Sunday, June 25, 2017

Q&A with Tom Rosenstiel

Tom Rosenstiel is the author of the new novel Shining City, which focuses on a political "fixer" in Washington, D.C. His other books, all nonfiction, include The Elements of Journalism and Blur. Rosenstiel is the executive director of the American Press Institute and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and he was a reporter for Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Shining City and for your character Peter Rena?

A: I wanted to tell a story about a political fight in Washington that captured how good people are trapped by the cynicism of the city. 

Supreme Court nominations represent that one of the most cynical events in politics today. Nominees are taught how NOT to answer questions fully or honestly. Almost everyone involved thinks the nomination process is a mess. Members of the court have said this. Vetters have said this. Senators have said this. It really is a spectacle in which everyone feels trapped.

I also wanted unexpected heroes in the story. Some of the most honest people I have met in Washington are consultants, those hired guns who in the popular mind are often thought of as immoral—fixers who work just for money. 

In reality, these people often are the most candid and objective. And many of them are idealists along with being realists. Peter Rena in Shining City is one of those. So is his partner Randi Brooks.

Journalists and consultants often have a fair amount in common in the way they see the world. They live in the world of realpolitik—to see the world as it is. But they wish it were better. 

Q: As you noted, the story highlights a Supreme Court confirmation fight, and we had one of those earlier this year—how would you compare the world of your novel with today’s Washington, D.C.?

A: Each confirmation hearing in its own way seems more jaded than the previous one. The Gorsuch hearings were distinguished, I think, by an even greater lack of candor and willingness to answer questions than his predecessors. 

He knew the math, how many votes he had going in, and the fact that he needed to win over no Democrats and he and his team decided they didn’t care to increase his total or his base of support to make his nomination a consensus or a large majority. 

The world in the novel is dark, but there also is still a spark of an appeal to the center. I don’t know that we saw any such spark in the Gorsuch hearings.

Q: How did you come up with the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: I wanted something that conveyed this sense of idealism and disappointment about our democracy. I had other possible titles that focused on themes like lies and truth telling and other titles that were more about the character, but the moment I thought of Shining City I knew it was right. 

It is a reference from the Bible, from John Winthrop and also from President Reagan’s famous speech on the eve of his presidency…and all of those meanings, about living a virtuous life in a moral sense, about democracy and about the city of Washington itself are all resident in the phrase. 

That speech was one of Reagan’s greatest, and justifiably one of his most famous. If you mention the title to anyone who tracks politics, they will know it, or it will certainly be familiar. The religious connotations are known by many fewer people.

Q: You’ve spent many years involved in the world of politics and media. How would you describe the relationship between the Trump administration and the press?

A: Five months in now, we have some answers. The administration began its term using some of the most divisive rhetoric about the news media and its role in America that we have ever heard from a president. 

It echoed Richard Nixon at his most strident and probably went further. Calling the press “the enemy of the people” was something a half step beyond even Nixon’s rhetoric. But remember Nixon talked about ordering the murder of journalists, including contemplating putting LSD on the steering wheel of my boss, Jack Anderson, so he would die in a car accident. 

But the underlying notion of Trump’s rhetoric about the press—that it is unfair to conservatives, that it is elitist and liberal and doesn’t understand the problems of many Americans--is not new and has been gradually intensifying for more than a generation. 

I think the intensity of President Trump’s rhetoric, and the challenge it represented to the notion of a free press, has made many journalism outlets better. 

It threw down the gauntlet and made them reflect on how to do their job and be effective under more adverse conditions, and how to win over distrustful citizens. 

It has made their reporting deeper. It has made them more transparent about how many sources they have and the level of knowledge of those sources—particularly when the sources are unnamed. 

And I think what the Trump administration has found is what other administrations have found, including the Obama and George W. Bush administrations before this one. 

That is that in an era of increasing number of outlets, deep enterprise and watchdog reporting still breaks through. The old media may be surrounded by new. Political actors may have ways to reach audiences directly. 

But a story that is important, that is accurate and deeply reported and tells us something new, is instantly relevant. And suddenly all that new media is an echo chamber bringing that reporting to more people than ever.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My publisher, Ecco, which is an imprint of Harper Collins, bought two novels with the same characters. I am just now finishing the second book. 

In this one, the same President, James Nash, calls Peter Rena and Randi Brooks back to help him uncover the truth when there is a terrorist incident abroad that results in the death of an American general. And as in Shining City, they must navigate the world of Washington and its shoals. 

They must stay ahead of a congressional investigation, the press and enter the world of espionage and the war on terror and the efforts today to try to politicize that war at home for political gain, which makes the efforts to fight the war abroad much harder.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It is fascinating to me how different writing fiction is from non-fiction. There is research involved, but in the end the stories are made up. You are not trying to be accurate. You are trying to be true.

What I mean by that is you are getting inside the hearts of your characters—their motivations, their thoughts, their own conceptions of right and wrong. 

To do that, I find I have to reach a different part of my imagination. The characters have to be real in the sense that they have to be fully conceived. You’re tapping your memory and your unconscious in a way you do not in journalism. And for me that is a great deal of fun. It's the best part of my day.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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