Top Editor Talks Shop

ONE of the top journalists in the United States urges reporters to "keep on asking dumb questions" until they can explain the topic at hand clearly.

Suzanne Braun Levine, Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) editor, says: "The more complex the interviewee gets, the dumber the questions should get."

"What do you mean?" this interviewer asks, kind of dumbly.

"People are getting saturated with undigested news," she explains. "They want more context, substance, more thought-out information." And you get "thought-out" news by asking absolutely basic questions until you really know what the experts are talking about, Ms. Levine says.

But Levine isn't talking about simplistic writing. For her, the news is serious all the way.

"There's an assumption that people have no attention span," Levine continues. "This assumes that if you try to get serious, people will tune out." That's wrong, she says, "even self-defeating. If you assume people aren't going to pay attention, you throw things at them in disconnected globs, and then they really don't pay attention. But if complicated material is presented in a meaningful and accessible way, people will take the time to read it."

She offers an example from the March/April issue of CJR, an article with brief excerpts from a series on the US economy called "America: What Went Wrong," which ran last fall in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The opposite of "disconnected globs," this series was written by two reporters who had won Pulitzer Prizes in 1975 and 1989 for articles on US tax policy. Their simple approach was so compelling that crowds in the Philadelphia paper's lobby demanding reprints were so insistent that security guards had t o be called out at one point, according to the CJR article.

Levine also talks about when women began working in journalism in larger numbers. After graduating from Radcliffe College, she began her career as an investigative reporter for Seattle magazine in 1963. She later held managerial and editorial posts with Time/Life Books and McCall's andMademoiselle magazines, then joined Ms. magazine as managing editor in 1972 when it was founded. She became editor of CJR three years ago.

She recalls an article in Ms. in the early 1970s on reasonable expectations for the women's movement, in which it was stated that to expect women to become TV co-anchors was unreasonable for "deep psychological reasons."

"Now," she says, "if there's not a woman sitting there, you think there's something wrong."

Another dumb question: "Why do you feel the thinking was so off then as to women anchors?"

Levine: "I think so many men have disappointed the country that [the people] now trust women more. Just think how our leaders have betrayed us. They have been corrupt, irresponsible, lazy; they've been venal, calculating, self-serving.... Women, for whatever reason, have been the voices not only in the women's movement [but also in] looking at public life, voices of conscience [that are] more believable.... And I think people want to trust the people who are delivering the news."

Levine says that part of the US public's mistrust of the media is unwarranted.

Levine warns that the press "stays away from religious and spiritual questions too much." She supported publication of the article, "Let's Hear It For The Spirit" (CJR, September/October 1990 issue), which dealt well, she maintains, with a subject that is "hard for journalists."

She continues: "Why aren't we asking our presidential candidates, `What exactly do you mean by going to church, and what do you believe in, and do you believe in an afterlife?' It's relevant. To find out what matters about people, the spiritual component has got to be there. If the answer [doesn't have substance], that will show. And if it has substance, that is very meaningful."

Warren Hoge, editor of the New York Times Magazine, compliments Levine's approach, saying, "Journalism reviews often go in for `gotcha' coverage, trying to catch journalists doing things they shouldn't be doing... It's exactly that that the CJR does not do under Suzanne Levine."

Lawrence K. Grossman, the former president of news for NBC, comments that CJR "combines academic as well as professional interests, is lively, skeptical, not too slick - in short, good at raising those issues in mainstream journalism that need looking at."

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