Michelle Jaconi: One of my favorite things about Washington is that almost everybody who is here wants to change the world for the better. I just went to a graduation yesterday, it was a so-so speech but the end was really strong, and the end said, “If not us then who?” I ask that to all of you. Your program that you’re doing is perfect, and being here in Washington, having access to the people, and having such a great education behind you, if not you then whom. Who will make this world a better place if it’s not you? And so I always think it’s really fun to come to Washington and interview people like what you’re doing here, because you’re at that age where every person you see you think, “I could do their job,” and you’re right.
Every person you are meeting is someone, and that’s why a lot of time I’ll say, “If there’s a future politician here, if there’s a local journalist,” because you guys can do anything. The key to doing that is to do what most interests you, and you can do it well. The fun thing, as somebody who grew up in southern California, the biggest difference for me when I came out here is that everybody is so ambitious, and everybody is so motivated. Alyse and I talk about it, you know Alyse and I were in girl scouts together, and the last time I had seen her we had a pizza party at her house. Randomly we ran into each other at this event, she was there because one of the women that she was representing was there giving interviews, and I was there getting an interview. It was one of those things where we just stopped and looked at each other and smiled and said, “We’re both here for the same reason.”
I hope that you guys get a lot of that, what we call the Washington bug, that you leave here infected, that you leave here saying, and not just here meaning NBC, but you leave Washington saying, “This is the nation’s capital, and what makes it exciting is that it’s young people, that’s it’s people that are just saying, “I’m going to work everyday and to do public service.” I really, truly, believe that the good media really is a public service, so I’m so thrilled to hear that. When I say that they call me the Pollyanna of NBC. There used to be a part of NBC called, “The fleecing of America,” and it bothered me so much, as much as it was true that there are these things in government that were so wasteful, and I definitely was so proud that we exposed that.
I also cringed because I thought that by making this franchise we never showed the flipside, which was what the government did that was great, what the people in government were doing. I went School of Foreign Service at Georgetown, and one of my friends developed this system to help women vote in Iraq. You think, “This is a thirty-year-old kid who developed the system that the UN now uses to help people vote, and I say, “Why can’t we tell those stories?” We now do, we have this segment on nightly news that’s called “Voices,” and it’s kind of like what you’re studying, values. It’s about people that, in their everyday life, inspire you. It was really a neat concept because we wanted to do something that shows that there is something happening in the world that is positive, first of all. The way that it was sold was, “These are the people that you want at a dinner party with you, that you think are interesting, and you think they are doing something that you just would sit back and say, “Tell me more about what you are doing.”
That’s really how it started, and what a fun way to do it. I think it’s a lot like what you are studying in your program, that Moyers series was phenomenal, and I love to see people put that in practice. I just want to commend you first of all, before we get started, and you just let me know what you want to talk about.
Sadanand Maillard: Was that Heather King’s speech?
Michelle Jaconi: It was not Heather King’s speech.
Sadanand Maillard: She gave us her speech, and she had that line in it.
Michelle Jaconi: Oh that’s so funny, when I said that upstairs to one of my friends, and he said, “Oh, you know, I just went to a law graduation and they said that, so I don’t know if it’s now a common theme, but I think it’s a great one.”
Mark Hansen: How did you first become involved with Meet the Press, and how would you describe your role as Producer?
Michelle Jaconi: Good question, I got involved with meet the press through an internship program. I got a fellowship through American Journalism Review called the Washington Semester Program now, back then it wasn’t a semester curriculum it was more of just an “inside Washington program.” I applied to it because I finished my Masters degree early, and I was writing a thesis on the interactivity of media, and how technology was putting a check and balance on the fourth branch of government, which is sometimes what academics call the media.
I wanted to study it somewhere, so I got the fellowship and they assigned me at CNN, and I’d already worked at CNN. Meet the Press was my favorite show on television, so I just kept writing letters to Meet the Press saying, “Please accept me, there’s this fellowship program, you don’t have to pay me, I’ll do whatever you want,” and then I just kept calling. Then finally the executive producer was so sick of me, and said, “Hi, I’m just calling. We don’t really know why you keep writing us.” I said, “Well, listen and let me just come in, I actually know a lot about technology and computers.” I was saying so much, but that was the thing that was my in.
She said, “Why don’t you come in and show me what you can do, so I came in, and I turned their computer system, there was one computer upstairs with the internet. That’s how different it was. I showed them that I designed websites then, which was really rare back then, and I also changed their program to look at House races state by state, and do it in a way that they could get voter tabulations and put in polls, that kind of thing.
At the time not many people were very interested, but what happened right after I had started, and they had said, “Sure, come on, why don’t you teach us this. We don’t know what can do; just make a job for yourself.” I kind of butchered my way in here, and then I was here for a couple of months, and then the Lewinsky story broke. All of a sudden when you have an impeachment in the stakes, every House race is important. All of a sudden I went from this new person that nobody knew why was there, to being the most popular person in NBC news, because all of a sudden I knew answers to everything very quickly.
When people say “Timing is everything,” there were three people in the process of leaving NBC right when I started, and Meet the Press, Meet the Press is a very tiny office, and there are six people there. All three people, because I was such a workhorse, I mean I would get in before any body else who was being paid astronomical amounts, and I presented my thesis, and then they sent me down for an interview with Tim Russert. I thought they were sending me down to do an interview like you’re doing, like for my thesis, and I get down there, and he was my hero, still is which tells you even more, but I went down there and he said, “What’s this job that you’re applying for?” I had no idea I was even applying for a job, so that was a little awkward for a second.
I said, “Whatever job you want me to do, I’ll do, if you’re asking.” We just started talking, we’re both Jesuit educated, he asked me what Meet the Presses were my favorite, and I said, “I know this isn’t going to be popular, but one of my favorite interviews that you do is before the all-star game, when you interview the basketball players.” His jaw just dropped, because he’s so used to people saying the popular politician, but I’m a sport junky on the side, and I said that, “It’s really interesting to have these sports fans all of a sudden become articulate, because they’re not used to getting intelligent questioning.” We started talking about sports, we just hit it off and that was eight years ago, eight and a half years ago.
I’ve done almost every job at meet the press since then, and during that time it was so incredibly busy that I worked seven days a week and did so many jobs simultaneously that I became very good at doing all of them very quickly. It’s horrendous on your social life, horrendous on your mental health, but fabulous for your professional career. Now they call me the MVP, because I can just do almost anything. We used to be the political unit 2, so for any political story at NBC was done by us, any poll, I was head of that political unit in addition to doing Meet the Press, and it was incredibly tough as cable grew, as all of a sudden you would have people you didn’t know calling you to proof their script, and you have your own show to worry about, so it was a little tough.
They separated it this year, so now there’s a separate political unit which is a lot nicer on our schedule.
Daniel Nanas: I’m Daniel. Margaret Wheatley wrote that we create ourselves by what we choose to notice, and those in the media not only choose what we notice but also which aspects we focus on. In the news that I see on television, that I read in the paper, events seem sometimes overly dramatize through the way that they are presented. Do you think this has become an accepted way to gain an audience, and how has this affected the honesty of news reporting?
Michelle Jaconi: I think that’s a great question, I think that for the first part, with the quote, “What you choose to notice,” is it. People always say what makes a journalist a journalist, and I think the best answer is a gut. Tim Russert, my boss, has the best gut in the entire world. One of his stories that is in his book, but it bears repeating, is he worked with Senator Moynahan as his chief of staff, and he had grown up in Buffalo, his dad was a sanitation worker, and he was sitting there in Moynahan’s office, his first day in the DC office, and all of these students come in and start quoting Tocqueville, and start quoting Latin, or quoting scripture, and this is just in their normal morning meeting. Tim’s eyes are just wide, and he pulls aside and said, “Senator, I don’t think this is the right job for me, these people are quoting books I’ve not even heard of.” Moynahan said, “Tim, let me tell you one thing. What they know you can learn, and what you know they will never be able to figure out.”
It was a great thing, and that’s something to think about, in addition to your learning, Values is a hard thing to teach and that’s why I commend your program and what you’re doing here. If you ever have that sense of ill sitting, and saying, “God, what is the news here?” That gut is what makes a good journalist. As far as what to make important, or what to make a big deal of, the fun thing about Meet the Press is when we have someone on for an hour, we have to choose what makes it into that hour. As far as what the headline is, we are actually one of the few shows that don’t have press releases out right after the interview to say, “This happened.” We leave it to you guys to decide what the big news is, and what is fun is that we had Newt Gingrich on when he was Speaker, we were the front page story on five of the major newspapers, and it was “Gingrich says on Meet the Press.”
It was the lead top right story on five different stories, all on different subjects. We were so proud of that, that is when we are most proud, when we can, “We’re just going to make news, and get people on the record as many things as possible, and you choose what you think is the most newsworthy or relevant to you. I think that we try to do it that way. As far as saying what’s important versus what’s titillating, that is a huge thing. I cringe being in the news business right now when it’s sweeps period, when all the local news promos are, “Is your frozen yogurt going to kill you?” All these things and you say, “Oh my God! Is it?” you get worried, you get sucked it, and you want to watch, and you say, “Don’t watch, don’t reward them for that promo.” It’s hard, and so I think that the best thing that you can do is when you think they are saying, “This is the most important,” and you don’t think it is, don’t watch.
You really rule, you really do, and I think that we, in some of the good media, as some would call it, I think yes you have to put broccoli on the table even though people want cookies all the time. I think that treading that balance, you can still be entertaining and provocative, and informative, but I think that’s a key balance. We have another fun balance because we are the oldest show on television that we try to also say, “What would we really care about forty years from now?” We try to every once and a while ask a question about values or timeless subjects, so that we can have a future Meet the Press minute, what we call when we do a flashback, and it’s amazing how much there’s perennial issues that always matter. The fun things, when you have those good interviews, is when you are not so paying attention to what is going to make the biggest headline right now, when you balance that with “What’s going to be interesting to watch again five years from now?”
EJ Dion, Washington Post columnist, wrote a story saying, “The biggest public service and the best piece of history is Cheney’s interview right before the war started on Meet the Press,” and it’s true. I could show that interview to you right now, and you would be riveted. It’s one of those things that almost every quote that people try to say, “What happened here with our pre-war planning?” Everybody goes back to that interview, and that we’re so proud of. That was us saying, at the time, we did a whole show on the anti-war debate before the war started, and yeah it wasn’t very popular at the time, but now we think, “Hum, I wish people had listened.”
We could make people listen, but we can say, “If we can add to the debate, then we did something right.” We’re very lucky, I know ratings are important to a lot of people, they are important to us, but we’re just very lucky right now, we don’t have to worry about the ratings. It’s not part of our, “Ok, I’m not going to put the President of Egypt on because people aren’t going to watch, we don’t have that debate because we are so fortunate, we have such a great, loyal viewer base, that no matter who we put on we almost the same amount of viewers, which makes us feel so good. That’s honestly because of Tim, people just trust him, and they trust his judgment, they trust that this is what is important. I think, as the media plural grow, I think that those people you trust, and you say, “I value and I respect your judgment of you Daniel telling me what is important,” then that is more important then anything. In these days it’s more important then ever, because you can either say, “Arianna Huffington tells me what’s important, or Brian Williams tell me what’s important,” and you get to make that choice.
Nina Castanon: Hi my name is Nina. How has the competition between the three networks affected how you approach your job?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question, right now we’re at a really interesting juncture for NBC. All of NBC’s entertainment programs are not doing too well, and all of NBC’s news programs are number one, and that is incredibly rare, and that just never usually happens, because the business suits will say, “People just leave the station on whatever they were watching, so if they were watching the “Desperate Housewives” finale last night, they’re going to be watching GMA this morning, because it’s on ABC.
We are so proud because all of our news shows from Today Show, to Meet the Press, to Nightly News, they’re all number one even though people aren’t watching NBC entertainment and leaving the channel on, meaning people are choosing to turn their channel back to NBC and actively seeking out NBC programs. That is great; I don’t know how long that is sustainable, so we actually root for NBC’s up front, where they just had all their new lineups. We’re hoping that there is a hit in there just to make us feel more comfortable. Right now it doesn’t affect us as much as it does the other shows, because we’re on top. It’s a cyclical thing, we’re not always on top, but Meet the Press is five years without losing on Sunday, the last time we lost was actually when Linda Tripp was on ABC, so that was one where they thought that was more that week. If you took that out of the equation, it’s probably we go back almost eight and a half ears without losing.
We’re in a lucky place, when you are in the losing position, and believe me NBC has been in the losing position before, then you care a lot more, because you’re saying, “Who do they have on, have can we counter-program.” We still are interested in whom our competition is asking to be on their show, so we know, “Ok are they doing this,” one we don’t want to be doing the same interviews as everyone else, sometimes the White House will say, “Condoleezza Rice is going to do all five Sunday shows.” We grown and say, “Do we really want to do the same, knowing that we will get different things, but then the person is rushed from interview to interview, and it isn’t as great of public service or great of an interview. That’s where we are concerned, also topic-wise if all the other shows are doing immigration, do we decide, “Are we ready to turn the table and instead talk about gay marriage?” Do we want to talk about a different issue? Sometimes we do that on our own without thinking about what the other shows are doing, but we’re always interested in what our competition is discussing.
Alyssa Debenedetti: My name is Alyssa. I was wondering if the competition in the media encourages the production of more accurate news or more provocative news.
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question. I think that accuracy is something that especially at the network level, because accuracy is something that can never be compromised, period, but not just at the network level, but at any level, it should never be comprised for anything, period. Especially for competition.
I think that sometimes what happens now, especially, you have promotional writers, and a promotional machine that is separate then the news machine, and so somebody that writes the carefully manicured script that is read by forty people, and read by a legal department, and read by a political person, read by people of every race, sex, and creed, for something that might be offensive or wrong, that is one thing. Somebody else might read it and write a promotion, like, “Is Howard Dean losing his mind?” or something, “Coming up at eleven!” You just look at them and say, “What did you do to my beautiful spot!”
That is something that I think happens at every level of news that I think is frightening. The other thing that happens, especially in the blogosphere, is you might have had this careful, manicured, with all these caveats in your script or in your print piece, and they might take one quote out of it or one bite out of it and put that up there. What interesting, we had Nancy Pelosi on our show a couple weeks ago, and there was a ground breaking interview and all this material, and one person got a picture, a still from that interview with her eyes open, where she’s blinking, and they froze that frame and put that on the cover of their site, so she looked like a deer in the headlights. Everybody was talking about that picture, and everything else, all our research about that interview was ignored because everybody was talking about that picture and how she was a deer in the headlights and scared. It was ridiculous and offensive, and you think, “How can you stop that?” And it’s hard, it’s free speech, you can’t always stop that. That’s a little scary, but I think a lot of it happens after the initial running, or initial piece.
Andrea Schmitt: Hi, I’m Andrea. I was wondering, if somebody on Meet the Press misrepresents a fact, whether it’s the interviewer or the interviewee, whose job is it to take responsibility?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question. Sometimes the interviewer should follow up, and Tim is really great about that. If he asks you a question, and you come back with a blatant factual lie, now there’s difference between saying, if you’re talking about your own opinion, or your own thought, it’s hard to say whether that’s wrong or not. f it’s a wrong number, for example, if you say only a hundred people from California have died in the war, Tim would say, “Actually that number is incorrect, and would follow up that way.”
If Tim didn’t have that fact right with him, or off the top of his head, and then as a producer you are in the control room looking up that fact and whispering it in their ear, to make sure he has that right number. That is definitely an interviewer’s job to do that. If we make a mistake, oh God forbid, but yes we would definitely go on and say, we would come back; if it was something complicated we would come back after the commercial because it’s hard to talk in Tim’s ear, because he’s a fabulously active interviewer.
He’s listening to what his guest is saying, and listening for that follow up, so it’s a lot harder to interrupt him then somebody who might have a list of prepared questions that they’re not going to deviate from. We might come back after the break and say, “Oh, just so you know, I accidentally said World War I when I meant World War II, thank you for that. Sometimes we might put something on our website if there’s something that is drawn to our attention, and say something next week. We definitely stand by, you credibility is at stake, and it’s the utmost serious thing so it’s the best for your moderator and you to take responsibility.
Kristin Van’t-Rood: Hi, my name is Kristin. I was wondering, are people ever reluctant to come on the show?
Michelle Jaconi: Yes, and it’s my job to convince them not to be reluctant. It’s amazing; there are always people who want to be on the show, so we are lucky that way. People will write us all the time to be on the show, they aren’t necessarily people you want, but there are a lot of people who will be on this show at any time. Sometimes the key people, for example we had, for the immigration debate a couple weeks ago, before you had a bill out of the Senate, I had probably six different people cancel after saying yes, because they didn’t want to go on with other people, or they decided that they didn’t want to talk about it any more, because they were getting a lot of grief from their constituents. As a citizen of this country, it makes you disgusted because you say, “How can you not talk about a position that you hold publicly, and so there are times when it is shocking. There are times when it is understandable, if Tom Delay says, “I’m not ready to talk about this yet,” You could see how he would say that. It’s a little bit different to say, “You’re voting on this bill, we know how you’re voting on this bill, why don’t you defend your position. That’s a little more shocking.
Jonji Barber: Hi, my name is Jonji. In your opinion, who is the most interesting person you’ve ever had on the show? And what was it that interested you in that person.
Michelle Jaconi: It’s a great question; I’m interested in a lot of different people. I think a lot of times, by definition, most people in the news are curious, so I love that. I’m fascinated by a lot of our interviews. I think as far as most interesting, it sometimes has to do with the time. Probably one of the most interesting interviews ever was we had Rudi Giuliani right after he dropped out of the Hilary Senate race, and for those of us in politics, that was the race that you dreamt of, you were so excited for that race. He was diagnosed with cancer, and pulled out of the race, and we got an interview the next day. It was a huge get, it was something that was provocative, and you know it hit every button. One it was an interview that would stand the test of time, two it was something everybody wanted to see, and three it was broccoli, this is a good thing. We go to New York to do this interview, and Tim Russert had interviewed him before on his CNBC show, and had asked this one fabulous question about his father. Tim said “Before we go, Mayor Giuliani, you told me on my CNBC show that your father always taught you it is better to be feared that to be loved. Do you still hold that true?” He said, “No, Tim. My father was wrong.” It was this Shakespearean moment where you’re looking for it, here you have a complete transformation of his person that everybody knows as this strong leader saying one, I fell in love, two I got cancer, and three there are things more important then beating Hilary Clinton in the Senate race, and my dad was wrong. All of those things in this moment where there was a gasp, it was just fascinating. There are moments like that, we had Theodore McCarrick on, who’s the Cardinal who just stepped down, the Archbishop of Washington, and he was on right after September 11th. We had our Christmas show, which is traditionally one of my favorite shows of the year, and we kind of do a big thinking show. We’ve had Bill Moyers on that show in the past, just values. We had Laura Bush, Rudi Giuliani, and Cardinal McCarrick on this show in December 2001. We’re going around the table asking questions about politics, and about God and faith, and then Tim looks at Cardinal McCarrick and says, “Cardinal, how can a just God allow this to happen?” McCarrick looks at Tim and says, “Why do I get the hard questions?” It was just fabulous, that’s something where he’s just an interesting individual wrestling it, and wrestling it on television. That’s really fun, so there’s a lot of moments like that that you will just never forget on television. We had Colin Powell, which was another interview that was another interview that was just so interesting after September 11th. How did you feel on September 11th? His aids are all getting nervous, and Powell just starts getting teary eyed, and he says, “Tim is a man who grew up in the Bronx, looking at those towers and dreaming of getting out of my hole as a little man, and to not be able to defend that. As a man of the army, to not be able to defend the Pentagon, I feel like I let myself down and let American down. You just saw the weight of public service of public service on their service on their shoulders, and to me that is beautiful, these are people that are making a zillion dollars in a public sector, but they gave it up to worry about our government and the institution. Here it was a failure on all of these parts, and they’re feeling it, and you want them to feel it, we’re all feeling it. Those are the things that are most interesting to me, those things that are just a piece of history that, thanks to God, there was a camera there.
Megan Mitchell: Do you feel that Meet the Press is pressured to follow certain issues while others go un-broadcasted? And if so, is it because Americans don’t want to hear these issues? Or does the media not have the time to cover the immensity of daily world issues?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question. I think that part of that, you know there are certain things that fall out of Meet the Press, there are certain things where we will try to take a break. We did a big show on stem-cell in the middle of November, and we just thought it was an interesting issue, where we just took a break from it. We have to be true to our mission, I mean we really are a show that is made to be a public service. I’m not saying that as a talking point, it’s true, that’s what Meet the Press was there for, and it was there for your elected officials to Meet the Press. Our dictum is to get people that are beholden to you, not our viewers, our citizens, even the people who don’t watch us, people are still beholden to them, and so there are things that are happening on a daily local level that might be more decided by a mom and a pop, then an elected official. We’ll try to get those in really interesting ways, we did the Catholic Church crisis on Easter, we will try to do things in an interesting way, but when Congress is in session and your nation is at war, those things are so important to our core mission that there are things that we will miss.
Prabha Sharan: Hi I’m Prabha. Do you think the interviews you produce ever affect public policy?
Michelle Jaconi: Definitely. JFK called Meet the Press the 51st state once; there was a lot of fun things, someone from the wall street journal called it the “Best public real estate on television,” and the reason why it’s dubbed that is it does affect public policy, people do try to float things here. In the old days people would do that at Georgetown dinner parties, now the audience and the stakes are a little bit more public. A lot of times people will float things on Meet the Press, we try to get people to announce their bids on our show so we can influence people that way, we also have a Senate debate series where we won the Cronkite award for these, and we’re going to do them again this fall, we’re actually starting the Santorum-Casey, the hottest Senate race in the country, I’m so excited. We’re going to have that September 3rd on our show, so public policy debates are happening on your show. That’s fun, but definitely you see compromises being reached on our show, you know Gore-Bradley, we had that debate and Bradley said, “Let’s have a Meet the Press agreement to debate every week.” So sometimes it doesn’t happen, but there’s things floated and they do that a lot of ways. The administration puts people out on our show exactly to do that, to influence public policy.
John-Nuri Vissell: Hi I’m John. How does the viewer’s interest affect what is broadcasted in news? Does star power ever trump newsworthiness?
Michelle Jaconi: Yes, star power does trump newsworthiness sometimes. For example, I doubt so much attention would have been paid to California’s governor’s race had it not been Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example. Generally people in politics and in political media love politics and political media. We love anything that gets more people interested in politics, so nine times out of ten we want everyone to run. Charles Barkley flirting, Hilary Clinton flirting, we want every person possible into the race because that person might bring a couple of you with them interested-wise. So I think that it does happen. The first part of your question was?
John-Nuri Vissell: How does the viewer’s interest?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question too; we are actually really beholden to our viewers. We read every email, and so does Tim, we get from our viewers. Sometimes people might say, “We really want you to have this person on, or why don’t you ask this person this.” He’ll read that, and try to make that happen. This is a comic not political example, we had James Carville and Mary Madeline, you saw the funny picture at the front, we had them on once and Tim was having a little thing at the end of the show with a bear from the Buffalo Bill’s quarter back’s son had Krebs disease, and so he had given Tim a bear to show on the set, and it was our Christmas show which is typically lighter, so Tim gave the bear to one of the Carville-Madeline children. They have two daughters, Emma and Maddy, and our viewers were horrified that Tim would give a stuffed animal to one animal and not to the other. They thought it was bad parenting, and a bad example to show everybody on Christmas, so Tim the next Sunday came on and said, “For all you Grandmas who wrote in, I learned my lesson and here’s another bear that’s going to the other Carville child. It’s a funny example, but it’s true, where we’re literally reading everything that comes in to say, “Ok, this is interesting.” We also read it where it’s not as much, “I want to have this person on the show,” it might be a question of saying, “You were unfair here or not.” What we do is we stack up our negative and positive email and see whether we were too hard on President Bush or too soft on President Bush, and almost every week they’re equal, and that makes us feel good. If they’re not equal, then we’re more worried about it.
Daniel Nanas: How do you rectify it if they’re not?
Michelle Jaconi: If they’re not equal, then we seriously look through it and watch the tape again, and see if they give examples. Sometimes what happens is you can trace it to something, like Rush Limbaugh will talk about it. What is hard is a lot of people will, right now without watching the show, sometimes people will write, and it actually worries me, how much people are watching through their prism.
There was this new study at the political science conference this year saying that if you showed a negative advertisement to two people, one person that like the candidate and one person that disliked the candidate, they both left thinking stronger what they had come in thinking. If you hated John Kerry and watched this anti-ad, you left saying, “Oh, that idiot, I can’t believe he’s the candidate!” If you liked John Kerry and watched the ad, you thought “I can’t believe these people are attacking this patriot!” It was really interesting, and I think John McCain’s speech at the school where he was heckled, I think we are entering a time where people are not swaying in their position, they’re refraining from listening. That scares me, to be honest with you.
We did Bush’s announcement that he was seeking reelection in February of this campaign cycle, and it was shocking, the vitriol of our messages, first of all, that we were getting, people either thought that we had given the President the questions in advance, which we would never do, or that he had an ear piece in and we were feeding him answers, which was so strange, or that we were way to hard on him and we were abusing him in the oval office. It was amazing the range of opinions. The answer is you can’t always please, but if somebody writes a very articulate or specific, saying “When you said this, this tone was harsh,” we’ll definitely look at that and say, “Oh we’re going to watch that in the future. When the yelling is louder and mass-produced, then you’ve got to sit back and say, “A lot of these people are just yelling to yell. You’ve got to weigh that.
Seychelle deVries: I’m next. I’m Seychelle and, early last week we interviewed Eileen O’Connor, and we asked her why she retired from the news business. She said it was partially because a lot of media outlets were being bought out by corporations, and she said this kind of compromised their ability to clearly reflect on how the government and corporate runnings went. So, I was wondering if you noticed any of these type of shifts in the seeking and deliverance of news?
Michelle Jaconi: I think that’s a great question. We’re pretty lucky because our show is one of those things that they call untouchable. Tim Russert who is the moderator of our program is also Vice President of NBC, and he’s so well respected that people don’t touch anything that he’s associated with. There are only six of us, we’re such a tiny staff that people kind of leave us alone. It’s one of those things where we’re just respected and left alone. But I definitely worry about that, you see it a lot when you look at all of the veteran reporters, you know the literal, and I don’t say this to be sexist because it was true then, the boys on the bus from the campaign cycles, a lot of them were forced into retirement these years as newspapers are bought up by people who are looking at the bottom line.
They want young people to join the ranks because they are cheaper. One, you can hire them without health insurance for a while, which happens in business, I worked without health insurance when I first started. Second of all they are just a lot cheaper then somebody who has been working there for fifty years or forty years. The problem is the people who have been working there for forty years are the ones with all the insight, and they’re the ones that get it, that know when it’s cyclical, they have that gut honed. They know the broccoli from the crap, you know. It scares me a lot when you, all of a sudden, these people you respect, people that are on our round table, people that you just look up to that you grew up reading in your classes, they’re all being asked to retire.
That scares me probably more so then, what I think a lot of academics, which is true and it happens in different places, worry more about saying, “This is a corporate interest, don’t report hard facts on GE, or something like that.” I see less of that then I see of the reverse, and I think that the media is so huge right now, there are so many outlets, that if you’re not allowed to attack that company, there’s another outlet that can. I’m less worried about it in that sense as I’m more worried about people cutting costs.
CBS News in the last election cycle, when we were following all the candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, didn’t, they sent in a person at the end, for just the night of the Iowa caucus, which was the first time they had been in Iowa. And you think, “You’re one of the big three? You have that many viewers and the first you’re coming the Presidential race is the day of the caucus? Not saying they covered it remotely, but it’s a whole different thing then to be on the bus and to get to know the people and to cover it. Believe me everybody at CBS would rather have been there, but it’s just a matter of all these places cutting funding. NBC, I’m so proud, opened a bureau in New Orleans for Katrina coverage, that is so expensive to do, but you look at it and we had two debates on the Mayoral Conference for NBC. That’s huge, and so I’m more worried about them saying, “You can’t cover that,” or “We’re not going to send you on the bus we’re just going to fly you in for the speech.” You miss all the behind the scenes stuff, that’s what scares me most.
Jeremy Thweatt: Are there important issues that the media should be focusing on today that aren’t being covered?
Michelle Jaconi: Of course, the answer to that question will always be yes. I think one of the really interesting issues is technology, and that’s a hard issue to cover. I think technology tends to be covered by technology reporters for technology lovers. Technology is changing all of our lives so immensely; I think it’s starting to be covered a little bit more because of the intersection with privacy. Privacy is one of those things that, again, I think is at a changing ground, and I just feel that technology and privacy are the two issues where the most is happening that a hundred years from now they will look at this time and say, “Look at how much developed in those years. They’re both issues that are hard to cover, and I wrestle with how I cover those and what shows are best for covering those. Those are the two issues that probably had the most life changing effects.
Megan Mitchell: You said earlier that people watch Meet the Press because they trust him, and they trust that if he says it’s important to watch these people, that really it is important. Is it really Tim that has the choice of who goes on, or is it decided by other people in the background?
Michelle Jaconi: Tim definitely has the final say on everything, we are such a tiny show that it’s not like any other entity, it’s not like we’re talking to, there’s seriously six of us. That’s it, we’re a little family and we work seven days a week. It’s really, really, small but Tim doesn’t make the phone calls, usually I’ll make the phone calls or Betsy, usually two of us will make the phone calls because I don’t like Tim to be in a position where, if he’s asking you to be on the show, then you might say, here let’s talk about topics or something. Tim would never do that, he’d say, “I’m going to divulge anything we’re going to talk about.”
Just to avoid that awkwardness, it’s a lot better to have somebody else make that phone call. He definitely, if he said “Oh I don’t want to have that person on, I’d rather cover this topic,” I know him well enough and it’s my job to say, “I think we need a younger voice here, or I think we need a different voice on this, and we can have that give and take, but he’s my boss and if he says, “I disagree with you,” then he disagrees with me and he wins. But I definitely have been here long enough and I’m comfortable enough to say, “Listen, I think we have to do something on X, and most times he probably will agree with me, but if overrules me his ruling stands.
Sadanand Maillard: There was an interesting thing, we were trying to back ground you, and there are a lot of places that you’re on the web, you know, “Michelle Jaconi produced this, produced this, and produced this,” but actually to find out about you, the only thing that was up there was that you got married in 2002. We looked quite a bit. I guess what I’m curious about is do you sometimes feel, because of your position as a producer, and somebody who has some say in what goes on, do you get objectified by people? You know this town; it’s sometimes hard to know who your friends are.
Michelle Jaconi: Oh definitely, I think that there are a couple of things. One, there are times where, you know Matt Drudge once put my email address on with thirty other email addresses because I’m one of the people that would get Hilary Clinton’s schedule. All of a sudden I would get two hundred thousand a day from people I didn’t know. Things like that will happen, you know MoveOn.org gave my personal number once, and yes there are things like that where it happens and you are pointed.
Part of me, I like that and when I’m angry about something I’m a letter writer, so I don’t like to turn down people who aren’t. If people call on the mainline at Meet the Press, I will answer it and if there are questions in the email box about, “Why did you have this person on?” or, for example, people were mad we didn’t have Stephen Colbert on after the White House correspondence dinner. We actually asked Stephen Colbert, he said yes, and then he turned us down, so we got all this angry email. I was more then happy to answer the email and say, “Actually, you can tell your friend Stephen Colbert that he should have come on because he had agreed to, we asked him, so don’t be mad at me!”
I’m more then happy to defend our show and talk about that, I think that definitely when I am out in Washington people know who I am, so I am very careful. I am incredibly, incredibly in the middle and independent. I don’t think there is any way I could do my job, my job is to find flaws in people’s arguments, or find holes in them, I’ve shot everything down, so it would be impossible for me to ever declare a political party because I have so many faults with both of them. I’m not one of those people that struggles with objection, but I’m very opinionated person about everything in life, but as far as being politically partisan, I don’t have to worry about that. I do have to worry when I am out; you don’t want say, “Oh that person will never be in the show,” because you could be talking to their communications director, or something. Washington is a very small town, so I definitely act with decorum and respect everywhere I am because I know I represent an institution, I’m proud to.
Andrea Schmitt: I was wondering, if you were look for somebody to take your job, what qualities would you look for?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question, I think that the one thing about the News business, it truly is, at the lower levels, and I’m not saying it isn’t at the higher levels, but definitely at the lower levels, it’s a meritocracy. You’re not going to find that everywhere. You really get ahead by working hard, for two years of my life I have no pictures, I have no fond memories, I lived in this building gand worked just ungodly hours, but I loved. I think that the most important thing is one, diligence, two, attention to detail, and accuracy is combined in that. It’s not just being accurate, it’s being pedantic. People can not believe how much we check things. We check things so much, and all original sources. Do you know how long that takes? That’s why we work seven day weeks, if there is an error on our show it will kill me for years, I will have nightmares about it forever. We really are nerds at heart, and we care about everything so much.
The third thing, I think that for the best career advice anyone could give, and definitely somebody I would look to in replacing me, is somebody that enjoys what they are doing. If you enjoy what you are doing, you are so much better at it. If you’re passionate about it, there is no way you could do this job for eight and a half years; you know everyone says, “You work in the television business! That’s so glamorous!” I said, “How about next Saturday night you come home and set your alarm for three a.m., you dress up, get in a suit, and be at work at four a.m. and tell me, “Do you think you’re glamorous?” That’s what I do, and I’ve done it for eight and a half years, and it doesn’t bother me. I still do it, you say good bye to your Saturday nights. Our interns who are a little bit older then you, they come in at five in the morning on Sunday mornings and Xerox, I Xerox too, I get covered with copier paper. It’s not a glamorous job, but I love it, and I think that is what makes me good.
Alyssa Debenedetti: A common theme in our interviews this week has been about the degradation of language. How do you think the press adds to this current development of our language, and do you think it is possible to use the media to change this language?
Michelle Jaconi: It’s a great, great question. John McCain spoke at New School University in New York, and I was just thinking about this, I’ve been thinking about it in the back of my head but that kind of brought it to the forefront, for those of you who aren’t aware, John McCain gave a speech at New School University, which is Bob Carey’s University in New York. There were a lot of protesters, which was expected, and McCain’s speech was a little polemical, anyway it wasn’t a standard graduation speech, it was a pretty campaign-on-the-war speech. What was really interesting was the tone of the protesters, including one protester who shouted, “You are a war criminal, and a traitor to this country!” Now, he’s yelling that to somebody who was in prison and tortured for this country, and for that person’s right to speech and where do you go from there? After you call someone a traitor, once you call somebody out for treason, I don’t know where our language can go from there.
It shocks me, it saddens me, and it disgusts me. I had one professor at Georgetown grad school said he would always vote for the candidate that had the best speech patterns, and I thought it was so funny at the time. He said, “Oh, I’m for Alan Keyes for President, for example,” these people who were just great orators, and he says, “Because I am so concerned about the lasting effect of language, and the degradation of language.” I really do think about it often, it’s hard because it is newsworthy, you know Senator Durbin comparing a contemporary issue to the gulag, he compared Guantanamo Bay to I think it was the gulag. You say, “What Bush is doing is treasonous!” If you said that as an elected official that is newsworthy because it’s just shocking.
But unfortunately Moynahan, one of his great legacies was he had this term called “Defining deviancy down.” He used it in difference contexts, but I think you can definitely use it in language, or definitely look at what is being marketed to you guys. Once you have Janet Jackson’s breasts exposed on live television, where do you go from there? What can be more shocking then that? Once you called somebody a traitor to the country, what is worse than that? Where do you go? That’s saddening, and frankly it’s disgusting. I don’t know, and what scares me the most is when you see that happening to John Kerry or John McCain, these people that gave service to their country.
I don’t care what think about them politically, but all I thought about was let’s say my little brother was in Iraq, or let’s say you were there. Is he going to have to sit there before he runs and look around at other people, are you all of the same political party? Are you going to attack me in thirty years? Are you going to say what I’m doing was to get a medal? That scares me. It scares me for people who are entering the armed service, for the people it’s keeping out of public service. I think we’re going to get people that are just carbon copy-cookie cutter-plain Jane’s running for office if we keep pushing out people for everything.
Sadanand Maillard: Can anybody handle the distinctions of language question that dovetails? You’re talking about hyperbole on one level, where we’ve amplified our language to the point where there’s no place to go, but what about the distinctions of language question from Derek Walcott? This is a test!
Daniel Nanas: The question that Moyers asked?
Sadanand Maillard: Yes, but what happened?
Daniel Nanas: Yes, I’m curious to know what happens to a culture with the degradation of the distinctions of language, what are the effects?
Sadanand Maillard: What did Derek Walcott tell Bill Moyers when he asked the question?
Daniel Nanas: It withers.
Michelle Jaconi: I hope that’s not the answer, but I think is in part the truth. Once your language goes, so do you definitely. I think it’s really interesting, I think what is interesting too is you saw in the end of the immigration debate, it was a little covered, I’m sure you guys were here so you probably heard some of it about English as a national language. I know that’s a separate issue and that’s a jump in my mind, because that’s what I do I jump politically, but that I think is a direct reaction to people feeling threatened by the loss of the English language.
I would not be surprised if we had a candidate in ’08 who ran on that. There was a story on the front page of the New York Times, “One out of five children born in the United States is a Caucasian. I think that people are going to run on lumping together all this fear of loss of identity. I think you will have an isolationist ticket all on that saying, “We’re losing everything.” Part of it is hard because part of it is the American experience that is beautiful and jumping culture together, but part of it is coming in from different directions saying, “Do we really have a national language? And the answer before this is we haven’t, and so our national language is the American experience it keeps changing.
Again, as I guess Heather’s speech is a speech I listened to too, if not us then who? If you don’t demand better quality lexicon, if you don’t go out there and speak with better English, again ‘better’ is a subjective term. I never really watched the West Wing, but I saw one episode on Jet Blue coming back and I kind of wish I had watched it because it was really good, but it was about trying to say, “Should we dumb down our campaign thought, and they were trying to convince the candidate to put their campaign slogans in three word sentences. He says, “I think I can hold on to the American people for longer then three words.” It was this great moment where he bucks his advisors and of course goes on to win.
I think people do rally to that, and say, “I trust that person and I really enjoy listening to them.” I don’t know if it’s going to be through National Public Radio or what, what medium are people going to listen to? A lot of language, as you probably have learned, comes from families. Say you look at your parents, say you look at your brothers and sisters and what they listen to, that is where so much of language comes from. I think it’s a huge problem for every single one of us, and I think the media, obviously with such a broad audience, is definitely part of that.
John-Nuri Vissell: We watched Meet the Press yesterday with Condoleezza Rice, and at the end of the interview she was asked about her favorite Ipod song. It seems like that kind of a tactic is used to get people interested, people that aren’t interested in the news, maybe that’s a way to get people to tune in. Is there a way to keep people interested in issues with deviating from that?
Michelle Jaconi: I think that is a great question. Sometimes, for that question, I don’t think it would be enough to gain views. At that point in the interview I don’t think enough people would say, “Oh, I bet he’s going to ask her about his, I’m going to turn to that channel,” but what is interesting is that it stuck for you. The reason why I still think it is important for a show like ours to have questions like that every once and a while, is because it reminds you, the Secretary of State is a person. She is a person, she is human. She’s like you and I, she listens to music.
I know that sounds really strange, but I think especially in politics we tend demonize or lionize these people into realms that either robotic or comic. These roles, like you at Cheney for example. People don’t think of him as a loving father. What’s interesting is Mary Cheney this book out and she says, “My father embraced me when I told him I was gay.” That is something that people were just shocked because you stop thinking about these people in personal terms, and I think especially at the end of an interview it’s kind of fun to say, “Let’s take a break from this policy and remember that this person is human, just like you and I.” It gives you an insight into their mind that the rest of their talking points wouldn’t, and so it kind of gets them off their normal preparation track so you get a really real smile. It’s a good way to shake up an interview.
Jonji Barber: We talked with John Lewis, and he told us to start trouble, to get in the way, to agitate for change. What do you think the reporter’s job is? Do you think it’s their duty to agitate?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s an interesting thought. Media loves troublemakers, first of all. Loves them. They’re so fun to cover, they’re pushing the envelope, changing the world, so yes you will definitely be covered if you make trouble, I can’t wait. As far as the media itself making trouble, I think that is a really great question. After Watergate people really thought that was the media’s main role, is to make trouble. I don’t think the media as a whole’s main role is to make trouble. I don’t. I think that yes we are going to be a thorn in the fly of every public official ever, and that, I guess, is a reason to take pride.
You’re saying, “I’m a reminder to you that we’re holding you accountable for your record.” I don’t necessarily think it’s the same thing as trouble. I think that muckrakers, you know Woodward and Bernstein definitely made trouble, but I think what made them good and made them different from a lot of their followers was that a lot of their purpose was not to make trouble. They didn’t go out say, “We’re going to bring down a President!” and if they had, and in fact they mentioned once in the news room, “God, this might bring down the President!” They were pulled aside by Bill Bradley and said “Never are you to mention that again.” That’s how important it was, to say, “If that happens, it can’t happen and look like you wanted it to happen, or you made it happen, it has to happen because of the facts.
Now the CSI mantra, follow the evidence, I think that’s interesting and it shows how much Hollywood can affect an industry. All the President’s men, the movie, probably affected the industry of the press corps more then any other single piece of journalism. The Washington Post covered Watergate for years without anyone paying attention. In all honesty, Deepthroat was a really small part of the Watergate reporting.
It was not until he was mythologized by the movie that all of a sudden Deepthroat became the biggest part of the denouement of Nixon. When, if you really go back and read the reporting, there were so many other corroborating sources that Deepthroat was tiny. It was definitely a lot of fun, and it was fun to have it mythologized, and probably made journalism so much more exciting, but Robert Redford probably did more for journalism then anything. I think that it shouldn’t be a journalist’s job to make trouble; I think it could be an effect of a good journalist, but not necessarily the reason behind what they’re doing.
Sadanand Maillard: We’re going to see Congressman Dingell this afternoon, God willing, and the votes and everything else allowed, committee hearings, for someone like that, what kind of questions would you drive? He’s been in the house for fifty-two years.
Michelle Jaconi: He’s an institution, and truly and institution. One of the fun secrets in Washington is that once you get to a certain level of either workhorsiness or longevity, you are respected by both political parties. I think that it is so fun to ask those people what it was like on their first day of work, versus their last day of work. Ask them little questions like that. There used to be no security. Even in this building here when I started there was no security. Just the security changes is interesting, the technology changes are interesting. In fact in the old days, I, as a constituent, and this even happened when Governor Bush was running for Texas because the state laws were so relaxed there, people could come up to you and hand you a bag of cash, and it happened on the Capitol Hill steps.
There are so many things that are so recent. Women were not allowed to wear pants on the Hill until the 70’s! These are all very recent changes; it’s just such a different world. Once you get that person, it’s just like your grandparents if they’re still alive. Ask them what it was like in those days, what was it like on September the 11th, what did you do? Did you call your family first? Or were you ushered to a bunker? Those personal, little questions about day to day activities can tell so much, and especially when you get to the institutional people like Bob Byrd or Dingell, it’s just so fun to see how they think things have changed the most, especially if you ask really specific questions. Specific questions are hard to give a standard answer to, that’s why you ask, “What was your first day of Congress like?” “When were you most nervous?”
If you ask these really specific things, they’re kind of thrown off. They can’t go into their typical speech about how great it is to represent their state. I always tell people who come in from different states that one of the fun little secrets is that in the Senate Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy are two of the best loved Senators by all parties. It’s just fun. People are not expecting to hear that, because they’re just great figures for fundraising for Republicans, but they’re actually really loved by Republicans. Its fun when you talk to the people that really get that a lot of the polarization is a game, and he knows that. He will definitely be saddened by it; I think the language question will be interesting for him, because he has a unique experience on that as well.
Sadanand Maillard: In what sense?
Michelle Jaconi: What’s fun is that, if you took the Congressional Record from Friday to years ago when he first started, the issues were so different and just the language was very different. I think more so then even Congress; it’s running for Congress that’s changed. Now they call it the permanent campaign, and Dingell is in an interesting position because he’s so entrenched he’s kind of removed from having to worry about reelection constantly. He still sees that, you can get an honest answer if you ask him how much of his time is spent fundraising. Ask him a question like that.
We had a great outgoing interview with Senator Tom Daschle and Don Nichols, and they had a really candid discussion about how that has changed in the last forty years and how much more time of your time is spent asking for money, then it is making policy. I’m sure if you ask him about his proudest moment, which legislation is he most proud to have worked on, and ask him what he was most ashamed of. See if you can get him to answer on that. A lot of that shame comes from how beholden they are to money.
Sadanand Maillard: How are we doing with you as far as specificity?
Michelle Jaconi: You’re great, you’re very good! I’m sad you’re not all future journalists, because you ask all really good questions.
Sadanand Maillard: How about your questions on your show? You spend a lot of time thinking about questions?
Michelle Jaconi: Tim is really the architect of each specific question, so it depends on who is hosting the show. Tim is so good that we will talk over topics, and what we do is we organize our show by graphics, because if it were Tim’s first show then you would get more specific, but now what we do is we have an outline with the graphics that we do. Graphics, I’m sure you’re familiar with because of yesterday’s show, good homework, but we will find they’re a perfect segue to change topics. When Tim says, “Let us show our viewers at home on the screen what you said,” that really is our time to panic and make sure we’re showing you viewers at home the right thing on the screen.
Any given time, like when we interviewed President Bush, we had twenty pages of graphics, where there’s probably sixty two graphics that we prepared for that interview, and he could go to any one, because we’re an unscripted show. You’ve no idea which one he’s going to, but you’re hoping it kind of follows an outline that you do topic-wise, so that you don’t have to scroll through sixty-two one’s to put it up. We try to get it up as quickly as possible, so we will try to say, “Ok, we’ll start in Iraq, lets go through Iraq, if we get an answer right away we’ll go on to the next topic which will be immigration, so we’ll come up with things that way. What makes Tim great, and what makes the show stressful but great, is that we’ll switch whenever we need to.
We might blow past a graphic, we might go back, but it’s a little hairy because just like you saw that control room downstairs where they had nineteen graphics on display, and another fifty waiting, just waiting to be put up there, and so we’re sometimes screaming in the control room, “Get us this graphic!” then they will put it up, and we can go to it. If you see a little lag-time you know I had a bad morning.
Edison Dudoit: Your show seems somewhat improvisational; does that add some excitement to the show that gives you the edge on your competitors?
Michelle Jaconi: I think it’s a very fine balance, but I think if you have a completely scripted outline, you only make news when they want to make news, but if you’re listening for that hole, and sometimes what we do to is we’ll say, just like you did when you read me a quote and asked for me to expand on that, then I couldn’t answer by giving you that same quote. I would have to come up with new language, so that’s one of our little tricky tricks that we’ll say, “You said this already, why don’t you respond on this?” They can’t say the same little talking point that they researched and hashed out for forty minutes to make sure that their language didn’t give away too much, but gave away a little.
We say “Explain it,” and then they say, “Oh god, why did I think that and what can I tell them?” And they have to do it live, so it’s fun and it becomes part of Meet the Press’s cachet. I still remember one of my favorite moments on the trail in Iowa, I walk into this speech and Howard Dean is giving this speech, and he stops, I’m with all the reporters, there are all these different reporters, but I am tall and I had signed in so Howard Dean knew that I was there and somebody from Meet the Press was there, and so he makes a joke and then he stops, and goes, “Oh God, Meet the Press is here. That’s going to be a future graphic,” and he left, and he said, “I have to watch what I say.” I was proud because you know, that’s exactly why we’re here, is to make sure that you are beholden to your word.
Yes the improvisational nature is fun, sometimes we might have a speech from 1960, you know we did with Ted Kennedy the other day, and he goes, “Where did you dig that up? Why did you bring that up this time?” So it’s a little bit of the fun is saying, “We do that,” and that’s why we’re this tiny little unit that is very secretive, because we’re very proud of that nature. We also have the treasure trove, since we’ve been on we have tape of Fidel Castro, we have tape of everybody. We a great Meet the Press Minute with Yassir Arifat that you could hardly recognize, so we have such a treasure trove of old material to go back to that the competition is really jealous of that.
Edison Dudoit: It seems like your section can have a lot of fun with the surprise element.
Michelle Jaconi: Definitely, but its different then a “Gotcha!” element. We’re not trying to say, “Aha!” If they are completely shocked and they don’t say anything, that really isn’t good. Let’s say a plane got shot down in Iraq right before they came in, we would probably tell our guest that. We’d say, “Just so you know, this wire just came in, and a plane was shot down. It’s not really good for them to be on our air and say, “I haven’t read that yet, I don’t know about that.” We’d rather have them say, “I heard about that, I actually made a phone call, and I talked to the Secretary of State, and she said this. It’s not always a “Gotcha!” We do try to keep them on their toes, so you’re right there.
Nina Castanon: Like you mentioned, in some of your older shows there have been interviews with people like Eleanor Roosevelt and Fidel Castro. I was wondering, does each show that is coming out, the newer ones, do they have to compete with the older ones, and the people that you interviewed?
Michelle Jaconi: That’s a great question, I think we’re very, very, aware and very proud of the mantle that we carry, and so we try, obviously we’re at a time when all the debates are so important, and when your nation is at war it’s hard to take a break from that. I look at our war interviews and say, “Those are going to be on our wall,” we did an interview from Camp David, the first live interview from Camp David on September 16th 2001, you know five days after 9/11, and Cheney described being carried out of his office when the tower was hit. That is a time capsule piece, which is something I would want to show my grandchildren one day. I think that there is things that we do definitely, and we say “This is a keeper,” and I actually do, I keep a little log book where I remember things and say, “Note, XYZ happened.” We have pictures in our office, and I always try to think about what’s the one that I would wan to put on the Meet the Press wall, the one that we would be most proud of that way.
Sadanand Maillard: We actually have something similar, because we’ve been taping for a long time. We have Diane Feinstein coming into her office after the vote for the gun control bill, that passed by one vote, or Craig Kelly who handed the note to Colin Powell that the first tower had been hit, so sometimes just walking around this town you find yourself, we saw John Lewis after he got arrested for the Sudan protest.
Michelle Jaconi: Making trouble!
Sadanand Maillard: As he says the “Good and necessary kind,” but it’s interesting in this you do stand in the field of history, and what an incredible thing to do.
Michelle Jaconi: All of you here, one of the best beats in the world is Capitol Hill, and you just see walking around doing your interviews today, but you’ll look at people that are dressed just like you, maybe a couple years older, and they’re covering Capitol Hill for roll call, or the hill, and those papers are basically college papers, but they bring so much news because you have so much access to these people. The other fun thing is look around when you are in Dingell’s office, Dingell’s office has probably got more career then other office, but you look and the people that are writing the legislation that’s ruling this land are like your older brothers or sisters, not too much older. It’s amazing how much young people are doing in this town, it’s so fun. You’re walking around with history left and right.
Daniel Nanas: I hope we’ll be in Congressman Dingell’s office, so far we haven’t been in the Congressional office, we’ve been in vacant rooms.
Michelle Jaconi: It’s hard because you’re a big group, and Congressional offices are very small, like ridiculously small, and honestly 90% of them are taken up by mail. It’s amazing. Especially Californian’s, Boxer actually gets the most mail of anybody in the Senate. Fun little California fact of the day.
Sadanand Maillard: Given what I see with you and how much you enjoy it, what part of you, at their age, what characteristics, and to lead the question in sounds like mischief, what were the things of you as a kid that you maybe got in a little bit of trouble for, but turned out to be really useful things in your job now?
Michelle Jaconi: I always have been a devil’s advocate. I always like to argue the unpopular position, and I didn’t realize at a young age, I got along fabulously with my parents, I still do, I’m saying I was like, “Curfew or not a curfew?” But I would love to argue things, because I truly believe that no belief unquestioned is worth having. I truly ask you to wrestle with the most founded, even free speech for example, one of my favorite debates ever I worked for a paper at Georgetown called the Georgetown Voice. It was a protest paper, and we were given an advertisement, and it happens perennially, but when we were there we were given an advertisement by a man who claimed the holocaust never happened.
They gave the ad to the two papers at Georgetown. One was The Voice, which was a more provocative newspaper, and La Hoya, which was the straight news paper. La Hoya said, “No, we won’t run it,” and we decided, we’re going to run the ad and do the whole issue on what did happen in the holocaust, because this person has a right to free speech but we have a right to educate, because if this person is active lets do this. It was really interesting, and it sparked this whole debate on campus. Of course then the nightly news and all these people covered that the Georgetown Voice published this ad, that’s all they covered, so I was so frustrated saying, “You didn’t talk about our great issue!” We had a really good debate about whether free speech was a good idea or not. It ended up being this fabulous debate, and if you think about it, you think “Who would argue against free speech?” The answer was, there was only like two of us that would take the case, and I liked all the challenges, but it was fun and one of the things we said was, “Think about the times that you were most hurt in your life.” You wouldn’t say when I broke my arm, you couldn’t remember that, but you could remember hurtful words, and you could bring back those tears or that pain in your heart from those, and it was just a fun thought leave people with.
It wasn’t like we truly thought speech should be stifled, but it made it for fun to stop and think about the power of your words. In a way, by taking the other side, I think we helped the cause of thinking about speech more then ever. I was definitely a provocateur, in college, if you go back to some of my professors; I was that person that they would just hate. One because I always talked in class, always, but number two because I would take the controversial argument. We had probably my most troublemaking experience, I had this one class that was taught by a Woman Studies professor, basically the whole class was about Russo, and how Russo basically subjugated women.
I wrote a whole defense about how Russo thought that a woman should raise a child, which was the most important role in society, and how respected women were more then anything, because raising a young citizen was the most important thing. She gave me an A, and wrote, “A, begrudgingly.” That was my proudest troublemaking moment. But yes, I urge you to challenge yourself, especially while in school, that’s what you’re there for. I wrote another paper, there was this great debate about how using sports analogies in war reporting was a bad idea, and I wrote a defense of it saying that it actually helped people understand something that was far away. I’m not saying believe something you don’t believe, but pretend to for a little bit and see if you learn something about the other side. I think you will come up with a greater respect for what you truly believe, but also a greater respect for your opponents if you let yourself have that intellectual experiment.
Sadanand Maillard: I suspected there was something in there, or you wouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. Let’s just go to the closer guys.
Casey Lightner: My name Casey. We were wondering, what is the most important advice that you could give to our generation?
Michelle Jaconi: I think that is just a great question. I really believe in the mantra “To whom much is given much is expected,” I think that probably the younger generation always forgets how short life is, and how short your time is. When John Lewis was saying “Make trouble,” I say “Make trouble now!” Your time is truly now, and the thing though, because you made it specific to your generation, make informed trouble. Think before you speak, and think before you act. Be an educated consumer of news and information. What was interesting when McCain was being heckled as a war criminal, he had this smile on his face and he said, “I, too, had the arrogance of youth.” He just stopped, and it was a very, very poignant statement. You can make trouble without being arrogant; you can make trouble while being informed.
There is a tendency for the people who scream loudest to know the least. You don’t necessarily have to scream, I think that the way your generation is discounted is one when it doesn’t vote, and two when it doesn’t research. If you do those things, if you actively participate as a citizen, as a consumer of news and of information, as a checkbook consumer, you’re the courted demographic, you have a lot of power if you choose to use it wisely. Really use your youth wisely, but I think that the way that you can do that without being ignored is to do it in an informed way.