FishbowlDC Interview with Politico’s Ben Smith

Say hello to Politico‘s newly relaunched blogger Ben Smith. Raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by a lawyer (now judge) for a father and a writer/learning specialist mother, Smith says he’s not sure what specifically drew him to journalism other than a stint at the Jewish Forward. While there he covered a drama-filled state senate race and uncovered news of a candidate taking contributions from a Saudi prince through a shell corporation. That candidate is now New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “I’m basically kind of shy,” Smith said in a phone interview. “I think it’s true of a lot of reporters that it’s an excuse to go out and ask questions you’re interested in.” This week his blog got a makeover as he officially added media to his beat. He says he has always viewed media as part of the political beat. “It seemed like a logical effort,” he said. “I picked it up at the New York Observer that they were part of the same fabric.” Asked if he’s recognized on the street at this point,” he says “never.” Asked what he thinks it means to be successful and he sounds tough on himself. “I tend to be pretty neurotic and basically think I’m as successful as my last story,” he said. “Professional hazard.” Does Smith speak any foreign languages? “I speak a bunch of foreign languages really badly,” he said. “I studied French and I speak some Czech, Russian, Latvian and Spanish. I can read a newspaper in most of those but not conduct an interview at this point.” Does he prefer climbing a mountain or taking a long walk on a beach? “I’m more a mountain person,” he said, remaining calm as I see how many goofy questions it will take to get him riled. By the way, Ben, we’re shipping a few crates of tangerines to your house for your 2-year-old. Enjoy!

If you were a carbonated beverage which would you be? I guess Coca Cola, but I don’t really drink carbonated beverages.

How often do you Google yourself? Once every few months; I have to admit it’s kind of satisfying to have clawed my way to the top of the “Ben Smith” Google rankings, which wasn’t easy. I’m competing with a musician and a handful of athletes with that name, but benefit from the fact that football, hockey, and soccer careers seem to be shorter than journalists’.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to an editor (or vice versa)? The best worst thing an editor every said to me was in my first political reporting job, as City Hall guy for the New York Sun. In the third of fourth story after an expose, I’d gone easy on the target. The editor in chief, Seth Lipsky, said with total disgust, “You’ve got an instinct for the capillaries.”

Who is your favorite working journalist and why? I’m not sure I’m allowed, or required, to go with colleagues, but Maggie Haberman and Jonathan Martin are two of the best political reporters I’ve ever encountered. They both have savant-ish, gut understanding of how politics works, and the kind of honesty that compels sources and readers.

Do you have a favorite word? No.

Who would you rather have dinner with – Politico’s Jim VandeHei, Politico’s John Harris or Robert Allbritton? Tell us why. And no, they may not all attend. I’ll go with Harris. He’s the one that brung me.

Does Ben Smith have a middle name? What is it? Eli

You are ordered to go on a road trip to an undisclosed location. You can go with White House Spokesman Jay Carney or Bo, the President’s Portuguese Water Dog. No ones feelings will be hurt. Who do you take? I don’t know Carney well, but we’ve always gotten along. We both have red-headed sons named Hugo.

What’s the name of your cell phone ring? I usually have it on vibrate.

How do you balance your job with being a family man? I operate under the belief, or fantasy, that my core readers arrive at work at nine and clock out at five, and I try to get most of my reporting into their reading time. I also have some office space about 10 minutes walk from my house, where I work when I can.

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? No.

What word do you routinely misspell? Judgment. Really.

Find out what scares Ben Smith after the jump…And no, it’s not Jim VandeHei.

What swear word do you use most often? I’d rather not repeat it, as I’ve been on a years-long campaign to swear less, prompted by my daughter’s repeating one.

If you weren’t a journalist what would you be? No idea.

We’ve noticed that the graphic of you has a very square-shaped head but the real-life version is different. Have you ever thought about this? I often meet people who say, “You aren’t as much of an asshole as you look like in that drawing.”

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 four journalists or pundits types.) Having already used Maggie and Jonathan in this Q&A, I think I’d stick to Charles Krauthammer, Sid Blumenthal, Alex Castellanos, and Elizabeth Drew.

When you pig out what do you eat? Italian. Great place in Brooklyn called Al Di LA regularly tests my limited restraint.

If you could influence journalism in one way right now what would it be? My sideline is in hyperlocal journalism. I think readers and advertisers should take local blogs and networks of them like Patch (where, full disclosure, my wife directs special projects) seriously as journalistic and business propositions.

When did you last cry and why? I cry constantly at movies.

What TV show is your guilty pleasure? My guilty pleasure is not having cable at home.

What is the best vacation you’ve ever taken? We go fly fishing in Maine for a week every summer and a couple of days in the fall, entirely off the grid, which is always the best vacation.

Pick one: Joy Behar, Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg or Elizabeth Hasselbeck? Barbara.

Do you read your astrology? No.

Have you ever had a near-death experience? No.

Ever been arrested? No.

What scares you? The creeping worry that at some point every email ever written leaks.

What and where was your first job in journalism? Summer intern for the Jewish Forward in 1998; my first job out of college was covering cops for the Indianapolis Star.

What’s your most embarrassing career moment? Reporting that a source had told me, incorrectly as it turned out, that John Edwards would drop out of the presidential campaign in the spring of 2007.

Have you ever been fired? No.

When and why did you last lose your temper? At my two year old, around 10:30 pm tonight, when he refused to go to bed without a tangerine.

Name jobs you’ve had outside of journalism. (Can start as young as teenage years): In high school and college I delivered chairs for a chair-caning shop.

Do you have a me-wall? If so, who’s on it? No.

Who should just call it a day? I try to stay out of the prescription business.

From TMZ Founder Harvey Levin: You are about to be served your last meal. What will it be? This is such a Brooklyn cliché but DiFara’s pizza is pretty great.

From TPM’s Evan McMorris-Santoro: When was the last time you really took stock and said “good lord, someone actually pays me to do this?” Almost every day.

Finally, please come up for a question for our next FishbowlDC interviewee. Make it good. What writer do you think is wrong about everything?