Politico editor returns to her alma mater to discuss the state of journalism
"Rutgers is really a direct line to where I am now" - Carrie Budoff Brown
On Wednesday, less than one year after taking the helm as the editor of Politico, Carrie Budoff Brown returned to her alma mater for an open conversation at Trayes Hall that spanned the nuanced landscapes of politics and journalism, as well as her formative years as a Rutgers student.
From forging a newsroom that has never laid off a journalist to amassing an online audience of more than 25 million readers, Brown’s tenure has already set a new trajectory for the publication.
She appeared at Rutgers as part of the Louis J. Gambaccini Civic Engagement Series: Toward Better Citizenship — an annual program that has featured Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“When Eagleton first reached out to Carrie Budoff Brown to congratulate her on her new job as editor of Politico, she responded with warmth and enthusiasm, not only as an alumni happy to reconnect, but as a professional journalist, eager to give back to a community that helped shape her career,” said Ruth Mandel, the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. “She’s very generous in talking about how much Rutgers did for her.”
Brown, who now leads one of the most influential political papers in the country, instigated her journalistic career as a writer and editor on the 128th board of The Daily Targum. From there, she secured an internship with The New York Times in Trenton and later assumed full-time positions at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Hartford Courant.
“Even though it was not part of the calculation, I was lucky that I picked a university that had a daily student newspaper, which was an invaluable platform to learn journalism,” Brown said. “You could make mistakes, you could have camaraderie, you could kind of figure it out as you went — so that was really transformative in terms of the experience I got there. I just got lucky.”
It was also during this period that Brown got her first taste of reporting on national politics. In 1996, the Targum’s editorial board was invited, along with hundreds of college newspaper editors from across the country, to cover a rally for former President Bill Clinton’s re-election campaign, she said.
Brown said that when a window opened for her to raise her hand in the press conference, Brown settled on an inquiry surrounding the ethics of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the context of University ROTC programs, which are governed by strict anti-discriminatory rules.
“I was going to ask the president how colleges can resolve this question, but when he called on me I didn’t have the question in front of me, so I was probably rambling and he looked at me and went ‘I don’t understand,'” Brown said.
She said she first saw this incident as a failure, but it was in response to the 19 year old’s question that Clinton first acknowledged about "don’t ask, don’t tell" being fundamentally flawed. Consequently, she became the only reporter at the conference that day to singlehandedly create breaking news.
“If I hadn’t been at Rutgers, this never would have happened,” Brown said.
In 2007, the same year that Politico established itself in Washington D.C., Brown became one of the publication’s first reporters. Over the next decade, she ascended the ranks, working as a White House correspondent, the managing editor of the European Bureau and finally the editor of Politico in its entirety, she said.
While Politico now boasts 25 million online readers, Brown said she still pushes everyone in her newsroom to maintain the strict ethical standards of old school print journalism. For her, this means adhering to a code of reporting practices like reaching out for comments, refraining from partisanship and fact checking everything.
Accuracy and fairness is more critical than ever, given the increasingly tumultuous relationship between the nation’s leaders and the media, she said.
“I think our response (to attacks on journalism) is that we do our jobs and that is, in my view, the best way to counteract the notion that there is fake news. If, at any point in my career, I made a mistake, I was obviously devastated. Sometimes I wouldn’t sleep if I made a mistake, but I don’t think the stakes felt as high as they do now,” she said. “We’re under a microscope, our credibility is being questioned, we’ve never had great poll numbers but they’re very low — and at the same time, the best way to counter all of that is by doing really good journalism.”
Brown said she is apolitical. In terms of her own media consumption, she traverses the partisan line reading everything from the National Review and The Wall Street Journal to Vox and The New York Times.
Unlike the editors of many contemporary news outlets, she said she does not allow her writers to post any political views on social media.
“As a reporter, I don’t have points of view,” Brown said. “I’ve said this before, but I’ve been a journalist for 20 years, and I think sometimes I lack opinions. I don’t talk about politics from a perspective of any sort of personal viewpoint.”
The role of journalism — and the component that sets it apart from the opinions section — boils down to its dedication to finding and portraying facts as they are, she said. This can only be done when journalists hold their own political affiliations at a distance.
“I had experience after college covering small towns in South Jersey, where I was forced to learn how to be a journalist. You have to go to a town hall every day and return the next day and the next day and the next day. And that meant you had to write stories that were fair and accurate and you had to go face the people you were talking to,” she said. “And I don’t think people have as much of an opportunity to do that now. Everything is done over computers over emails, and I think what I learned from being a reporter in a small town is that what we do matters. What we do has an impact on people — good and also bad.”
With newspapers around the country closing, Brown said a dwindling number of young journalists are being allotted these experiences.
The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she worked after graduating, used to hire 40 journalists each year to live in small towns across the country and do reporting. The program no longer exists, she said.
“I spent 10 years in papers that were detracting. And I did not see a future in journalism when I was at The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Hartford Courant. They were great newspapers, but they were laying people off all the time,” Brown said. “Now I’m leading a newsroom that has never laid someone off and I never want to have layoffs at Politico and that means a lot to me, and I have to make sure that I’m doing everything right to make sure that that never happens.”