John Dickerson Reveals the Secrets to His Writing Success in a Reddit AMA

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 9 2013 8:15 AM

Sunflower Seeds and Soda Water

John Dickerson reveals the secrets to his writing success in a Reddit AMA.

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John Dickerson: I think it makes me a better journalist in that I am more in touch with readers. It shreds my attention though which is a big downside. Also the trolls get to me. It encourages people to be mean and act without empathy. We need more empathy, not less, in conversation. I really like the ability to convey mood and scene of those stories I report on out of the office. Weigel did a great job with this on his recent trip to the border.

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The_Realest_Ninja: Do you find it hard to be objective in today's polarized debates?

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John Dickerson: Yes and no. In a way we're better off because there are so many experts and advocates providing information so you can get more views, but the swarm makes it hard to sort it all. Objectivity gets a bad rap because people think it's mindless and lacks engagement with the issue. It should get that rap. I think fairness is what I try to provide: look at both sides and try to make a call based on some kid of reason, reporting and practical hunches about the world.

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Supergauntlet: A lot of news these days is heavily influenced by the need for ratings. How do you think that network news could be forced or incentivized to be more objective and less sensationalized?

John Dickerson: I work for CBS but one of the reasons I do is that from “CBS This Morning” to the “Evening News” to “Face the Nation” all of the people running those shows have a low tolerance for b.s. stories that are just about ratings. They care about ratings to be sure but having watched them argue about coverage I can tell you that the important stories win out over the sensationalist ones. They think that's the route to ratings. I do too.

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T-Sauce: There has been a lot of criticism from political scientists and number crunchers like Nate Silver towards political journalists, especially those over at Politico, over not just over-hyped horse-race coverage, but exaggerated narratives, over-reliance on single polls, and more recently, the bully pulpit and Obama's power to persuade and twist legislators' arms. Do you think that the recent trend of big-data combined with media figures like Nate Silver and consistent criticism from political scientists will have any effect, moving forward, on political journalism?

John Dickerson: I sure hope so. I've been criticized myself. Sometimes with good reason! There are a lot of old folk tales. A lot of them are told by political professionals so we sometimes report them as the word of God, BUT part of our job is telling a story about what happened in front of our eyes that day. Different stories do different things. Some of the political scientist critiques minimize that important context.

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Moosetastrophe: If you had to work at a different news organization, which would it be?

John Dickerson: The BBC. I say this mostly because I'd hope they'd move me to London.

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Colfaxschuyler: I think you would make a great Press Secretary. If offered, would you take the job? Why or why not?

John Dickerson: Thanks for asking. I would make a horrible Press Secretary. I can't keep secrets. That's why I'm a reporter. I've been offered jobs in both Republican and Democratic administrations but have turned them down though I would like to serve in some way at some point in my life.

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TurboVerbal: Would you rather fight 1,000 David Plotz-sized pandas or one panda-sized David Plotz? Don't you dare say yes and no or I'll make you fight Bully Bazelon!

John Dickerson: I think I'd take the army of pandas because they seem easily confused. My daughter showed me a red panda that was totally thrown up for grabs by a pumpkin. I should think that under the right conditions some hand gestures might make the entire army fall over and nap.
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Tufu2006: What was your biggest dispute with a copy editor?

John Dickerson: I have them all the time because I'm a mess with this here language. I remember once getting in a fight with a colleague at Time over the word "gravitas" I thought it was a cliché. Still do.