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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

An interview with Brandeis University’s most recognized alum

Published: November 13, 2009
Section: Features

<i>PHOTOS BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

PHOTOS BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Having graduated 35 years ago this May, Thomas Friedman ’75 is not only one of Brandeis’ most famous alumni, but also one of the world’s foremost columnists, journalists and authors. One of the few journalists to win three Pulitzer Prizes, Friedman will receive the National Press Club’s Fourth Estate award this evening.

“Tom Friedman changed the way America views the world, so it’s only fitting that we honor him,” said Donna Leinwand, the club’s president.

According to the Press Club’s Web site, “each year the National Press Club honors a journalist for his or her lifelong contributions to the profession.”

Friedman, who transferred to Brandeis in his junior year, majored in Mediterranean studies with a focus on Arabic and the Middle East – similar to the current Islamic and Middle Eastern studies major. He chose to transfer to Brandeis after speaking with one of his older sister’s friends.

“[The decision] wasn’t anything really scientific,” Friedman said. “I had a friend of one of my older sisters (we’re from Minnesota), and he had really liked [Brandeis], I sort of admired him, and that was one reason. The other one, vaguely, [was] I thought it would be a fun place to study about the Middle East.”

Though he’s an acclaimed journalist now, Friedman never took a journalism class at Brandeis, feeling that one class he took at his hometown high school in St. Louis Mo. was more than enough.

“I had a legendary high school journalism teacher… Abby Steinberg. I took her journalism course, the greatest, and that’s the only journalism course I’ve ever taken or needed,” Friedman said.

During his years here, Friedman only wrote a few Op-Ed pieces for the Justice, and concentrated on his studies.

“I had a wonderful art history teacher, Elaine Loeffler. She taught a wonderful appreciation of art of Greece; I loved her course. I took a great course with Prof. Brow, in Marxism and Ben Halpern was a great historian of Zionism and [also] my advisor,” he said. “I had great experiences with all of them; they all enriched my education in very different [ways].”

Friedman always had a vague idea that he would go into diplomacy or journalism but concentrated primarily on his grades until he got into graduate school. He attended St. Anthony’s College at Oxford on a Marshall Scholarship where he received a Master’s of Philosophy in Middle Eastern Studies.

After graduate school Friedman applied to both the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI), feeling that it was the fastest way to reach his passion of the Middle East.

“Quite honestly I saw [applying] as the quickest way to get out there and to be able to engage with the kind of raw reality of it, so it was really for that purpose,” he said. “I could have easily gone into academics or diplomacy, but journalism seemed the quickest way to get out and really get immersed in the area, and I chose that route.”

The AP had no job to offer Friedman when he applied, but UPI was another story.

They offered him a job and he “got out [to Lebanon] pretty quickly.”

After a stint as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, Friedman would later became a Times columnist, something he saw as the logical next step in his journey.

“I always had a thing for opinion writing, and it was just a way to evolve as a writer,” he said. “I’d felt I’d already done everything that I’d wanted to do: daily reporting, being a foreign correspondent for the NYT [etc.]. There wasn’t a heck of a lot left for me to do. It was a new challenge and it’s one I’ve enjoyed.”

Having had such an extensive career as a journalist, Friedman certainly has a lot of articles to look back on and be proud of. Yet, out of all his works, Friedman believes the three that have had the greatest impact and of which he is proudest were the three pieces that won him the Pulitzer: but not for the prize.

The first piece of writing is his real-time recreation of the Sabra and Shatila massacre of 1982, for which he won the initial Pulitzer.

Next is a series he wrote while in Beirut: “I did a diary of my summer in Beirut, and it’s one of the things I won the Pulitzer Prize for. It really captured better than anything some of the bizarre things I saw that summer…it may be the single best article that I’ve ever written in my whole life, my absolute favorite, a diary of the summer of 1982, August-September.”

Finally, his columns following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, (responsible for Pulitzer number three), were also among his most personally meaningful.

Although Friedman has had much success and happiness as a journalist, he has also faced challenges that characteristically come along with the job. The most difficult yet as a writer was his choice to support the Iraq war.

“The biggest and hardest call I ever had to make as a columnist was whether or not to support the Iraq war, which I ended up doing, but not for Weapons of Mass Destruction reasons but for democracy reasons. And it was a very hard call and it was one that upset many of my readers, many of them to this day, but I had my reasons and [stuck to them] through thick and thin,” he said. “It would have been easier there to not support it; I would have saved myself a lot of grief… I wouldn’t say I regret it, but it was certainly the most painful.”

Reflecting on his past awards and the upcoming Press Club award, Friedman expressed his gratitude for the honors his peers have bestowed on him.

“There’s nothing better than to be recognized by your peers, so that’s a great thing. So it’s both a great recognition, but also of course a lot of pressure. You have a reputation you have to live up to [and] you have to keep up you work,” he said.

Although he’s grateful for the awards, Friedman says they’re just extra icing on the cake. After all, he prefers to take it one step at a time.

“They’re great things, but I’m not really ever in this for the awards. I really only focus on frankly what my column for Wednesday [is] going to be about,” he said.

He may be good at focusing on the short-term deadline ahead, but Friedman is also a man who likes to look ahead to the long-term, and said he worries about the current state of journalism from time to time. The lack of a clear economic picture of where the newspaper decline will end concerns Friedman, and he said he can see the effect of this decline in his own place of employment, the New York Times. Recently, Friedman said, the paper laid off 100 people.

Looking to the evolving face of journalism, Friedman says he thinks the blogosphere is a wonderful addition to society since a more informed public is always for the best; however he warned against putting too much faith in this new platform.

“I don’t think [the blogosphere] can substitute for the kind of journalism the Times does, or the Chicago Tribune does, or the LA Times does or the Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal. But both can be helpful,” he said.

Friedman said he has the same advice for future journalists that he would have had 20 years ago if you asked him: “Write write write, get printed…it doesn’t matter if it’s your neighborhood shopper, The New York Times, The Hoot, the Justice or The Boston Globe, it doesn’t matter, write and get printed. Be able to develop an archive of your stories that show your own growth and development.”

“What I can’t tell you is where you’re going to get that journalism job. I know there will be a demand for journalism, because people need to have the news, but what I can’t tell you is what the outlet is going to be,” he said. “I know that if you develop your skills, if you’re a great writer, if you’re a good reporter and you can develop a portfolio of articles that demonstrate that to someone, there will be a job for you out there.”

Friedman said he encourages young people to pursue what they love because it will pay off in the long-term – even if it won’t literally pay off in economical terms

“I’m a big believer in it, and it’s a cliché, but it’s true, do what you love, because you’ll always love what you do,” he said. “A hundred percent of people who love what they do are happy, and they’re well rewarded, whether financially or emotionally, and I did what I loved and therefore I brought an extra passion to it, and you just never know what’s going to happen.”