Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a former Eisenhower and Nixon administration staffer, and the author of many books, the most recent of which is Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012, which revisits the reporters he first interviewed in his classic study The Washington Reporters, published in 1981.
Q: What surprised you most when you re-interviewed these reporters a generation later? Did most of them seem discouraged about the changes in their profession, or did you find a more optimistic attitude?
A: Whatever Happened to the Washington Reporters, 1978-2012 is about 450 Washington reporters I surveyed in 1978. A generation later I set out to find them. With a team of my students from George Washington University we re-interviewed 283 (100 had died, and we sought obituaries). So this is a study of career patterns in journalism. I had expected to find a substantial number of dropouts because journalism is a high energy, low paid business. Rather, we found that two-thirds were journalists-for-life, with careers of at least 30 years. Part of the reason for this was they loved being journalists, reflected in how often they talked about having fun! (Fun is supposed to be what you do after hours, not what you do on the job!) There were other reasons as well, but I’d like my readers to find out by getting the book.
Q: For those who left journalism, what professions did they end up in, and what were their reasons for switching careers?
A: Of those who dropped out, government communications became the largest employer. A number got law degrees. Two got Ph.Ds and became university professors. One was elected to the Washington City Council. Another went to Silicon Valley, started a business, and became very rich! Generally they left journalism for the same type of reasons that people leave other jobs, family considerations (a sick child or aging parents) or personnel/organization problems (dislikes or disputes).
Q: In addition to your many books on the media, you also have studied the presidency. How difficult will it be for the newly reelected President Obama and the House Republicans to resolve their differences and work together?
A: Regarding President Obama/Congress and the so-called fiscal cliff, one can either be an Optimist or a Pessimist. Most of my colleagues are P, I’m O. I think the history of legislative-executive conflict is that at one minute to midnight an agreement is reached. The odds here should improve because the stakes for failing are so great. But my family and friends tell me that I’m an O on most things.
Q: What project are you working on now?
A: My next book is about the relations between Richard Nixon and Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1969: a conservative president picks a liberal adviser, together they design and propose an important piece of social legislation, the Family Assistance Plan. Perhaps there’s something we can learn from this.
Interview with Deborah Kalb.