Molly Ball works for The Atlantic, where she writes on national politics. She has become known for her in-depth view into American political culture and her flashes of Twitter wit. She previously worked for Politico, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and the Las Vegas Sun. She has been a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow and won the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting. She was also a winner on Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
This interview was conducted by students in Drexel University’s Pennoni Honors College course “The Art of the Interview,” taught by the Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz. Ball began by offering the class a brief introduction to her experiences interviewing as a political reporter.
MB: I’m a political reporter, so the people I’m interviewing are pretty different than other people that you interview as a journalist. Most people that you interview are motivated by sort of fundamental human motivations: they want you to like them, they want to be understood, they want to tell the truth, they want you to know where they’re coming from. Politicians are not like that. Politicians see an interview as a transaction; they have something they’re trying to achieve with the conversation. They’re trying to get a particular message out, so it’s not an honest conversation, where someone is saying whatever comes into their head. It’s more like a chess game where you are sort of strategizing — how can I get them to say a certain thing or push them in a direction they’re not comfortable with and force them off the talking points so they say something interesting or authentic? The politician does the opposite: They’re trying to make sure they present themselves in an advantageous way. They’re trying to make sure that they tell people what they want to hear, whether or not that’s true, and above all they’re trying not to screw up.
A lot of what I do is also talking to voters, going to political events and trying to understand what’s motivating the people who really pull the strings in American politics. It’s a very interesting interaction because some of them distrust the media; there’s a lot of that in politics and society overall, but most of them really want to be heard. That’s why people participate in politics: They want their voices heard. You can have a conversation with them that I think can be really revealing — if you’re listening. I think too many reporters aren’t listening to the people who are trying to communicate with them.
I think it’s important when you’re talking to people to always be compassionate towards them because they are pretty much totally powerless in the political system. Our job is not to judge them or pick on them: Our job is to understand where they’re coming from. When I meet a voter who tells me Obama is a Muslim, I’m not going to get into an argument with that person or try to convince them that they’re wrong. I’m going to try to understand where they’re coming from because my job is not to set the person straight, it’s to explain to my readers that these people exist out there and this is what’s driving them, this is where they’re getting their information and this is how it’s motivating their political behavior and try to shed some light on the way the whole electoral system works.
I try to talk to dozens of people at every political event I go to, and after a while it wears me out — I have to go run and hide. I think if you’re not a sort of pathological extrovert like a Bill Clinton, it’s really exhausting to talk to so many strangers, but I think it’s a really important exercise not just journalistically but as a human. It is really valuable to come into contact with so many people from so many different perspectives and different walks of life and try to understand where they’re coming from. I frankly think that in a society where we hear so often how segregated we are into our political and class and racial sort of silos, it would really be a better place if we made more attempts to seek out the opinions of people who aren’t like us and to listen to them.
TSS: Unlike most political stories, yours are very colloquial and have a lot of colorful rhetoric. Do you think you sacrifice any credibility or separate yourself in a negative way from the way other political writers write?
MB: I am very grateful that I get to write in that kind of style. I’m a magazine writer; I certainly didn’t write in quite this voice when I was a newspaper reporter. I’ve always thought that a good political story has to be first of all a great story. It has to have a great narrative, it has to be entertaining, it has to be fun, it has to be smart. There’s a lot of political reporting that is just sort of asking you to take your medicine and care about something because it’s important and I think that’s way too high a bar for readers. If we want people to be engaged with politics, we have to engage them. So I tend to write about people that I find colorful, like John Kasich, who is not your average sort of choreographed, scripted, buttoned-up politician. I try to find stories that I find interesting — stories that I would want to read — not just stories that are only going to be interesting to the people in them.
TSS: There are some ground rules that reporters have as far as agreeing to an interview, but depending on the situation, sometimes reporters break them. With political writing, does that come up frequently?
MB: As a political reporter, you’re constantly negotiating with people, because people in the political world, particularly staff, are very well versed in the difference between on the record, off the record, and on background. You can always assume with these people that they know that they’re on the record unless they have specified that they’re not. It’s not like when you’re talking to a crime victim that you’re interviewing about something on the street who you would probably want to explain that to more clearly. It’s pretty annoying a lot of times because staff can be very controlling and they are always trying to make sure they don’t look bad in a story but what you always have to do is just make sure you’re getting what you need. If someone says “well on background blah blah blah blah blah,” I say that’s fine, but what’s your on-the-record answer? Whatever it is, I need to know what it is because I can’t put your answer that’s on background in my story and attribute it to an anonymous source, that’s just not going to cut it for this story.
TSS: Before you get to release an article, does it have to go through anybody or their staff? Would you let a politician approve quotes before you ran a story or tell you what questions you’re allowed to ask and what subjects are off-limits?
MB: Never agree to pre-conditions for an interview, and with a public figure, they can go off-the-record if you agree to it, but they never get approval of their quotes. When someone is a figure of interest in that way, you can’t allow them to edit the information that you give to the public. With staff it’s different. I often will allow them to approve quotes because if they’re speaking on background, what I mostly need from them is to understand the situation and to get the information I need. When I need something to put in the story, usually they’ll approve whatever particular quote you want to use. But not for a politician.
The procedure is also a little bit different for the print magazine of The Atlantic. I write for both the print magazine and theatlantic.com, and our print articles go through a very laborious process of editing and fact-checking. Every person in that story will be contacted or we’ll attempt to contact them by a fact-checker who will run all the quotes by them. Sometimes they want to change something and hopefully I have it on tape or in my notes and that’s always the final authority. At that point you go back to the person and say I’m sorry, the tape is the final authority, and you don’t get to take back something you said in clearly on-the-record conditions.
TSS: How has your style of interviewing or political interviewing changed since the last presidential campaign?
MB: I’m always trying to challenge myself and write better stories and write more interesting stories with greater breadth and depth, and I’m learning new things every day about politics. I will say that this election has been pretty mind-blowing to me. I think it’s important that we be humble about that. It’s easy to try to, with perfect hindsight, explain things so that you sound smart, so that you sound like you saw it coming, so you sound like you know what you’re doing, but I think the most important tool for any reporter is humility. When someone says something that surprises you, be honest about that because it probably surprised your readers too. We don’t have all the answers, and I think it annoys people when we act like know-it-alls. Curiosity is the most important asset you have as a reporter. When something happens, you want to figure it out for yourself, you want to see it with your own eyes, and you want to understand what’s happening and why and how, instead of sort of sitting in your ivory tower and saying oh, well, if we look at this poll and that poll we can put two and two together and come up with this pat explanation. Unless you’re on the ground talking to the real people making the decisions, you’re not going to have a really deep understanding of this stuff.
TSS: When you watch Trump being interviewed, he doesn’t respond to the specific question: Often he hears the topic and he responds to the topic more than answering the exact question he’s asked. What kind of tactics do you use to get a genuine response from him?
MB: A lot of times he’ll just employ a non sequitur. It’s very common for politicians to answer the question that they want to answer instead of the question you actually asked, and over the years being a political reporter you just come to listen for that and be very aggressive in the way you follow up: not being afraid to interrupt people, not being afraid to stop them and say you didn’t answer my question. It doesn’t come naturally as a human to be rude in that way, but it’s a skill that you develop, and you become, I think, more and more fearless the more that you do this. Trump can be very evasive in a way that’s different from other politicians and I think that’s why it’s disorienting for people in my business. He can be very hard to pin down because, unlike politicians who memorize talking points and just spit them out over and over again — that’s an easy tactic to recognize, that’s an easy tactic to point out and follow up on — but Trump always seems like he’s being spontaneous. He’ll go off on some riff that’s fascinating or shocking in its own right so you get caught up in it. You get captivated by this weird story he’s telling you and you sort of forget that you were trying to get something else out of him. When I’ve interviewed Trump, I’ve been careful to keep track of what I’m asking him and what I’m trying to get him pinned down on from the interview so I can keep circling back and saying wait, that ten minutes you just spent telling me this other fascinating thing, that’s great but here’s what I asked you. He’ll sort of pretend that he doesn’t remember, like oh what was that again? Where did you hear that? What was this you’re asking me? You just have to keep at him.
TSS: This is the first election where as a reporter you’ve had to live in the possibility that a presidential candidate might start trashing you personally on Twitter. Does that enter your thoughts that you might wind up the story? Do you fear that?
MB: No, you don’t have to do this for too long to grow a very thick skin. The Twitter part is new, but when I covered the 2006 Nevada gubernatorial campaign, the Democratic candidate used to tell an anecdote trashing me at every campaign stop. It was part of her stump speech. You learn to shrug it off or even take it as a positive, like oh, I must be doing something right if I got under her skin in that way.
TSS: In this election, certain political candidates are getting more coverage than others. Do you think that the media and journalists should be forced to provide more even coverage of political candidates?
MB: No, I don’t think there should be any authority over the journalism business. I think that way leads to totalitarianism and the end of the First Amendment. Nobody should be regulating the journalism business. It’s very important to our free society that there’s no governmental or other entity that gets to say what we report on. Second of all, I’m not very receptive to those kinds of complaints because I do think that we’re going to write about what’s interesting to us and interesting to our audience. Certain candidates are boring, don’t make good TV, don’t make good copy, and readers are not going to be as interested in that — and I think that’s totally fair. This idea that the entire primary as it’s been covered on cable news has been one giant free advertisement for Donald Trump strikes me as ridiculous. A lot of the coverage has been extremely negative, and there have been a lot of other candidates who have gotten a disproportionate amount of coverage. Jeb Bush, for example, I think got covered a lot more than any candidate in his position who didn’t have his famous last name would have. It didn’t benefit him at all because people weren’t interested in buying what he was selling. The coverage process is democratic in that way. In the same way that people can decide who they want to vote for and nobody can tell them what to do, people are going to gravitate towards certain candidates. It should not be our job as journalists to scold them for it or push them in another direction or become activists who campaign for or against certain people that we’re covering.
TSS: Quotes are very powerful and they can definitely make a piece great. What is your policy on quotes from politicians? Do you edit for grammar or paraphrase and still put them as quotes?
MB: Sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t and it’s somewhat arbitrary. I’m a reporter: I’m not there to make someone look bad, so if they slip up and use the wrong tense of something, I’m not going to put that in there just to make them look stupid. I think if you want to make someone look stupid because you believe they are stupid and that’s the truth that the story needs to communicate, you should do that in a less sneaky way.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as a reporter was use as few quotes as possible. The natural inclination as a reporter is oh this person told me all this stuff and I’m going to dump it out of my notebook onto the page. Actually, you can almost always say something better than the person that you’re quoting because you’re a writer and they’re not. If you can craft a more eloquent paraphrase, you almost always should. The more sparingly you use quotes, the more potent those quotes become and the more the reader gets out of them. You can take 90 percent of what your source told you and paraphrase it as context, and then have that one quote as a zinger at the end and that becomes much more powerful in the story. People’s eyes glaze over when they read an entire paragraph of somebody droning on.
TSS: As a writer about politicians, is there an expectation that for this political figure you’ll write a certain kind of story, and, if so, how have you been pleasantly surprised or how did stories go differently than you might have expected?
MB: I am a natural contrarian, so I always want to write the piece that’s the opposite of what everyone else is writing. There’s a lot of groupthink in journalism, particularly in political journalism, so if you can stand outside of that and say you think it’s X but it’s Y, that’s a story that a lot of people are going to be interested in. I think it’s important to retain the ability to be surprised. I hate that voice that you get in political journalism that says well, nobody should be surprised by X; we knew this was going to happen. That’s not very interesting. News is what happens when you weren’t expecting it to happen. The other problem I have with most political reporting is that it doesn’t answer a question anyone was actually asking. It’s just giving you information that you didn’t know you needed and probably still don’t. I read a lot of other people’s writing and I’m always trying to figure out what’s my question about this, what am I curious about, what’s the question I want answered, and how can I go out and answer that question?
Back in November when the Paris attacks had just happened and Trump was starting his whole we’re going to keep out the Muslims, we’re going to bar all the refugees thing, this was a new phase of the Trump campaign when a lot of people started to get really alarmed about what he represented. You had even a lot of Republicans saying this person sounds like a fascist to me and you had protesters starting to get punched and kicked and thrown out of his rallies. I thought this sounds kind of scary. I wonder what it feels like — what is that like to be there? Does it feel like you’re in danger? So I went to a Trump rally in South Carolina and just tried to capture that — tried to capture for people what is this feeling and where is it coming from. I ended up feeling like he was pushing these dark buttons in human nature but the surprising thing to me was that it wasn’t a dark or scary feeling at the rallies at all. It was a lot of people brought together by this really cathartic experience of hearing someone say the things that they felt that no one else had the courage to say. So that was an instance where I felt like I got to tell readers something that was different from what they were expecting.
TSS: Your style for such strict political stuff seems very fresh. Do you emulate that from someone or is that just a you thing?
MB: I didn’t come into this as a political junkie. I came into this as someone who wanted to write cool journalism. When I started out, I was a reporter in Cambodia for a couple years, covering war crimes tribunal negotiations and refugee issues and stuff like that. When I got to Las Vegas I wrote a lot about the justice system: I did investigations, I did feature stories. I started writing about politics because it was the beat that opened up at the bigger paper when they wanted to hire me. I like politics — I’m fascinated by politics, I couldn’t do this job if I wasn’t — but I’m not the kind of person who sat down in my room when I was 12 making flash cards of the members of the House of Representatives. As journalists, you always have to see yourself as a proxy for your readers. You are their eyes and ears for something that you get to access and they don’t, so if you can bring that kind of regular-person perspective to a political story, you will be giving your readers something fresh because you’re not coming at it from this sort of rarified weird perspective of the political junkie. •
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity and prepared for publication by Karen Shollenberger. Student interviewers who contributed: Rebecca Cargan, Brandon Eng, Sarah Griggs, Susan Kelley, Grace Kerschensteiner, Charles Maguire, Trevor Montez, Melanie Ng, Ridhima Phukan, Callan Powell, James Pyne, Nicholas Santini, Arin Segal, Joshua Settlemire, Karen Shollenberger, Melissa Silvestrini, Allison Starr, and Zacharia Thottakara.
Feature image art by Maren Larsen. Source image courtesy of Molly Ball.