Sandy Johnson and Chris Wilson on the Books That Shaped Their Journalism

By Mike Feinsilber

In a 10-year stint as chief of the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, Sandy Johnson, as noted in an earlier dispatch, won recognition for  something she did not do. In 2000, in the face of insistent pressure from the television networks, which had declared Al Gore the winner of Florida and thus the presidency, she concluded that the Florida returns on hand were insufficient to justify a declaration that either candidate had carried Florida. She held her ground. For that act of cool judgment,  she was nominated for a Pulitzer prize. In 2001, Johnson was listed by The Washingtonian as one of the 100 most powerful women in Washington. After a 30-year AP career, Johnson served as managing editor of  the Center for Public Integrity.

She lists All The President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and Timothy Crouse’s Boys On The Bus as the books that most influenced her in her career. Of the Woodward and Bernstein book she says, “This opened my eyes to the power of journalism, and it lit a fire in my off/on interest in a career in journalism. It is a rocking account of the abuse of power and the absence of a moral compass by people in high positions.”

And about the Crouse book:  “I grew up reading newspaper articles by some of the reporters chronicled in this account, and Crouse made journalism sound like a heck of a lot of fun—which it turned out to be!”

To someone just getting into the news business, Johnson would recommend  The Wrong Stuff: The Extraordinary Saga of Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the Most Corrupt Congressman Ever Caught by George Condon, Marcus Stern, Jerry Kramer, Dean Calbreath, the team in the now-defunct Copley newspapers’ bureau in Washington that won the 2006 Pulitzer for national reporting.

Chris Wilson got his big break in journalism with an internship at The Washingtonian in 2005, where he fact-checked stories and distributed Jack Limpert’s typewritten notes to the staff. He is now a columnist with Yahoo News, where he focuses on data journalism and visualizations.

“Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trails and The Great Shark Hunt, both by Hunter S. Thompson, have been incredibly influential to me,” he says, “and I recommend them without apology for my lack of originality. I find two lessons in his writing that are pertinent too all people in the industry regardless of their proximity to a first-person pronoun:

“1. Good writing is good reporting.

“2. The delicate rules of political journalism ought always to be under review.

“As Hunter S. Thompson  writes early in Fear and Loathing, ‘This was one of the traditional barriers I tried to ignore when I moved to Washington and began covering the ’72 presidential campaign. As far as I was concerned, there was no such thing as ‘off the record.’ The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists.’

“And in The Great Shark Hunt: ‘Mastery of the Pyramid Lead has sustained more lame yoyos than either Congress or the Peacetime Army. Five generations of American journalists have clung to that petrified tit…’

“Too often,” says Wilson, “HST is presented with a Parental Advisory sticker: May be harmful to young reporters and pregnant women. But most people who attempt to imitate him too closely learn their lesson the hard way, and quickly.”

Speak Your Mind