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.

Obama’s presidency seems to have sparked an almost overly-cautious approach to news media. How can we overcome that without being misinterpreted as “racist?” President Obama had a good answer when Ann Compton asked him at his press conference how much he thought about being the first black president. He said he felt good about what his election symbolized for about a day, but then he had to get down to business like any other president. I would say the same for the news media. We celebrated the historic breakthrough, now we have to cover this administration like we would any other.

There are currently no women as chief white house correspondents. What does that say about female leadership in Washington? That question doesn’t do justice to NBC’s White House Correspondent Savannah Guthrie. She shares the beat with Chuck Todd: they do equal duty reporting for both Nightly News and the Today show, trading shows every week, and are both on MSNBC all the time. The fact that Chuck is called Chief White House Correspondent is virtually a distinction without a difference, except that Chuck had handled most of the White House press briefings and presidential news conferences so far. But the larger point you raise is a good one. There should be more women on the front line at the White House.

You’re new to Washington. What has been the biggest surprise about living here? I always thought of Washington as a one-company town, so I’ve been pleased to make friends with writers and architects and businesspeople as well as politicians and journalists. And it’s really mellow here on the weekends, compared to New York. I tell people I don’t need a country house anymore; I can just stay here.

What is something most people don’t know about you? I play the saxophone, but not well enough that you’d want to hear me.

What is your favorite power lunch spot? We’re so far from downtown DC here at the NBC bureau that I’ve all but given up on power lunches. I’m down to power breakfasts and power dinners.