Nieman’s 80th Anniversary Reunion Weekend
Transcript: Ann and Bill Marimow
Ann Marimow: Hi everybody. We are here because we are one of four parent/child Niemans in the 80-year history of the program.
We’re going to have a conversation about our shared experiences and Nieman connection. Thank you for listening.
Dad, in 1982 you were a 34-year-old reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer. I’d love to hear how you were inspired to apply for Nieman and how you knew about it.
Bill Marimow: Well, Annie, in the fall of 1972 The Inquirer got a new editor. His name was Gene Roberts.
For those of you who know him, he’s been a great reporter in Detroit, in Norfolk, in Raleigh and at The New York Times.
He inherited me, a very untutored, unsophisticated green reporter. Probably in 1973 or ’74 he was talking with me about a book called, Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed’s epic recapitulation of the Russian revolution.
I said, “Gene, how do you know about all that?” He said in his inimitable North Carolinian drawl, “I learned about with the Nieman Fellowship.” I heard about the Nieman Fellowship and I thought to myself, “Wow! That is something I could never even dream of.”
Eight years later, I was reading Nieman reports and looking at the new crop of Niemans, and said to myself, “You know I might be eligible for that.” I went in and had the shortest conversation I had ever had with Gene. I said, “Would you consider recommending me for a Nieman Fellowship some day? If you would, how about next year?” He said, “Yeah and yeah.”
That’s how it happened, Annie. I wanted to know from you as a seven-year-old, what do you remember about those years 1982 and ’83?
Her brother, Scott, is here also in the audience.
Too self-effacing to stand up. I’m also interested in who inspired you to apply for the fellowship?
Ann: Right. I have very many vivid memories from that year. In those days at Lippmann House on the second floor, there was a whole room with rows of electric typewriters. I remember sneaking up there, typing on the typewriter and pretending to be a reporter.
In the basement in those days, there was also a playroom where all the kids would hang out during soundings. I remember hearing the laughter and serious talk from upstairs, and thinking something very important must be going on. Of course, the cookie jar was also there in the galley kitchen.
I had wonderful memories of that year. As I began my own career as a journalist, I also didn’t think it was something I could do until four years ago I ran into, or met for the first time, John Harwood from the class of 1990.
We quickly figured out that both of us had fathers who had been Nieman fellows. He told me about his own Nieman experience and said how special it was to have that connection to his dad.
I quickly went back to The Washington Post newsroom and found Mary Beth Sheridan and said, “OK. Help me figure out how to get my essay together. I want to do this with my family.” I became a part of the class of 2015, everyone who is here.
Dad, talk a little bit about what you learned during your Nieman year and what you studied.
Bill: Well, unlike you who learned a lot at The Concord Monitor” Congressional Quarterly and San Jose Mercury News, my education came from reading literature at Trinity College and my stint as an editor at Jewelers Circular Keystone.
A lot of what I did as a reporter was done by instinct, intuition and what I learned from my colleagues.
When I came to Harvard, I studied at the law school, the Kennedy school and the business school. At the law school I was really lucky to have some professors like Archibald Cox, the former Watergate special prosecuto,r and Anthony Lewis, who was then writing a column for The Times.
I discovered that what I had done by instinct and intuition really had a historical constitutional framework. I went back to work really with a much stronger understanding of the roots of our profession.
How about you, Annie?
What did you come back from Harvard with? What professors and teachers really inspired you?
Ann: I decided to take poetry for the first time and studied with Helen Vendler. It was really like studying a foreign language. I learned about the power of just a few words to create a vivid story. That was one of the most memorable experiences: reading Seamus Heaney with her for a semester.
I also spent time at the law school with Alex Whiting, learning about how prosecutors use grand juries to build their cases. If you’ve been reading about what’s happening in Washington these days, that’s been very meaningful, with Bob Mueller. It gave me a lot of insight into how they work and operate.
Just as meaningful, I learned so much from my fellows and especially those from overseas, the international experience, and understanding how Jieqi was working in China. My colleagues, with their skepticism of the U.S. government, that’s something that really opened my eyes and helped me a lot when I got back to work.
Dad, if you could talk about going back to work and what you brought from Nieman to the newsrooms of The Inquirer, The Baltimore Sun and NPR.
Bill: I think there were really two major benefits, Annie. One was both the exposure to foreign journalists. I think that having people in my Nieman class from South Africa, from China, from Germany, from Poland, it really showed me firsthand what a big, incredible, interrelated world there was.
While we traveled — Mom and I traveled around the world, hitchhiked — we never had day-to-day, month-to-month interaction over a long period of time. The greatest benefit to me professionally was that I came back with the understanding that what I’d done by instinct and intuition really had a foundation in the law.
I’d written about civil rights violations by Philadelphia police in maybe five or six years before I returned. When I came back, I really understood the difference between what I’ll call civil rights violations, federal crimes and accidents. When I started writing about the Philadelphia Police Canine Unit and attacks on unarmed men and women, people who’d not committed any crimes at all.
I was able to do the stories with much more confidence and competence than ever before. I understood, both intellectually and instinctively, how important it was to get to master the other side of the story. It was something that we as younger reporters often would be relieved with a “no comment.”
Bill: I’m getting the other side of the story, part of the idea and part of the reality that life is nuanced. It’s not black or white. It’s not zero or a hundred. There are two sides to every story. Mastering the other side of the story really helped every story that I’ve ever written or edited since. How about you?
What did you bring back?
Ann: I think like you, Dad, coming back to the newsroom, I came back with a new sense of confidence, purpose, ambition, wanting to tackle bigger stories that would have an impact and really make a difference. One of the first stories I did was about gun violence in D.C.
We spent a very long time tracking the path of just one gun that had been used to commit multiple crimes around the D.C. area, including shooting two police officers in D.C. It’s something that I’ve carried with me ever since and think about almost every day at work about what I can accomplish and what I can take on.
Thankfully, with Jeff Bezos’s new money, we have a lot more resources to do that.
I want to close, Dad, by asking you another question.
Bill: A tough one I hope?
Ann: I want to ask you about one thing that you wish from your career that I can take away and apply to my own life.
Bill: That’s a tough one.
Can I mention two things?
Bill: Thanks. The first and most important, I think, for all of us in journalism is living up to the letter and the spirit of every commitment we make. That’s both to the people we cover, to the institutions we represent, the readers and the audience we write for. I think that doing that creates a respect and a trust that will enable us to do better and better stories with each passing year.
The other thing that I think is important in life is finding mentors, people who’ve accomplished what you aspire to do, who have the willingness and time to impart what they’ve learned. I think that when you have a mentor like that, it inspires you to do the same for younger generations.
Ann: I’m lucky to have had a great mentor.
Bill: I’m lucky to have a great student and daughter.
Bill: My last question for you, Annie, and it’s a tough one. We’ll try to take it from the past at the Nieman program to the present. I’ve been reading a lot of your stories about now Justice Brett Kavanaugh. I’d be very interested in what you thought of him covering him over the last two or three years vis-à-vis what you’ve seen in recent weeks. Is that tough enough?
I did cover him for the last probably three years as an appellate court judge. I would say, of the thirteen judges, he was one of the most accessible. He was available for lunch to talk about the law, to talk about stories, and was always very helpful and friendly. He helped me understand cases when I was having trouble. We talked about our families. I really enjoyed getting to know him.
It was tough to cover these hearings these last couple weeks, especially the last hearing seeing him get so angry. His interactions with the senators was not familiar, he seemed like a different person than the person I’d been getting to know. Then I was at the Supreme Court on Tuesday for the first day watching Justice Kavanaugh and he seemed to fit right in.
It’ll be interesting to watch how this all unfolds.
Bill: Good. Well, that’s it. That’s a wrap.
Ann: Thank you. Thanks, Dad.