Mark Whitaker: The FishbowlDC Interview

Say hello “good afternoon, Sir” to Mark Whitaker. One of the most powerful players in news media, Whitaker is Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief for NBC News… but I didn’t need to tell you that.

What does your morning reading list include? In print, I read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post every morning. Then I check out Huffington Post, Politico, The Daily Beast, Romenesko and I Want Media online. I save TV Newser and Fishbowl DC and NY for last…to keep my blood pressure down.
What has been the proudest moment in your career? I was the Editor of Newsweek during 9/11 – we did a lot of groundbreaking coverage for a weekly magazine and won a National Magazine Award for General Excellence for it. On a personal level, I also got a big thrill out of writing the Newsweek cover story when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. But nothing beats the immediacy of TV. Nine days after the election, I stopped by Andrea Mitchell’s office around 6 pm and she told me that two solid sources had told her Barack Obama was in serious talks with Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. I called Alex Wallace, who was the EP of Nightly News with Brian Williams and urged her to put Andrea on for a cross-talk with Brian. Half an hour later she had the biggest scoop of the Obama transition. That was a kick.
What has been the biggest challenge in your new position at NBC? Obviously replacing Tim Russert has been both a huge honor and a big challenge. I’ve approached it by trying to honor everything Tim stood for – toughness but fairness and fierce loyalty to his people and bureau. But also by being true to myself and my judgments and style rather than trying to model myself after him.
You’ve climbed to the top of both the publishing and broadcast news worlds. How do you compare those two news mediums? The difficulty but also the fun of editing a newsweekly was figuring out what was worth telling readers who already knew the headlines. In television, you can make news simply by being in the right place at the right time with a camera. But increasingly, as news moves at warp speed across the Internet, TV will have to focus less just on reporting the facts and more on adding value with smart analysis and commentary and behind-scenes reporting. I think one reason NBC News and MSNBC are doing so well right now is that we’ve figured that out.
Your lovely wife Alexis Gelber is also a big name in journalism. How does she feel about your new gig? She’s been very supportive, although her work is mostly still in New York right now (consulting for Newsweek and recently heading up books coverage for The Daily Beast) so we’re doing a lot of commuting back and forth on weekends. But having worked with her for so many years at Newsweek (where she was the National Affairs editor and managing editor of the International edition and Director of Special Projects), it’s nice to be able to talk shop about different shops.
What is the media’s role in helping our country move past the recession? Our role isn’t to cheerlead or to fear-monger but to report and explain. How did we get into this mess? What are the pros and cons of the Obama rescue plan, both now and for America’s future? What can ordinary folks do to cope? Of course, the causes and consequences of this crisis are so complicated that even the smartest financial journalists are still figuring a lot of it out themselves.