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Q&A: Washington Post reporter and Wonkblog editor Ezra Klein

After reports of gunshots at Nassau Hall prompted attendees of Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein’s lecture to evacuate to the Whig-Clio Senate Chamber, Klein spoke to The Daily Princetonian in the crowded basement about his passion for blogging, views of American politics and obsession with charts.

The Daily Princetonian: What sparked your interest in journalism?

Ezra Klein: I got in through kind of a backdoor. I did not grow up wanting to be a journalist. It was not a career I intended to pursue. As a lark when I was at UC Santa Cruz I applied to be on the student newspaper and got rejected from it.

But I began a blog, and I loved blogging. You didn’t begin a blog in 2003 because you wanted to make a career in it. I mean, that was laughable. That’d be like playing video games because you thought you wanted to do a career in it. But I loved blogging and was reasonably successful at it. At that time you could make a little name in that little community, and then as the blogospheres blew up, I got opportunities to go be an apprentice at the American Prospect, an intern at the Washington Monthly, and I really loved that work. And that was so what got me interested and invested in it. It was much more spontaneous.

DP: Why do you think you were rejected from the Daily Bruin? How did you get past that first rejection in the field?

EK: So, not from the Daily Bruin  this is an incorrect thing on my Wikipedia page. It’s from the Santa Cruz City on a Hill Press.  I was not highly committed to be part of the paper; I was just looking for things to do, so I lived.

DP: What were you involved in outside of class at UCLA?

EK: Almost nothing, I mean, at that point I was blogging very seriously. Like, I was really putting a lot of time and energy into it. I was involved in no extracurriculars at UCLA except blogging. I would wake up early to blog. I was pretty disciplined at that point. And I ended up deciding that was what I wanted to do professionally and not be in college anymore, so I kind of I loaded up on classes and finished early. I applied for the American Prospect Fellowship and got that, and then loaded up on classes and finished early.

DP: What were you blogging about?

EK: Just politics. Just my own uninformed, idiotic opinions in politics. Like everyone else, I was doing a lot of Iraq coverage because that is what you did back then, but I wasn’t a specialist by any means. They were just the thoughts of a college kid. They were not authoritative. They were not informed. But, on the other hand, as a citizen you are allowed to do that — you are allowed to have opinions about politics. I feel bad on some level looking back at how dumb some of my ideas were, but on the other hand, you are allowed to engage as an amateur.

DP: What makes you stand out among other journalists? Among bloggers?

EK: I think what ended up having me stand out was a real attraction to policy and I think that real sort of coverage is not just about policy, but the lights in it and the beliefs that policy is interesting and fun and fascinating and important and the real work of politics. I think that was a, so to speak, under-served market. I think that is an opinion that is more broadly shared and it is a set of topics that interests more people but that has often been neglected by the media. I think what was useful for me was that I ended up often tripping into a place where there wasn’t much competition.

DP: Who is your favorite journalist?

EK: I don’t know.

DP: What is the best story you have covered?

EK: Health care reform. I mean that was a story that I adored covering. The policy process beyond that went on for over a year.  Covering the general policy and health care as a policy was really my first love.

DP: Why did you transfer from UC Santa Cruz to UCLA? Was it a good choice?

I don’t know. I didn’t quite find my place at Santa Cruz, and when I went to UCLA I didn’t quite find a place there either. I think that in some ways I found it much more in journalism than I ever found it in college. A lot of people tend to look at college “when I went” and “enjoy this,” it will be the best four years of my life, but it wasn’t. I mean it wasn’t bad. It was great in many ways, but — I’ve loved being a journalist, but I never loved being in college.

DP: If you could only follow 3 people on twitter, who would you follow?

EK: I don’t know. I guess it depends. Can I change them over time?

DP: Right now?

EK: Right this second?

DP: Yeah.

EK: You would have to follow Robert Costa because he has been so invaluable in what’s been happening with House Republicans and the shutdown. I would follow my wife and I would follow Rob Delaney because everything that is going on is nuts and it’s good to have a little bit of relief.

DP: What advice would you give to an aspiring journalist?

EK: One of the choices that young journalists face is a tradeoff between prestige and authority. Which is to say you are often are looking at jobs where one job gives you much more capacity to write and do you work but it is at a place that doesn’t have much or any prestige. And another place gives you very little opportunity to do the work of journalism. You are really an assistant or secretary or researcher, but the place has a lot of prestige.  And my view is that, in the Internet age, when people can discover your work on the social web and there are more capacities for people to stumble upon what you do, that it is better to choose places where you can actually do the work even if they are not prestigious over the places where you are just kind of there to make connections.

DP: What is your biggest regret as a journalist?

EK: I deeply regret supporting the Iraq war at the beginning. I was just wrong, you know. I was young, so it’s not like anyone cared, but I was wrong. And I guess I wasn’t officially a journalist then but as a blogger, definitely. So I regret that.

DP: Do you regret what you said about Senator Lieberman on the Health Care Debate in 2009?

EK: So, I said I would have phrased it differently. And I probably would have phrased it slightly differently. But I think the underlying point was right. So I don’t regret making the point. I try not to write in ways that make it hard for people to hear me. When my writing becomes the issue and not the point I have made a writing error. That’s my fault as an author.

Senator Lieberman at the time was threatening to destroy a bill that he supported in order to stop a policy that he also supported and real people’s lives were on the line. And I think sometimes members of the Senate, and I think in this case him, can make this into a game, can make this into a political game about leverage and scoring points, and I think it’s very important to remember that certainly on things like health care real people’s lives matter here and decisions being made in Washington are legitimately, are literally, life and death for people. So I would be careful on how I phrase something like that because I want people to hear it, but I wouldn’t not want to say things like that because I’m afraid people get angry.

DP: On your Twitter page you say “Lover of charts.” What is the obsession with charts?

EK: They’re just great. I also like, in general, taking things that people feel to be complicated and difficult and reclaiming them. Saying no, that charts aren’t these boring hard things that you can’t understand. They aren’t for experts. They are ways of making information clear and simple and interesting and beautiful and they are for you and they’re for us. And so one thing I like to do is kind of reclaim these kinds of things: policy, and wonk, and charts as things that we can all have that they are not for some rarified group.

DP: What’s your take on the shutdown?

EK: It’s incredibly stupid.

DP: But the debt ceiling is the bigger problem?

EK: Yeah, it’s much more dangerous. I mean, you know the way I say it: The shutdown is like the flu, the debt ceiling is like septic shock. It’s very, very dangerous. I don’t like the shutdown but a debt ceiling [default] would be a disaster.

DP: Do you think the shutdown will affect the 2016 presidential election?

EK: Yeah I think it could. Well, 2016 — I’m not sure it could affect that. It’s far away. I’m not even sure it would affect 2014. The elector doesn’t have a long memory. If we reach the debt ceiling, that’s another issue.

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