Q&A with Jim Asher

JRNOLA students with Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, Jim Asher

“The only way America is going to survive is if people of courage and character tell stories about what’s true.” – Jim Asher

In yesterday’s newsroom session, our journalists were joined by Jim Asher. Asher is a veteran journalist that has spent the majority of his decades-long career uncovering injustice for America’s most respected newspapers. A firm believer in “giving a voice to the voiceless”, Asher shared some of the trials and triumphs he’s experienced from Utica, NY to Washington DC.

Liam: How have you seen representation affect how journalism works across the years that you’ve been an editor of notable publications?

Asher: It’s a fundamental problem. If you don’t have a diverse outlook and if you don’t have a diverse outlook and access to diverse opinions, then you’re going to have a myopic view of the world. The same thing goes for your outlook as a journalist. Newspapers I worked for in all of these cities didn’t want to confront the issues of poverty. [The] whole country has convulsed in the last few years about racial justice, about Black Lives Matter, about the assassination of unarmed people across the country. So these issues are not new, but journalism has failed to actually do anything about revealing it. Most of the people who run newspapers and news outlets all look alike, are all relatively affluent and well educated, so they don’t have any access points to understanding what the rest of the world is like.

Ravien: OK, so has there ever been a time where you regretted some of the work you’ve done or regretted some of the stuff in your writing?

Liam: Yeah, I’m sorry Jim. Did you think we were going to send you all softballs today?

Asher: Well, I would say this: There is one story that has gnawed on me since my early days in journalism. Um, this was in Utica. There was a murder in Utica, and at that point in the life of that city, one or two murders a year was all that would happen. It’s different now, but back then it was only one. They arrested a young black fellow for this murder and I was at the Police Department when they brought him in at about 2:00 in the morning. I started to follow the cops into the interrogation room ’cause why not? You know he’s got him there, I’m going to see what I can get. And they threw me out and I had to stand behind the door in the hallway. And then I heard from behind this door screaming, yelling, chairs being pushed around, and the sound of what seemed to me to be a beating. This was the very last week of my work at the Utica newspaper. I stayed in the corridor until 5:30 in the morning and the cops wouldn’t come out and wouldn’t let me see the guy. And I just couldn’t stay awake any longer, so I went home. I tried to get some information about the guy and what happened to him and the Police Department wouldn’t give it to me. I was leaving the newspaper and I just said “OK, nothing I can do,” and that’s gnawed on me ever since. In terms of other stories I’ve done, I honestly can’t think of a story that would have done differently.

Kerry: My question is, has there ever been a time where you almost got caught in the middle of like, serious danger?

Asher: Yes, yes I have. I’ve been threatened with death three different times. The worst was the time I had to have armed guards in my basement and my kids had to be guarded while they went off to school. Once you got to Washington, it wasn’t a matter of your own physical safety that was particularly at risk. It was a matter of threatening your access to sourcing, cutting you off from getting material, and handicapping you from getting public records and stuff.

Samarah: Other than journalism, do you engage in any other hobbies?

Asher: No. I’m writing a book now, so I’m doing a lot of investigative work about Baltimore and about lead-poisoned children in the city of Baltimore, which is pretty startling. So no, I cut my teeth in The Newsroom and I have been excited and delirious about journalism since my sophomore year in college and I wouldn’t do anything else.

Liam: Anyone else with any questions for Jim? Isabella? Isabella’s doing a dual journalism and political science major at American so she can get the right edge in the industry.

Asher: Well, I would recommend to Isabella that you try to find a job outside of Washington first because what you want to do is have your journalism have power, and covering Washington is very bureaucratic.  You gotta know stuff about fillibusters, markups, and all kinds of crazy bureaucratic things to understand how Washington works and it really gets in the way of your writing. So get a job in New Orleans. Report about Municipal Court, look moms in the eye, and say, “What have your children achieved? How does it feel to have lost your son?” Something that gives you empathy to the world. Then you’ll find that your writing just takes off because you still have a sense of passion about what you’re writing about, and you can’t have passion over a filibuster.

Isabella: Given all of your stories talking about seeing corruption and seeing police brutality first hand, what do you think of present-day reporting on police brutality?

Asher: Well I would say that the principal, positive driver to police coverage these days is the body cam. Some journalistic organizations are trying to be thorough in covering their police departments, but I don’t think that what’s really driving the conversation is the fact that cops are wearing body cams that are on, or are they not wearing body cams? But there’s just an enormous number of things in the criminal justice system that needs to be confronted. There are all kinds of really interesting justice and injustice issues to cover on the criminal justice front that are not really getting a great deal of attention.

Liam: As someone who’s kind of been putting his finger on the pulse of history as it’s being written, are you surprised by what’s happening right now? I mean, I’m talking about Trump, the insurrection, and Black Lives Matter Movement. Or is this something that you’re like, “Oh, I’ve been looking at this for a long time?” How do you feel in terms of your role as a living historian in a way?

Asher: Well, I don’t think that these were not obvious problems facing the country. You could take something as seemingly unrelated as opioid use and you’ll notice, if you actually look at it, that opioid use follows the unemployment problem and increasing poverty that hits communities. So the screams for help across the country for good jobs, a fruitful future, a just criminal justice system and an effective government have been there for a long time. It’s just that we’ve decided to ignore it. If you think about America, it’s only been a democracy since the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. You know, it’s not been a democracy for anybody who wasn’t rich. Anybody with their eyes wide open would see it. 

Liam: One last question. Do you feel like journalism is in danger right now?

Asher: Well, I have a mixed view about it. I think traditional journalism is troubled. There’s a large number of news organizations that are just hanging on by the skin of their teeth and what’s happened in these communities is that there’s hardly any news. Easy news is the police report. Easy news is the press release. Easy news is a feature about, in your town, the house floats instead of Mardi Gras floats. There has been a loss of almost 50% of the journalists in these traditional news operations in the last five years. It’s just not possible to do the kind of journalism you used to do. So that’s the dark side of it. The positive side is that there’s The Lens in New Orleans, which is doing a pretty decent job investigating the city. There are not enough people in it to do it a lot, but they’ve got something there. ProPublica is expanding all across the country and there’s the investigative news operation in California called Reveal. There are all kinds of places that are popping up. Then I would say that because of the heightened awareness that diversity is so crucial, everybody who is not white is going to have better access to jobs. When I started in the Newsroom, it was 97% male. Now it’s pretty close to 50% male. I happen to live in a hopeful world, so I believe strongly that journalism is seminal to preserving our democracy. It’s absolutely crucial and there is a demand for journalism like there’s never been. There’s so much partisan information and propaganda being spewed that those people who provide rational, verifiable, independent journalism are going to be in great demand. So, refine your skills, get them up to a high level, and you’ll have an easy time getting jobs.