FishbowlDC Interview With Paul Brandus

Say hello to Paul Brandus who writes West Wing Reports and a column for The Week. He’s an independent White House Correspondent who writes a blog and has a Twitter account in which he doesn’t use his name. How come he goes nameless? “Here’s a question for you,” begins his standard refrain about it. “Name the CBS, NBC, ABC, CNN & Fox reporters at the White House 10 years ago. How about five years ago? This may come as a disappointment to many folks in this egocentric town, but most people can’t remember the names. And that’s at the most visible beat in Washington. Names fade quickly. But brand names have enduring market value. People have no idea who I am personally. I’d prefer they know my brands, one of which is West Wing Reports. Brands can be licensed, flipped, monetized in more enduring ways.” Even so, let’s get to know the man behind the brand, shall we? Brandus was a foreign correspondent in Moscow for five years. He worked for the U.S. Embassy, eventually NBC and NPR and did some magazine work. While in Moscow, he bought the broadcast rights to the Super Bowl from the NFL. He later worked at MSNBC and Fox — he says the concept of this makes people’s heads explode. “I helped launch MSNBC back in 1996,” Brandus explains. “Worked for Steve Capus, who went on to become President of NBC News. Good man. I was a writer, but apparently too good of a writer because they put me in charge of editing all the other writers. That’s where I learned the 80/20 rule: 20 percent of your people will cause 80 percent of your problems. At Fox News, I was a senior prime time producer in New York, working on news cut ins every half hour. If the you-know-what hit the fan, we had to run into the control room across the hall and break into Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity & Alan Colmes. Great fun.” Brandus worked on Wall Street for several years, cashed out and started another media company, his own. In 2011 he became a columnist for The Week. He moderates conferences for them on energy and cybersecurity. He also works with a Northern Virginia venture capital firm. Brandus won’t be found on the Washington cocktail circuit. Instead, he spends his weekends with his 18-month-old daughter or family horses in Fairfax County.

Now let’s proceed to the really important stuff.

If you were a carbonated beverage which would you be? Cherry Coke Zero

How often do you Google yourself? Once or twice a year.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to an editor (or vice versa)? My old boss, Jim Farley, who hired me twice – first at NBC years ago and later at WTOP – taught me WGAS: “Who gives a shit?” It has universal applications today and I’ve used it to great effect in various times and places. WGAS is also text-friendly.

Who is your favorite working journalist and why? Anyone who understands it’s not about them. Anyone who eschews the limelight and simply focuses on finding things out, communicating about it well and not pretending to be an expert or feeling compelled to have an opinion on everything.

Who is your favorite White House reporter and why? The wire service folks are usually the best. Not flashy, just solid, nose-to-the-grindstone types day in and day out. I really admire them.

Do you have a favorite word? “Dada.” Uttered by a certain 17-month old little girl.

What word or phrase do you overuse? “Dumb ass.” Use it a lot.

Who would you rather have dinner with – CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s John King or CNN’s Piers Morgan. Tell us why. I think John King is an honest, hard-working, straight shooter guy. You know what I like about him? He made a mistake during the Boston coverage and dealt with it in a transparent, humble and honest way. People err – and it’s how they deal with it – for better or worse – that I remember. I tend to get along well with people like that.

What is the most interesting conversation you’ve had in awhile in the course of your work and who was it with? If I hadn’t hung up on Ronald Reagan in 1990, it might have been the time when, on a dare, I called him at home in 1990. This was a year after he left the White House. The Reagans were living in Bel Air and I never thought he would answer the phone himself. But I heard that famous voice: “Hello?” on the other end, freaked out and hung up. To use my favorite word, I was such a dumb ass. So I guess the answer would be the time I downed vodka shots with Boris Yeltsin at a Fourth of July party at Spaso House, the home of the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. I was lurking by the bar when he came over and we wound up downing a few and chatting. That’s what you do in Russia. Drink. Talk. Drink some more.

Tell us a funny story from the White House Briefing Room. Can be long or short. There used to be a guy named Lester Kinsolving, who used to show up in the briefing every day. Haven’t seen him in many months. He used to ask the most bizarre, completely out of left field questions imaginable on completely obscure, irrelevant matters. Bush’s flacks and now Obama’s used to call on him as a diversion. And, in this digital age, he used to carry a giant cassette recorder around with him like it was 1983 or something. Not picking on Lester, he is a nice guy. Hope he’s OK.

Without naming names, tell us some shitty thing that happened in the course of you covering the White House… I don’t like it – and this applies to every administration – when White House staffers get uppity and arrogant with the press. As Helen Thomas used to say, “‘We were there before they came to town and we’ll be there long after they’re gone. So knock off the attitude and the bullshit.'”

What’s the name of your cell phone ring? “Vibrate”

It’s 3 a.m. and you get up to use the bathroom or get a drink of water. Do you check your BlackBerry or iPhone? My iPhone5? Absolutely. Who hasn’t held it while doing their business? How’s that for a visual?

What word do you routinely misspell? Affect vs. effect. WTF is the difference?

What swear word do you use most often? Fucking idiot.

If you weren’t a journalist what would you be? I’ve worked on Wall Street and work now with a Northern Virginia venture capital firm – I like finance, watching entrepreneurs launch and grow companies. Very rewarding.

You’ve just been told the big news: You get to have your own Sunday morning talk show. Who will be on your roundtable? (Pick five journalists or pundits types.) Oh, it would have to be David Brooks, a very smart conservative like Bruce Bartlett (a former Reagan and Bush I staffer who says today’s GOP is crazy) and a very smart liberal like David Corn. I would also get Thomas Sowell, a conservative writer/thinker at Stanford and the Hoover Institution. Very smart man. To argue with him I might get Katrina vanden Huevel of The Nation, who is his intellectual equal but on the left.

When you pig out what do you eat? Don’t laugh: animal crackers.

If you could influence journalism in one way right now what would it be? Here’s a question I sometimes get on Twitter: “Do you support or oppose Obama?” Answer: “No.” It bugs me when people think you have to be on one side or the other. I know it’s what many people think they have to do, but here’s an idea: how about not making up your mind ahead of time and then finding facts and figures to support that thesis? Both left and right get pissed off at me on Twitter, which tells me I’m probably doing a reasonably fair job. Call me naïve, but I’m of the belief that left & right can learn a thing or two from each other. Crazy concept, I know.

When did you last cry and why? I got a lump in my throat just last week looking at the picture of Martin Richard, the 8-year old boy killed in Boston. That poster he held up. “No more hurting people. Peace.” Such innocence and hope.

What TV show is your guilty pleasure? 
Oh, has to be Mad Men. Still watch Sopranos reruns.

What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Bali until I got food poisoning, which is not how you want to lose ten pounds. Venice in the cool, gray fog of winter. Deserted and lovely. Or the three weeks I spent in Brazil many years ago. I was working on a project, believe it or not, for the Brazilian Tourism Authority, and all we did was visit the best beaches and run up tabs in the best hotels – wonderful.

Pick one: Kim, Khloe or Kourtney? How about Heather Graham or Sandra Bullock? Please?

Have you ever had a near-death experience? Moscow, coup attempt against the Russian government. October 1993. Boris Yeltsin sent in tanks to blast the Russian Parliament Building (called the “White House”), where the plotters were holed up. There was a very scary battle at one point and I found myself lying flat on the ground maybe 400-500 yards away. That was the weekend I was also attacked by some Russian thugs who heard me giving a radio report for Voice of America. I had a radio-telephone device and there’s a recording of me on the air saying “these guys are beating me, they’re –” and the line goes dead. My glasses got crumpled. The Russian TV center was attacked – machine gun fire was sprayed into the crowd and six or seven journalists were killed. I had moved out of the area maybe a minute before. Something like 147 people were killed in that one memorable weekend. I earned my foreign correspondent achievement badge.

Ever been arrested? Nope.

Tell us a secret not many people know about you. I’m an entrepreneur who buys and sells things. The craziest thing I ever bought: once I cold-called the National Football League and bought the overseas broadcast rights to the Super Bowl. Bought an apartment in Manhattan off that deal.

What scares you? That time will run out before I can finish my bucket list. I actually wrote down everything I wanted to do when I was 18. Two-thirds done, but time goes by faster and faster doesn’t it? Scary.

Who is your mentor? The only boss I ever had (twice) Jim Farley. Ran the NBC Radio Network, then went to ABC now about to retire from WTOP, the monster all-news station here in Washington. If you never had a chance to work for Jim, it’s your loss.

What’s your most embarrassing career moment? Probably something I did yesterday, but I try to forget and move on.

Have you ever been fired? Yes indeed. Wonderful learning experience, and usually leads to better things. Sorry, this isn’t a sexy story, but I worked in a boiler room operation for a few weeks when I was maybe 17 or 18. We had to call people up and get them to buy insurance in case their credit cards were stolen. I think it cost $15 for a year or something like that, and if I made a sale I got $3 on top of whatever they were paying me. I would up gabbing with women who had nice voices and didn’t make my quota. It was a little shady.

When and why did you last lose your temper? I usually don’t. Life’s too short. But I move on quickly and tend not to deal with that person again.

Breakfast cereal of choice: It’s Trader Joe’s Fruity-Os or whatever it’s called. It’s just an upscale Fruit Loops, but since it’s from Trader Joe’s I fool myself into thinking it’s not too bad.

Preferred hotel when you visit Manhattan? W – Union Square

Which movie title best describes your journalism career? The Usual Suspects

Who would you want to play you in a movie? Harrison Ford as he was 20 years ago.

Name jobs you’ve had outside of journalism. (Can start as young as teenage years): Dishwasher; Public relations hustler; U.S. Senate staffer; U.S. Embassy staffer; TV news writer; TV news producer; and Venture capitalist (still do this).

Do you have a me-wall? If so, who’s on it? I’ll tell you who’s NOT on it: politicians.

Who should just call it a day? Maybe me.

From TMZ Founder Harvey Levin: You are about to be served your last meal. What will it be? There’s a Southern California hamburger chain I just love: Tommy’s. Go to the one on Lincoln Blvd. in Santa Monica.

Finally, please come up for a question for our next FishbowlDC interviewee. Make it good. What would you do to make journalism better, to keep people better informed and hold politicians more accountable?