Mirabelle Morah

Interview with Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief at the New York Times

The Life and Times of a News Bureau Chief in Washington: Elisabeth Bumiller

Title: The Life and Times of a News Bureau Chief in Washington: Elisabeth Bumiller, Washington bureau chief at the New York Times, discusses her career in journalism and day-to-day work

Featured by: Mirabelle Morah & Oscar Tollast

Originally Published by Salzburg Global Seminar 

Elizabeth Bumiller
Elisabeth Bumiller

In her role as the New York Times’ Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller’s day can start as early as five o’clock in the morning. The news never sleeps, and there are always overnight events for her to catch up on. By nine o’clock, Bumiller is in the office preparing for the morning news meeting. She joins her colleagues in New York via video link and outlines the bureau’s plans for the day. Forty-five minutes or so later, the meeting reaches a conclusion – for now. Following many questions and intense conversations, Bumiller has a firmer idea of what her day ahead may look like – well, at least as much as is possible in the life of a journalist at a major national news outlet.

As stories come in, reporters begin to file them. Some articles are put online before noon to catch the morning traffic. Bumiller may attend another small editors’ meeting about previously discussed topics, or she may go out for a working lunch with a colleague. By half-past two, she’s in touch with New York again. “I start getting calls from New York, or I call them saying here’s what we think is good for the front page… I’ll say, ‘This story is looking good,’ ‘This one’s not ready yet, but you should think about it,’ ‘This one is not going to work,’ ‘We’re holding this.’”

Bumiller will then start asking reporters for the tops of their stories. “I can’t pitch the story if I don’t know what you’re going to say. That’s a constant stress,” she said. By half-past four, there’s a bit more clarity. By then, barring any breaking news, staff know what will be on tomorrow’s front page, what stories matter for the web and which stories will need to be cared for overnight.

“Between five and eight stories are coming in, and I don’t edit as much as I used to… but I often will just grab a story because we’re shorthanded or if there’s a story I want to edit…” explains Bumiller. “I usually leave sometime around 7.30 or 8 [pm]. That’s my day.”

Life-long dream

Bumiller always wanted to write. Her uncle, Frank Cormier, a White House reporter for the Associated Press, appeared to have a “very exciting life.” That is what inspired Bumiller to pursue journalism, starting with her high school newspaper, the Walnut Hills Chatterbox. She then attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University – where she got her “real education” working for the Daily Northwestern. Her education continued thereafter at the Miami Herald and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Upon leaving Columbia, she received a message to call Sally Quinn, a writer for the Washington Post’s style section. Would Bumiller be interested in covering events in Washington? “I ended up flying down to Washington right before I graduated, and I got the job,” Bumiller remembers. “My classmates all said… they wouldn’t have taken that frivolous job but, at the time, the Washington Post was the most exciting paper on the face of the earth.”

Bumiller joined the newspaper a few years after the Watergate scandal. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who did much of the original reporting on the scandal for the Post, were still in the newsroom. In her role, Bumiller covered events such as political fundraisers on Capitol Hill and parties at the State Department, but she was also able to write feature stories and profiles. She said, “I made it into a better a job.”

The role gave her a greater education on politics in the US capital. “The style section was really well-read… It was a great job. It was high pressure, actually… The idea was I wasn’t going to cover what people were wearing, I was covering what they were saying about politics and the news of the day.”

After stints in New Delhi, India and Tokyo, Japan (accompanying her husband, New York Times journalist Steven R. Weisman), where she continued to write for the Post as well as two books about the lives of women in each country, Bumiller joined the Times in 1995 as a metro reporter. She was later promoted to City Hall bureau chief before returning to the US capital as a White House correspondent on September 10, 2001. The next day’s infamous events dramatically changed the trajectory of her reporting from a domestic focus to an increasingly international one.

In her current role as Washington bureau chief, her primary responsibility concerns overseeing daily operations and leading all news coverage from Washington, domestic and international. Her breadth of experience in the media industry made her an appropriate choice of speaker for the latest symposium of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association – The Changing Role of the Media in American Life and Culture: Emerging Trends.

“This seminar is fascinating because I am very interested in the perspective of people from around the world on media and journalism,” said Bumiller. “I was fascinated by the question from the gentleman… who asked why we [the media] couldn’t just join with the government. Oh dear, that’s not going to work in the United States!…

“I was also interested in the question from someone who kept asking me, ‘Why don’t you feel pressure from the administration? Don’t you feel pressure from the White House and Trump?’…I kept on saying, ‘No’… I realized she didn’t necessarily believe me, but it’s just not a factor in the United States – at least not for my publication.”

Mistakes can happen in reporting, but Bumiller maintains the Times is a “very competitive place” with “really smart people” who believe in independent journalism and getting at the truth. “It’s also just been the privilege of a lifetime,” says Bumiller. “I’ve travelled a lot for the Times. I’m now working with people on their stories and on their careers… It’s a constant invigorating education, and I really do mean it’s a privilege.”

The Changing Role of the Media in American Life and Culture: Emerging Trends features as part of the Salzburg Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA) multi-year series. You can capture highlights on social media using the hashtag #SSASA.

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