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.

BIO_dickerson-john-2011

Slate’s chief political correspondent and CBS Political Director John Dickerson responded to questions Wednesday about his work schedule, his writing tactics, and the struggle to stay objective during an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit. This transcript has been edited for clarity.

tmerri4: I've always wondered what working for a magazine like Slate actually looks like. For instance, how often do you go to the office? I'd like to imagine you and David standing at the water cooler chatting, but that seems unlikely. Do you normally work/write from home? Are you constantly on the road or just during campaign season?

John Dickerson: Plotz stands high above the rest of us on a tower made of the bones of his defeated foes. He picks favorites so while most of us must kneel in a constant state of supplication, there are some like Emily who seem to be able to do any damn thing she wants. She has a team of assistants that would populate a hotel courtesy van and all they do mostly is get her salad and witty endings to her sentences. Also it is required that everyone drink Fresca, which can really do the body a mischief over time.

This is all a lie. I was on the road forever during the campaign and saw neither my colleagues or family. Now I write from home because my books are here but I go into the office 3-4 times a week. It's a fun place with lots of hallway conversation which is better than working at home, but it's a tiny bit more distracting.

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Crickontour: Which TV show would you say provides a more realistic view of D.C. politics, House of Cards or The West Wing?

John Dickerson: False choice! I think West Wing but only because its distorted view of reality is less distorted. Original House of Cards is great though.

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Greslater04: What is your favorite lede that you have ever written?

John Dickerson: Of my own? What a great question. The lede to my mom's eulogy "This is the hardest assignment my Mom's ever given me" is one that isn't a favorite but was helpful because that was so hard to write. This one was a little too clever but still... "Is a shoe-throwing journalist who tries to undermine authority a sabot auteur or a saboteur?"

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IAmNoHorse: How much preparation do you put into the Gabfest each week? David, Emily and you all speak so eloquently about the issues, but it still retains the feeling of a natural dialogue. Do you have prepared remarks in mind going in, and if so, how often do you deviate from your talking points based on the natural progression of the discussions?

John Dickerson: More and more preparation. We email and have a brief chat beforehand but then we never try to argue things out beforehand for fear of leaving our best stuff out of the show. There are no real talking points other than the ones David has to keep the show on track.

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Rustytire: I think a big problem with how we evaluate the job our political leaders are doing is that we tend to ignore the big picture politics. I think questions of President Obama's leadership abilities are a great example of how much people tend to ignore the greater context.

For one, we have divided government. Republicans own the house, and Democrats [own] the Senate and the Presidency. Next, the parties who hold Congress aren't even on the same page with what they want. Third, earmarks have been banned so there's no ability to sweeten a deal. And so on and so on.

So I guess my question is: Do you agree and what can we do about it? The public is so turned off to government, that no one's paying attention. It's just depressing.

John Dickerson: I've written a lot about this. I think we do miss the bigger picture and context.

All the things you mention contribute. Still: I think you can understand context and recognize that president Obama and his team are not very good at Congressional relations. Would it matter? Not sure. Hasn't been tried. Also: we judge leaders on results not the best explanation of all the problems they face. Great leaders create new pathways. That sounds ridiculous and I'm very sympathetic to how impossible that sounds, but I think to be an accurate judge we have to a) understand the context correctly and b) find a way to accurately articulate and measure for that x factor in leadership that has made certain leaders great. Mostly that x factor has been to find a solution when none seemed available.

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Woollams812: Where do you see the greatest value in the content you create? Is your best work in writing, podcasts, or other media?

John Dickerson: I think it depends on the information I'm trying to deliver. I think that we do a lot of good work on the podcast because people know us and can take in information in an easy way—it's more direct. I think sometimes there are certain stories I can only tell in print. The long-form pieces I worked on are like that. And some of the more complicated arguments I try to make require words and patience, but on TV I think you can make a big difference if you can get across an idea and deliver a perspective that helps people frame the crazy world going on around them.

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Robobear82: How do you balance your responsibilities between CBS and Slate? That seems like a high tightrope.

John Dickerson: It requires a lot of patience from my kids and wife. My bosses are great. The voice of my Slate pieces, which are sometimes argumentative or preachy or jokey, can sound discordant in certain places on CBS so I try to watch it. I don't change what I think but like any sane person I think about how I convey it to audiences who arrive with different expectations. If you come looking for breakfast and a guy offers you a spicy taco it is confusing.

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Tufu2006: How do you turn on your focus for writing? Do you have a routine or favorite food/drink, etc. to help you?

John Dickerson: I write early in the morning. Coffee! Later in the day it’s sunflower seeds and soda water. I need a deadline later in the day to give me focus for writing. I'm a mess. When I was writing my book I spent the afternoon reading and outlining because my writing is shot. I'd like to meditate more but I am not as disciplined as I'd like.

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Soaringrocks: One of my great frustrations with political debate is a disconnect between facts and positioning. Global warming, evolution become political footballs where too many news organizations treat it as a balancing act when they report issues. How do you deal with this conundrum?

John Dickerson: It's one of my great frustrations too. I think there are two solutions. One, work harder to convey more facts even in political stories. A lot of times what holds up policy progress are political fights so explaining those is crucial to helping people understand what's going on. And sometimes once you're done with that you don't have time or space to explain the policy. But that's no excuse. I am somewhat surprised that the web hasn't given us a better way to deal with policy—a common set of facts outlined in a way that helps us get through them. I've tried to take cracks at this and I'm not good enough to do it but there are people out there who are. I'd like someone to give me and five other journalists a million dollars and ask us to solve this problem.

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Crickontour: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see about people’s perception of the political process?

John Dickerson: That people are all horrible hacks. They are in a lot of cases. And there are some awful people involved. But a lot of people get into politics because they have really strong faith in this country and in their community and they want to help. I also think that members of Congress are actually more friendly toward one another than we might think. I also think that we think what we see matters the most. Most of what we see is just fringe. The important stuff in campaigns and governing we never see.

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13374L: What's the biggest or most important political issue that you don't think anyone is paying attention to? What's being completely overshadowed by drone strikes and the sequester?

John Dickerson: Inequality. We're losing vast portions of our country. People without jobs and without means of digging out.

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SaturatedPhats: Any advice for a struggling freelancer?

John Dickerson: Advice: take any writing assignment and create a blog and write, write, write. Write short mostly but also try long and keep at it. Try to match certain styles and then try different forms. Try writing a news story as a poem and then a poem as a news story. Mostly, just write. And never let anyone tell you no.

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Bullcocks: Can I touch your hair or must I come to a live Gabfest to do that?

John Dickerson: Sure, just touch the screen and close your eyes.

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Burtsbeesfanatic: What kind of day-to-day effort does it take to stay so connected with your readers, and do you think it makes you a better journalist?

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?

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.