing to it, what you already know, or what you already believe. And so I think that, again, I go back to particularly now in the polarization and where people believe a certain thing. And so that becomes a frame in which they apply what you’ve read, so that then it becomes incumbent on us to be–not persuasive, because we’re not writing editorials or op eds–we’re not trying to persuade somebody, we’re trying to present facts in a way that leads to a conclusion. I think the conclusion you want is not “okay, this person has told me to believe this, ergo, I believe it,” but that “this person has given me enough facts that I can make an informed judgment on it and has written it in such a way that kept me reading.” Everybody does these audience measures now where, in the Post newsroom, there’s a massive electronic board that I never even look at because it’s out of my line of sight, that shows who’s reading what, how many people are reading, how far into the story are they reading. So sometimes, something can be online, and obviously, what you want is somebody to click on that headline and read the actual story, and to stay with it. So that’s part of what you’re doing. You’re trying to connect facts in a way that keep people reading. But you’re also trying to help them get to the end of it and say, I don’t have any more questions. I get it. You know, I see these facts and these people that have been quoted, in this background, have given me enough information to make a judgement. Now, you’ve brought stuff to that story and say, Here’s my judgment. You know, Karen DeYoung should know what she’s talking about. She’s lying. She’s part of the mainstream media, she’s has these political views or whatever, I don’t know. Is it my job to convince those people? No, my job is just to do my job. I’m not out to convince people, I’m out to give them enough information. So they can have an informed view.
Joe Hamilton 29:18
You know your demographics, right, you know, who the post reader is. How hard is it not to speak to them, and separate? If you look at the organizations that are known to tend to have a certain type of audience, their content aligns with that type of audience, which is probably why they have that kind of audience. And therefore, you know, when you juxtapose that to watching the board and getting that granular, which is a question in and of itself, how much has that perverted journalism?
Karen DeYoung 29:53
There are other people who worry about that. Content people don’t. We don’t even understand those terms most of the time.
Joe Hamilton 29:59
I mean, is that just baked into the demographic? Awareness is baked into the general cadence? Or is it actively in top of your brain?
Karen DeYoung 30:07
No, I think there are people on the extremes on both the left and the right. And they’re not big readers of the Post. We’re hoping for people kind of in the large middle, I think. And I mean, the Post is now online. I mean, it’s an international enterprise. And many of our readers are overseas. And it’s a 24 hour enterprise. And we have editing hubs in in Seoul, and in London, correspondents around the world. And so you’re looking for people who really want information, not people who want to confirm their judgement of something, because usually you’re not going to persuade them anyway, you’re not going to, you’re going to confirm what they already think, that you’re wrong. Or you’re right, I don’t know. So I think that, you know, I don’t write about about American politics, but I think that if you’re writing about Donald Trump’s legal travails, are you going to write about, “Here’s what happened in court today. Here’s what this indictment says,” or are you going to write what the left or the right wants you to write about? There are plenty of people who do that. I think what we’re trying to do, hopefully, is to give people information. This is what it says. This is what other people say about it, what informed people say about it, this is how it fits in a larger picture. So again, you just put your head down and do your work.
Joe Hamilton 31:46
You said a sentence earlier: “You’re mainstream media, you’re lying.” And so the whole the idea of fake news and mainstream media has, in general, I mean, lumped together as some unified blob of work, which is silly, but you know, how much has that narrative impacted your work about fake news and mainstream media being, you know, not trustworthy anymore?
Karen DeYoung 32:11
That doesn’t affect me at all. You get a lot of nasty comments, you get nasty calls, nasty texts, nasty emails, we all get them. And I think you just, you know, some people get worse than that. It doesn’t affect me.
Joe Hamilton 32:30
Going back to earlier, I’m curious. You’ve interviewed some very powerful people. Fidel Castro, Baby Doc, Yasser Arafat several times. So obviously very different people in very different situations. Are there common threads of power or personality type or anything that you you feel a certain consistent way, when you meet folks like this?
Karen DeYoung 32:57
When I started out and I was working in South America, I think, and Central America, I think, pretty much every country, with maybe a half dozen exceptions, had a military junta in charge. And they were to have a young woman come to interview them in that day and age. I think they some people said, Well, my gosh, how can you go talk to these people? Aren’t you scared of them, aren’t you? And I actually think it was an advantage because it was inconceivable to them that I could do anything that would upset them or hurt them or write anything that they didn’t like. So in that case, that was good. I think that other people, Castro, you know, they all have an agenda. They want to convince you of something. They’re not talking to you because it’s fun. They want to press their point of view on you. You want to try to get them to say something that’s not part of their script. And it’s a challenge. It’s a challenge. And most leaders, you know, are surrounded by sycophants, depending on what government it is. So I think that doing this sort of President interview or prime minister interview or dictator interview, you’re not going to find out a whole lot. You know, that’s a sort of set piece thing and you do it because they want an audience and your audience wants to hear their voice. And so that’s fine, and you do that but you’re not you’re not learning a whole lot about what’s really happening in a place. That’s what you find out when you’re there.
Joe Hamilton 34:48
Is it a tricky line to walk? Obviously, you have your journalistic principles, but you know that you can write an article about them that will ensure you never get to interview them again, or you can write an article about them where you have a chance of interviewing them again? And so that’s a perpetual line to walk with reporting with integrity, but also not, you know, closing doors on you that will make your job harder in the future. Because that’s just the skill of the job.
Karen DeYoung 35:19
Yeah, but I, you know, as I say, that’s not like your high point, interviewing ahead of stages. I mean, right now, if you go interview President Zelensky, in Ukraine, he’s a great interview, because he talks a lot. And he’ll say what’s on his mind, and we’ve done several, and I have not interviewed him, but my colleagues have. And he’s terrific. Because it’s a very fluid situation. It’s moving. He’s got an energetic agenda. He really wants to convince you, he wants to send a message to Washington, he wants to send a message to Moscow. He’s sending messages all over the place. And it’s interesting to sort of be the vehicle for that and also to vote, you can actually find out stuff from someone like that. I think, you know, Joe Biden, I traveled with Joe Biden a lot when he was vice president a lot. I mean, half a dozen times. I used to interview him when he was in the Senate. He’s a talker. He’s interesting to interview because he sometimes says things he doesn’t intend to say, or says them in a way that’s interesting. I mean, everybody knows who’s interested has read about him or listened to him. Donald Trump, great interview. I have not interviewed him, but you never know what he’s gonna say, so those are the interesting ones. Others, a lot of others, again, as I say, they’re sort of reading from a script. And they’re very cautious and very careful. Somebody like Colin Powell, you know, to do one interview with Colin Powell, you wouldn’t learn very much, because he was a very smart guy, and very clever. He had a sort of surface good-guy, pleasant, you’re-my-friend sort of demeanor, and knew how to use that to persuade you. When I was writing a book about him, a biography, I interviewed him many times and spent a lot of time with him. And it became more and more interesting as I talked to him, and he became less and less guarded.
Joe Hamilton 37:30
Yeah, so Soldier. Why was he the one that you chose to write a book about?
Karen DeYoung 37:43
You know, at the time, which I started that book in 2004, I think, when he was Secretary of State–maybe late 2003, early 2004, because he left at the end of 2004–At the time, he was one of the most popular, if not the most popular person in the United States, certainly the most popular political figure. Trusted. You know, that’s why he was George Bush’s Secretary of State, because they needed somebody like him. They needed somebody who knew the military, they needed somebody who was above reproach. They needed somebody who wasn’t known as a politician. They needed somebody who wasn’t on the Right–or what passed for the right in those days. And he also had a really interesting upbringing. I mean, he sort of came of age at the nexus of the desegregation of the military and had this phenomenal rise. You know, how did that happen? He was an immigrant, his parents were immigrants. From the West Indies. And it was at a time of the Harlem Renaissance in New York. So it was a lot of things that sort of came together, currents in American society that he represented, and then I, from a foreign policy perspective, I’d covered the Bush administration, I’d covered the Iraq invasion, I’d covered 911. And so I already brought a lot to it. And for that part of the book, I already had a lot of material and I had a lot of sources, and a lot of people I could go to, and when you write a book about something like that, about foreign policy, people are much more willing to talk to you at length and more candidly, if they know it’s not going to come out for two years, and you know, it’s not going to screw them in their current job. So I was just interested with him. I traveled a bit with him and he was Secretary of State and I was just intrigued.
Joe Hamilton 39:56
So I think it came out in 2007?
Karen DeYoung 39:59
Joe Hamilton 40:00
So he knew in your subsequent interviews, that this was all part of a larger effort?
Karen DeYoung 40:07
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I mean, I approached him, I actually I’d gone on a couple trips with him. And I sent him a letter. It’s what you did in those days. I sent him a letter and said, Look, I’m writing this book, I’m writing a biography of you. And don’t forget, he had published his autobiography in 1995, which was his version of his early life and stellar rise and everything. And since then, he had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head military guy in the country, and Secretary of State. And I said, you know, I’m writing this biography. I’d like to interview you. I don’t care about interviewing you about stuff that’s already in your book. I want to interview you about what’s happened since then. And I’d like to do, I think I said initially, five lengthy interviews with you. And then I didn’t hear anything back. I was like, How weird. And finally I called somebody in his office, and he said, Yeah, he wrote you back, did you get it? I said, No. And I realized that I checked my mailbox at the office so infrequently, like maybe once a month, and he had actually written me back almost immediately. And he said, Yeah, we’ll start out with this, and we’ll see how it goes. So ultimately, I did a lot of interviews with him. And, yeah, he knew, he knew. But I said, from the start, I would like for you to tell your family to not shun me. And if I approach them, if they want to talk to me, for you not to tell them not to. Your colleagues, people from your past, and that was fine. I said, and you don’t get to see anything I write and you don’t get to know anything about it. I’ll give you a copy of the book when it comes out. And he agreed to that.
Joe Hamilton 41:53
Did he give you any feedback?
Karen DeYoung 41:55
The first thing he did was to call me up and to say, well, first he said, well, Alma, his wife, read it. And she said, It’s okay. And I said, Great. And then he called me up. And he said, I found a mistake. I think I had identified an F-14 as an F-16 somewhere, or vice versa. I don’t remember what it was. But I knew he thought it was okay. Because I talked to him on the phone for many years before he died. And we would go out to lunch every once in a while. And it was a great gossip. But no, he never said, Wow, what a great book. No, never. That wasn’t him. No, no.
Joe Hamilton 42:40
So if you were, I’m going to challenge you for two of you a second third choice, if not him for a biography.
Karen DeYoung 42:51
I would have liked to have written about Fidel Castro, but there’s so many books about Fidel Castro. I don’t think I could do that again. I don’t think I would write a biography of someone who’s still alive. I think I would like to find someone from the past, maybe where people who knew them were still alive. But not that person. It is kind of intimidating, I found. I love biography, like Kai Bird’s biography of Oppenheimer. It’s just brilliant. And you learn so much. There was a great biography of Oscar Wilde, I can’t remember who wrote it.
Joe Hamilton 43:40
This is from my own personal curiosity. Do you ever get to cross paths with Hunter Thompson?
Karen DeYoung 43:45
I did not. Never met him. I was just talking to my brother coming in here. When I did features at the St. Pete times I did every sort of Rock Band and boy band that came to town and a friend of mine gave me some pictures the other day of me sitting with Herman’s Hermits, me sitting with the Dave Clark Five, interviewing them, being very serious. I used to write concert reviews when I was here. And my favorite concert review story was when I went to a Tom Jones concert. If any listeners remember Tom Jones, and the big thing at his concert, which was sort of women of a certain age, adored him, and they would go to his concert, and I was in my early 20s. And they would throw things at him on stage. Like they would throw underwear at him on stage. And I was so appalled at my age, that I wrote this unbelievably nasty column about it, this this review of his column of his performance, and it was my first experience with getting really bad reader feedback. And it actually taught me a lesson because I said, Who are you? You know, people were going crazy at this conference, people were cheering. People loved it. Who are you to sit there and say, “I don’t like this”? It really taught me a lesson because they were right.
Joe Hamilton 45:10
And I have to ask about Bezos purchasing the paper. How did that impact your daily life?
Karen DeYoung 45:17
Only in good ways. The Graham family, which owned the post for many, many years, and for the first sort of 30 years that I was there, were terrific, very much a family enterprise, very supportive. But I think as the big change came to online presence, as advertising revenue fell off, as print subscriptions fell off, Don Graham, who was then the owner and publisher, after the death of his mother, very wisely, realized that the paper needed to go in a place that he was not prepared to take it. He sold it to Bezos for a very modest price. Because he personally wanted Bezos to do it. And Bezos presented the best sort of idea and insurance for long term growth and the best idea of how to make this transformation into basically an online paper. We still have a print paper, but I think it goes to 200,000 people a day or something like that. I mean, it’s still there. But Bezos came, he bought it personally, it’s not an Amazon product. He’s not publisher, he’s not involved in the day-to-day papers. I think I’ve seen him three times in 15 years or something. He came at the start and had a staff meeting and said, I’m here to provide a runway. And I don’t know how long the runway is. But it’ll go until you take off. That’s in terms of investment. And in terms of the content of the paper, I saw no change at all, you never hear from him. I mean, the Post is not a paper where the publisher, God forbid, the owner is going to call you up and say we want you to write about this–that never happens, despite what anybody else may think. He brought knowledge, and a lot of people with knowledge, who know about technology, who know about the internet, who know about that aspect of it and really helped build a very innovative presence now. So during the Trump administration, we and the New York Times and a lot of other people, it’s no secret that we benefited a lot from that, because people wanted to read the news. And so subscriptions, online subscriptions just soared, and that allowed us to expand to be a worldwide presence. It’s gone down a teeny bit since then. But I think he kept his word. I mean, he invested, and the size of the of the staff has more than doubled. So I yeah, I don’t I have no complaints about that.
Joe Hamilton 48:22
And as you mentioned, tough sledding in the business of yours. And local news has been pretty, pretty devastated. So how much is that on your radar? And what are your thoughts on the future of local news?
Karen DeYoung 48:35
You know, I was just reading this morning about a story. I don’t think it was in the Post, maybe it was in the New York Times, about a small paper in Oklahoma that wrote about some local corruption scandal and, you know, the police went in and took all their computers away and stuff. It’s a real danger. I mean, I think that local news has had just thousands of papers close. I’m fairly active in a small local paper, I have a house about 60 miles outside of Washington, in a rural county, and our paper in Fauquier County is called The Fauquier Times you can look it up. F-A-U-Q-U-I-E-R. And, you know, it’s a struggle. One of the interesting things in Amazon is the new sort of area for them to build these massive data centers. And there’s a lot of public opposition to it. And this paper has really taken on this issue, and really caused Amazon to back off to some extent. So that’s great. That’s what local paper should be doing. But what they also should be doing is they have massive coverage of local sports, of local events. They have the pages of people’s birthdays and people’s anniversaries, and it performs a great service, but it’s difficult to get advertising. It’s difficult to get people to subscribe because they get their news from Amazon news, and then from Google News, and, and, and Facebook, and whatever pops into their phone. So it’s a struggle. And I think that, you know, nobody was going to go do those stories about the datacenters about, you know, Disney some years ago wanted to build a new Disney World, right outside of that right on top of the Manassas Civil War battlefield. And it was local news. And a lot of local historians that sort of banded together and said, No, you can’t do this. And turned public opinion around and Disney said, No, nevermind, we’re out here. So I think you know, it’s definitely sad what’s happening to local news, and and I think communities need to really support it.
Joe Hamilton 50:55
I’ve enjoyed the conversation so much, we didn’t get into, obviously, noting your team Pulitzer in 2002, and finalist in 2013, probably many more war stories. But yeah, it’s been really great.
Karen DeYoung 51:08
You too. I want to hear your travel stories.
Joe Hamilton 51:11
We’ll do that. We’ll do that offline, because I don’t want to bore my audience who came for you. But thanks so much, Karen DeYoung, for having helped raise a quality brother, who’s one of our shining stars and keeping the arts scene alive here in St. Pete. I appreciate all the great work you’ve done over the decades. Thanks so much.
Karen DeYoung 51:29
Thanks for having me.