Dan Balz: A Bastion of Perspective in a Sound-Bite World
In today’s cacophonous political climate, the veteran Washington Post political writer’s measured, balanced approach may be more valuable than ever. Fri., October 5, 2012.
By Maddy Roth
AJR editorial assistant Maddy Roth (email@example.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
When Dan Balz writes that President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are running a most poisonous campaign, people take note.
Balz is chief correspondent at the Washington Post, where he's worked since 1978. He's served as the paper's national editor, political editor, White House correspondent and Texas-based Southwest correspondent. He recently racked up his 1500th page-one Post byline, a remarkable total.
In an age of partisan rancor on cable and in the blogosphere, Balz is known inside and outside the Beltway as an objective journalist with a reputation for fairness and seasoned judgment, both in his column, "The Take," and in his news stories. To colleagues – young and old – he's seen as a mentor, as a standard for quality reporting and a refreshing island of calm in a frenzied era.
"He is a man without an enemy, and that is so rare in Washington and in journalism and in politics," says Roger Simon, chief columnist for Politico and a longtime friend of Balz. "At the end of the day or campaign, I don't think anyone believes Dan Balz has been unfair to him, and that's pretty amazing."
Although Balz, 66, comes from a generation steeped in print, he was an early believer in the transformative nature of the Internet and quickly adapted to the digital age.
"Dan was one of the first reporters to pick up on the changing medium – one of the first to carry a digital camera on the trail, and in 2008 he really mastered a new form of short, simple, well-turned and influential political column," Ben Smith, the editor of BuzzFeed, wrote in an e-mail interview. "I think he got intuitively that while the values of speed and accuracy and intelligence matter immensely, they can be applied in different forms and distribution platforms – which is what we try to do every day."
Balz's reporting experience dates back to his college years at the University of Illinois, where he majored in communications and worked on the school newspaper, the Daily Illini. The summer after his junior year, Balz interned in Washington, D.C., for Illinois congressman John Anderson, prompting his passion for politics.
"No one who knew him then is surprised that he became a great success later on," Simon says. Simon met Balz in college and the two, along with their respective wives, have been friends ever since. Balz – then editor of the school paper – gave the younger Simon his first byline and first column. "I said once Dan taught me everything I know, but not everything he knows."
When Balz was sports editor of the Daily Illini the late '60s, he wrote an investigative piece that went on to become a national story. "The Illinois Slush-Fund Scandal" documented local businessmen and alumni who channeled money towards cars and other amenities for the school's football players and program. The football coach was subsequently fired, and students bombarded Balz with blame.
"Dan handled that with such calm and breeze," Simon recalls. "He would talk to anybody, but most of all what he did was continue reporting the story day after the day." Simon recalls that, even then, Balz understood the fundamentals and ethics of fair reporting. "He was doing this stuff as a teenaged kid, and he was very introspective about what he was doing."
In August 1968, Balz and Simon, two young journalists with zero news organization credentials, journeyed to Chicago to cover the rioting at the
Democratic National Convention. "I remember standing with him on Michigan Avenue and seeing the cops just going crazy and clubbing the kids. Tear gas was everywhere," Simon says. "And I remember Dan standing there with a notebook in his hand and taking notes."
Balz knew he wanted to get to back to Washington one day. He received his master's degree in communications from Illinois and served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. He began working as a reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, and soon moved to National Journal in D.C., where he was a reporter and deputy editor.
Balz and his college sweetheart, Nancy, married and have one son, John. Balz calls his wife a fabulous and generous supporter. "Political reporters are gone a lot and it's hard on families," Balz says. "I recognize that and the sacrifices spouses and children make. When we got married, I didn't necessarily think I would be doing this, and it's important to keep all that in mind."
Balz, who is covering his eighth presidential campaign, has certainly been on the road a fair amount. When I spoke to him on a Monday morning in September, he was gearing up for another campaign week in Ohio.
Although he cites the 1984 presidential campaign as his most memorable because it was his first, he calls the 1992 campaign a "fascinating story," the 36-day Bush v. Gore recount in 2000 "some of the most interesting days" he's ever experienced and the 2008 Democratic primary battle between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton "an epic political story." As he talks, his enthusiasm for each campaign is palpable.
In 1994, at the height of the Republican "Contract with America" campaign, Balz's mentor and longtime friend, David Broder – who was known for years as the "Dean of the Washington Press Corps" and worked at the Post for more than four decades – told Balz to consider writing a book.
Balz sought out Ronald Brownstein, then with Los Angeles Times, with whom he had covered many political events with over the years, and the two collaborated on the 1996 book "Storming the Gates: Protest Politics and the Republican Revival".
Balz and Brownstein, now editorial director of National Journal, have shared many days on the trail. "The most recent encounter we had was before the Illinois primary; we drove about 900 miles in a little over two days," Brownstein says. "Dan is just incredibly generous. He doesn't get stressed." And, Brownstein adds, "He also has a strange proclivity for Olive Garden; he had a very clear vision of what was good Olive Garden and what was bad Olive Garden."
In 2008, Balz, who had long wanted to write a book about a specific campaign, joined forces with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and University of Maryland professor Haynes Johnson to chronicle the 2008 election from Iowa through Election Day. The book, "The Battle For America 2008: The Story of an Extraordinary Election," became a New York Times bestseller.
"All journalism is storytelling, we do it in a lot of ways, but ultimately we're telling stories to people," Balz says. "And the story here was so rich that our editor said to us, 'Never get too far away from the narrative.' The challenge of a book is to retell a story in a compelling way so that it still seems fresh."
The book includes an interview Balz had with Obama in mid-December 2008. "The first question I asked him was, 'Before you became a successful politician, you were a writer.' And I asked, 'If you had to write a narrative of the election, what would it be?' And Obama said, 'The whole election is a novel, and I'm not sure I'm the most interesting character in the novel,' " Balz recalls. "I just found him more reflective and more thoughtful about things from start to finish."
Asked how he gets politicians to open up, Balz replies, "Sometimes you know that you've found a sweet spot with an interviewee and you don't want to get in the way of that, don't interrupt and keep the person moving along in the same way you are." Balz adds that Obama is a tough interview. "He can give long answers and talk in a deliberate way."
When conducting interviews, Simon says Balz is very good at pulling back the curtain. "If people aren't telling the truth, he'll find that out," Simon says. "He does radiate a certain trustworthiness, not just because he's one of the dinosaurs, but he had this when he was 22. It's a type of seriousness, not a gloomy seriousness, just a commitment to what he's doing."
While the Washington Post review of "The Battle For America" was largely positive, Widmer felt that it fell short in one important area. "Balz and Johnson are old-school guys, and that is not exactly a criticism--they bring a lot of knowledge to the table," he wrote. "But there is more to this story, and someday a 25-year-old will write it." He wrote that the book contained little about how the Internet and social networks such as Facebook had revolutionized presidential campaigns.
Which raises the question; Can old-school journalists such as Dan Balz adapt to today's high-decibel, 24/7, win-the-morning world of political journalism? Is there an audience for the thoughtful, nonpartisan approach that Balz embodies?
In Balz's case, the answer appears to be a resounding yes. In addition to writing for the Post, he regularly appears on PBS' "Washington Week," MSNBC's "Daily Rundown" and other public affairs programs. He tweets and files for the Web. But he hasn't lost sight of the fundamentals. He still makes phone calls and conducts the shoe-leather reporting so crucial to his work.
Gwen Ifill, moderator of "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for PBS' "NewsHour," says that Balz represents what she values most in a pundit on her show; someone whose mind is always open, is always thinking of another question and does not decide what he believes before he reports on it. "Much of political reporting has become picking apart things," she says, "and Dan's specialty is putting things together."
Ifill recalls that Balz befriended her when she was a Metro reporter at the Washington Post in the 1980s. "He had no reason to talk to a lowly Metro reporter," she says. "But he was always kind and careful about what he was doing. The same qualities he applies to the way he does his job is the way he relates to the people around him." When Ifill joined the Post's national staff and covered the 1988 presidential campaign, Balz was the editor on the other end of the phone, showing her the ropes in his kind, Midwestern way.
Brownstein says Balz "transcends boundaries between what journalism has already aspired to be and what it is becoming. He has 1,500 [front-page] bylines but has always been of the earliest adapters of technology, writing early and often for the Web. He is someone respected by the older generation of reporters and the new generation of reporters."
Dylan Byers, a member of that new generation who writes about the media for Politico, agrees that Balz has proven to be quite savvy about the wired world, adding that in his view the difference between the old model of newspaper journalism and the new model of digital journalism is the difference in deadline. While Balz is sometimes writing stories for the next day, many journalists today are writing stories in the moment.
"I think there's always a concern that somehow, because of technology and because of the speed of everything, somehow we'll lose the perspective, the historical context and analysis that Dan offers, because we feel we have to file it in an hour, and that therefore journalism in some way suffers," Byers says.
"But I think that there's a way to do smart journalism with a solid perspective and to do it fast..and what that requires is having the younger generation looking up to the Dan Balzes, looking up to the older generations and seeing how to apply longer pieces to the speed and rapidity that's required of younger journalists today."
Karen Tumulty, a national political correspondent at the Post, believes the Dan Balz approach is exactly what this nation needs today. "I think that if there's any future for the mainstream media, it is more in the Dan Balz model. I think there is a real appetite on people's part for true objectivity and a voice you know that when you read the story, you can trust it."
"We are so used to overstatement and histrionics and the media today that a lot of this gets discounted as noise," she adds. But when someone of Balz's stature writes that "all restraints are gone" in the campaign, and provides the historical context to back up the assertion, journalists and readers alike pay attention.
Still, Balz shares concerns about the state of political reporting. "All of those [technological advances] have served to chop up campaigns into smaller and smaller pieces, and we cover it in smaller and smaller pieces," Balz says. "Sometimes, I think, collectively, we write more and more about less and less."
Through all of journalism's changes, Balz believes that the role of a political reporter has stayed the same. Political pollster "Peter Hart once said to me that the role of a political reporter is not to be a handicapper, a person who predicts this race or that race. That's not the real value of political reporting. The real value is when people wake up the morning after the election, see the paper or turn on the TV, and see who has won – that you will have helped them understand what happened," Balz says.
And Balz takes that responsibility seriously. He has learned how to separate the significant from the trivial, the nugget of news that may be important for the day or the hour or the minute but not necessarily in the long run. When writing his column, Balz tries to provide context, focusing on the big questions and overarching themes, rather than getting caught up in the gaffe du jour and the latest kerfuffle.
One way he succeeds at this is by keeping in touch with insiders and outsiders alike. He speaks to professionals obsessed with each hiccup of the campaign and ordinary Americans who aren't breathlessly following the latest development or "development" on cable and Twitter but who care deeply about the state of the country. He shares Broder's view that "from the candidate to the voter you meet in a coffee shop in a small town in Ohio, everybody has a view that's worth listening to and understanding."
Balz's ability to speak objectively and clearly to both types enables him to maintain credibility in his columns and in his daily reporting, an area, Simon points out, where David Broder excelled.
In fact, many of Balz's colleagues compare him to the late D.C. press corps dean. "He is probably the closest thing to Broder," Brownstein says. "He's an arbiter that everyone looks to as to what's happening, as a standard for the quality in what you do." Byers calls Balz today's dean of the Washington press corps, someone the younger generation looks up to, no matter what platform they are writing for.
As a columnist, Simon generally has no problem when his opinion differs from the conventional wisdom. Like many journalists, his healthy self-confidence assures him that, surely, everyone else must be wrong. "My motto is sometimes in error but never in doubt, just plunge forward – but Dan is the only one who has the capacity to make me think, 'Gee, maybe I didn't get it right.' "
Asking "What would Dan Balz think?" is not out of the ordinary for many who have worked with him.
When he was at the Los Angeles Times, Brownstein remembers checking in with Balz after an acceptance speech or a State of the Union address before reaching a conclusion. Tumulty goes to Balz to make sure her lead works. She calls her colleague the most fair-minded journalist and individual she's ever met, and a mentor for many at the Post.
Says Simon, "Dan is automatically looked to as a leader, someone you go to, learn from. He's like Dave Broder before him; he has an effect on generations of journalists.
"I really think it's more than a career to him. I think he sees himself, and all serious journalists, as doing a public service, as doing a public good. Democracy really doesn't work without an informed public, and journalists play a very important role in informing the public. In that sense, they do serve the democracy, and Dan still feels that."
And Balz has never had any doubt that journalism is just where he belongs.
"If you're at a place like the Post, and you're covering politics and the government, the world is always interesting," Balz says. "To report on it, and to teach people about it, is a great privilege. It's a tough time for our industry, as everyone knows; we're all trying to figure out the brightest future. But I feel very blessed."