by Jenny Chi
Few journalists have reported first-hand on the destruction of a democratic government in the middle of a violent military coup and lived to tell the tale. Meet award-winning writer Marc Cooper. In his early 20’s, he served as President Salvador Allende’s translator for publication and press attache. Marc narrowly escaped execution by firing squad in Chile in 1973. Since then, he’s written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Playboy, The Nation, Rolling Stone, and the Village Voice. He’s also published three non-fiction books and his memoir on Chile, Pinochet and Me (Verso 2001), was a Los Angeles Times Best-Seller. Currently, Marc is a contributing editor for The Nation magazine, Director of Annenberg Digital News, and is a member of the full time faculty of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
We’re very privileged to host him a guest instructor at the Pad this July. He’s teaching a trio of workshops Freelance Journalism on Sunday night, July 13, a Pitch Letter Clinic on Monday night, July 14, and a Review and Interview Writing class on Sunday night, July 20!
Marc took time out of his busy schedule to share his tips for delving into a journalistic career and his views on the state of journalism today.
1. As a journalist, how do you walk the line between making a statement in your article and keeping a neutral tone for your story? Or rather, do you find that a neutral tone isn’t necessary for journalists?
The myth of neutrality is one of the great weaknesses of American legacy journalism. The objective of journalism is to be truthful, not neutral; and the truth is almost never truthful. Media theorist Jay Rosen calls the cult of neutrality “The View From Nowhere.” I much prefer journalists who are passionately engaged with their subject matter and are burning with a desire to tell their stories. This in no way obviates accuracy or attention to facts. Indeed, it sharpens it. Waterboarding, for example, is truthfully torture. To refer to it in a “he said/she said” manner is, in fact, an obfuscation of fact and a dis-service to the public.
2. You run a website called Marc Cooper’s Tweet Daily, where you share tweets written by various twitter users regarding society, politics, education, etc. How did this idea for a website come about? Additionally, how has it furthered your career as a journalist and blogger?
I have had a personal blog 2004. I find it an indispensable necessity for any working writer. The Web has turned journalism into an ongoing national, in fact global, conversation. It is vital to participate in that conversation and to create and nurture one’s voice and brand. Your brand is the only thing you have as a journalist that can never be taken away from you.
3. You’ve had an extensive career in media production. You’ve served as a documentary producer and reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, PBS Frontline and CBS News and been executive producer and host of the weekly, syndicated Radio Nation. Do you find that a background in media or audio production is important for an aspiring journalist?
Not necessarily. The conventional wisdom nowadays is that new journalists have to be a “one man band.” Certainly, the ability to work on different platforms is a plus — but not an imperative. It’s more important to have a deep seated passion for telling stories in whatever way is most comfortable for you.
4. During the 2008 presidential campaign you served as Editorial Director for the Huffington Post’s Off The Bus Project — which was a citizen journalism reporting project for the presidential campaign. For writers who don’t want to report on politics, what other venues could allow them to participate in journalism?
Back to Jay Rosen and the phrase he coined a decade ago: “those formerly known as the audience.” Millions of people everyday already participate in myriad forms of journalism without ever thinking about it. Leaving a review on Yelp or TripAdvisor, tweeting a concert, Instagramming a beach trip, or whatever, is a form of sharing information and reporting. The opportunities to generate content and to spread that content through social networks is unlimited. Have an iPhone? What sort of journalism can you NOT do with it?
5. What was the most memorable story you reported on?
Probably the 1980’s wars in Central America, principally in El Salvador and Nicaragua. I know very few reporters who worked there who did not leave with deep, lasting impressions on their psyche. Those conflicts brought you into the midst of the very best and very worst of human behavior and then, at night, you drove back to your hotel. It was surreal.
6. As an USC Annenberg School for Communication Journalism Professor of News Writing and Reporting, what do you stress to your students about the practice of journalism?
We live in a period of revolutionary transformation of journalism and media in general. It’s quite exciting. It’s like experiencing the birth of the printing press in the 15th century and imagining all the things that will be done with it in the decades to come. I stress to them that journalists no longer have a monopoly on the means of communication and that they are now shared with non professionals and citizens of all sorts. Journalism in a networked world is now a horizontal, not vertical, activity. This is a historical moment of great democratization of the media and studying journalism provides you a front row seat.
Pinochet and Me, Marc’s anti-memoir detailing his time in Chile at the time of the 1973 coup.
7. Not many journalists have had career experiences like you have; at age 20 you worked for the Presidential Press and Information Office in Santiago, Chile and served as translator to former Chilean president Salvador Allende until you left after the 1973 military coup. What have you learned from those experiences about the practice of journalism? What advice would you give to reporters who want to have a career abroad?
To work abroad, you must go abroad. You must learn the language, culture and history of the areas you want to report from. Indeed, this principle applies across the board when it comes to journalism. Knowing the substance of what you are reporting is much much more important than perfecting the means.
8. You’ll be teaching a query letter clinic, a freelance journalism workshop, and a class on writing interviews and reviews. What can we expect from your workshops?
You can expect me to draw on 40 years of experience, much of it is as a freelancer, to teach the most effective ways to get the attention of an editor and convince him or her to commission you to produce the story you are burning to tell. It’s half art and half science, and we will cover both ends. Interviewing? Well, I used to do Playboy interviews back when that was the premier venue for such work (5-10,000 word interviews that were based on a dozen or so hours of conversation). Here’s the teaser: great interviewing is also about the art of seduction. 🙂
Thank you so much for that informative interview, Marc! Catch his classes on Freelancer Journalism, Pitch Letters (July 14), and Writing Reviews and Interviews this July at the Pad!