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June 5, 2002:

A reporter's life: Barton Gellman '82

PAW sat down with 2002 Pulitzer Prize winner and Washington Post reporter Barton Gellman '82 soon after he and a team of Post reporters won the nation's top journalism prize for their coverage of the September 11. Gellman taught a seminar at Princeton this spring as a Ferris Professor of Journalism. He has covered everything from former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry's drug trial to the AIDS epidemic in Africa and currently serves as a special projects reporter at the newspaper's New York bureau.

PAW: You've been nominated twice before for a Pulitzer. What was it like to win one?

Gellman: It's very important to say that this was a team effort. Eight reporters shared this prize. It had to do with a package of 10 stories after September 11 that tried to show how we got there and some important dimensions of what was happening afterward. We're always building our best work on tragedy. You know journalism is mainly about conflict. Truly, anytime that your work is honored you have this feeling that you're somehow benefiting from something awful but you also hope that you're making it more understandable to readers or exposing something that needs attention.

PAW: Could you talk a little about your work on the AIDS crisis in Africa? What was your focus?

Gellman: I did something different, which was to focus on holding accountable the people who had power to do something about it and didn't. The year before the Village Voice had won the Pulitzer for a series on AIDS in Africa, which is kind of an awful travel log of pain all around Africa. Mine was a different question which is "How did we get to this?"

Although I spent some time in Africa, my real reporting focus was on Western governments and pharmaceutical companies and United Nations' agencies that could have done more than they did.

PAW: Do you think any progress has been made in Africa?

Gellman: There's been a lot more attention, and there's been some material progress. But I have to say that September 11 broke the momentum quite a bit. We're not that great at focusing on more than one big problem at a time. A little perspective is in order: 3,000 people died on September 11, and something more than twice that many die every day — every day — every year of AIDS. There is no human catastrophe that compares to it.

PAW: How do you as a person, as a reporter, deal with your emotions when covering something like the aftermath of September 11 or the AIDS crisis in Africa?

Gellman: We're a little bit like emergency room doctors or all the other people who hold jobs that expose them to trauma. You keep a certain distance most of the time and you kind of convert pain into material and then try to recapture the emotional touch points of it so that a reader can experience it indirectly. But sometimes the intensity of it just blasts through all of your defenses, and that happened with both these stories.

We talked about benefiting from tragedy before. I won some prize money for the AIDS stories, and it seemed to me grotesque that someone living in the wealthy West should materially benefit from his talent. So I signed the money over to charity that provides AIDS orphans in Africa with the funds to go back to school. Usually, if I think I'm doing any good in the world, I think I'm doing it by calling notice and attention to an issue or a problem. In this case I felt like I wanted to do something more directly.

PAW: What was your first beat at the Post?Gellman: Local courts. The local courthouse is a great first, second, or third beat for anybody. You get almost every human drama passing through the courts one way or another. The kind of culmination of my time there was Marion Barry's drug trial.

PAW: What was that like?

Gellman: The circus? It literally had sex, drugs, videotapes, lies, and the very complex politics of race in a racially charged city.

PAW: You worked at the Daily Princetonian. Do you remember what your first story was your freshman year?

Gellman: It's funny, you know I don't remember my very first story, but I remember my first beat. It was an ongoing labor dispute between Princeton and its labor workers. There was a long, bitter contract negotiation and strike. That was where I really learned how to cover a running story.

You're not writing about something just once, you keep coming back and coming back, you learn to find different dimensions of the story, different angles. That was when I learned the most from Peter Elkind '80. By then he'd had summer internships at the Miami Herald, where he worked as a real reporter writing by-line stories. He brought back — as I don't know how many generations of Prince editors had done before — that experience into the campus newsroom. And then I went on and did exactly the same thing he had done. I had the same internship a couple of years later.

PAW: In Miami?

Gellman: Yes. This is actually why I'm opposed to having journalism major at Princeton. I really think it's a craft that you apprentice yourself to and its not really the profession that we'd like to claim it is because a profession has a body of professional elements that you have to acquire. It's not something you can study. You don't need to learn the structure of the law, and you don't need to learn the physiology of the body. You kind of acquire the art of insinuating yourself into a world and writing about it.

PAW: What do you mean when you say insinuating yourself into a world?

Gellman: I mean most of the good nonfiction writing that I most admire is where someone penetrates into some world. It can be a subculture, it can be a foreign place, it can just be the inside of City Hall or the neighborhood that is the getting set for a court dispute, whatever the story is. You go in someplace where most of your readers haven't been. You learn to understand the language and the culture and the issues in that world and you bring it back out and try to reproduce it. Part of what I'm doing in the course I'm teaching is trying to show how some very successful writers have done that, but there really isn't a cookbook or a formula for it.

PAW: What's your favorite part of your job?

Gellman: The license to be curious for a living. The idea that I can call or visit almost anyone and ask questions about what's interesting to me and then try to make it interesting to readers. In some ways you have a better view of the world you visit than any of the occupants do because say, when I cover the Pentagon, in the Navy there are really three Navies. There's the aviation Navy, the surface ship Navy, and the submarine Navy. They scarcely know each other. I can travel in all three of them. I've been in ships and aircrafts and submarines, and I can talk to the lowest enlisted guy and the highest officers and those people simply don't talk to each other. You know, if you're a four star admiral you have no meaningful contact with seamen first class. You're way past those days. Yet I get to go around and kind of see the world from both those points of view. I love it.