Three-time Pulitzer winner Thomas Friedman shares writing advice

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives a speech about technology and globalization at the New Student Convocation during Orientation on Wednesday.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives a speech about technology and globalization at the New Student Convocation during Orientation on Wednesday.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gives a speech about technology and globalization at the New Student Convocation during Orientation on Wednesday. Lyssa Goldberg // Online Editor

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for both international reporting and commentary, spoke to freshmen, transfer students and their families at the New Student Convocation Wednesday evening.

Friedman told his audience that this age of globalization and hyper-connectivity fueled by technology means that every college student right now will have to find his or her own “unique value contribution” to take into the job market.

Before his speech, Friedman met with editors of The Miami Hurricane to discuss his career in the media industry. He shared advice for aspiring writers who want to be read and respected, and he also offered his perspective on what it means to be a good journalist. (Hint: You have to like people, and enjoy listening to them.)

Connecting his words back to current domestic events as well as Middle Eastern affairs, Friedman also touched on the protestors in Ferguson, Mo., his influence among the Israeli Knesset and Saudi Arabian monarchy, and why he’s for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

The Miami Hurricane: Could you tell us how you became fascinated with the Middle East and what to you makes it so important?

Thomas Friedman: It’s a long story that would take up the whole interview, but the short version is I grew up in Minnesota in a small town outside of Minneapolis, and when I was 15, my parents took me to Israel over Christmas break because my older sister was studying there at Tel Aviv University, and I actually had never been out of the state except for a few brief forays into Wisconsin, and I had never been on an airplane. That was the first time – I was 15. They took me and I went from Minneapolis to Jerusalem, and maybe it was the shock of the new or the exotic. Maybe if they had taken me to Greece or China, I’d be a Sinologist today. But they took me to the Middle East and I was just totally fascinated by it. …

TMH: You have a very distinct way of writing that sets you apart from other journalists. How did you develop that style?

TF: If I knew, I would bottle it and try to sell it. Part of it is that I really enjoy taking really complicated subjects and making them digestible for people. People can sometimes pooh-pooh that. But actually, to simplify something accurately, you really have to understand it deeply. I always find that it’s a challenge because sometimes we journalists, or even academics, forget that our first goal is to be read. I always like to write in a way that engages people.

… Young people always ask me, “Hey, I want to do what you do. What do I need to know?” And I say, it’s good to be able to type fast; I can really type fast. And it’s good to know English and some economics and politics and international relations. It’s really good to know all of those things. But I think there’s actually one skill that you need to be a good journalist, and that’s that you have to like people.

You have to really enjoy listening to the crazy things they say and do to reveal their lives. I really do like people, and when people sense that you like them, respect them, it’s amazing what they’ll say and what they’ll let you ask even. Or as a columnist, opinion writer, what they’ll let you say back. It amazes me how many journalists hate people. There are a few people in my profession who do. I’ve always thought that, if you can’t hear the music, you’ll never be able to play the music. The music of people’s lives is really what you want to get into and unlock, and a key to that is liking people. I’m also just infinitely curious. I could interview people everywhere I go. …

You need to like people, and the other key is being a good listener. For two reasons. It’s because of what you’ll learn listening, but actually something more important than that. Listening is a sign of respect. It’s amazing, whether you’re a protester across from a cop in Ferguson, or you’re a journalist in the Middle East, it’s amazing that if you just listen to people – and I don’t mean just wait for them to stop talking, but actually listen to them – it’s amazing what they’ll let you say and ask back. When people sense that you respect them, they really will open up. If they sense that you don’t respect them, you can’t tell them the sun is shining. They’ll just shut down.

TMH: Do you have any advice specific to opinion writers?

TF: A news story is meant to inform. A column is meant to produce a reaction. That’s why you’ll rarely hear an editor say, “That news story didn’t work.” But you would say that about a column. What makes a column work – I’m actually going to do a book on this some day before I retire, or before I die – I would say is it produces one of a number of different reactions. First is if you read my column and you say, “I didn’t know that,” that’s a good reaction. I tell you something you didn’t know in service of an opinion. People can find things you don’t know any day, but it should be in service of an opinion. If you read my column and you put it down and say, “Who knew?” — every once in a while a friend of mine will read my column and email me and say, “Who knew?” — that’s a column that worked.

Second is if you read it and say, “I never looked at it that way,” that’s a successful column. Third, your favorite, you live for this, it only happens three or four times a year: “You said exactly what I felt, but I didn’t know how to say it.” The fourth is: “I want to kill you dead, you and all your offspring.” Because your column is defined as much by people who are against you as people who are for you. If no one’s against you, then nobody’s for you.

Another is – and don’t try this trick at home, kids, it’s very hard – “You made me laugh. You made me cry.” When good humor or good sentimentalism is pulled off well, it’s fantastic. When it’s done badly, it’s cringe-inducing. Another good reaction is: “You inspired me. I read your column and I did X.” Another is: “I never connected those things.” Not just, I didn’t look it at that way, but I never connected them. “Thank you, I didn’t see that connection.”

I think a good columnist has to challenge his or her own base. If you’re a liberal, you’ve got to challenge liberals once in a while. That’s to avoid the reaction that I always certainly try to avoid, and I think all columnists should, which is: “I knew what you were going to say when I read your byline.” That’s not good for a columnist. Those are some of the things that are in my head intuitively. If you get any of those reactions, you’ll say, “That column worked.”

I don’t do dish. I don’t trash people. I don’t do snark. I think there’s a line between cynicism and skepticism, and often people that have nothing to say cross that line. They substitute cynicism for real wisdom or reporting. The skeptic says, “I don’t know, I’m going to find out.” The cynic says, “I know you’re a jerk, I’m just going to tell everybody that.” That line should be respected. There’s a little too much of people getting by with trashing people, which you can do now easier than every, and it becomes a substitute for real thinking and real reporting.

I try to respect all my readers. I want to be read by liberals and conservatives. I don’t want to necessarily be liked by both sides. It’s not a popularity contest, and this is not a friend growth industry. I say, in the Middle East, if you’re a reporter, everyone wants to own you or everyone wants to destroy you. There’s not a middle ground. No one puts their arm around you and says, “Listen, I really appreciated that critique. I’m going to take that to heart.” But I do want to be read and respected. Well, I just want to be read. Implied in that is respect. “I’ve got to see what he has to say.”

TMH: Many people nowadays say the print industry is dying. As someone who made a career in print journalism, what is your feeling on that? Do you agree?

TF: We are such a hybrid now; everyone’s a hybrid. I have 20 million unique visitors a month on, so am I a print journalist? It’s true that there’s a million people who get my column printed on a dead tree, but actually many more people now see it online. So am I the mainstream media or old media or new media or online? It’s all kind of mixed up now. So I don’t really focus on that at all.

I don’t think there’s new journalism and old journalism, mainstream and nouveau journalism. I just think there’s good journalism and bad journalism. To me, good reporting, blogging, analyzing and column writing is a product of good reporting and good analysis and good writing. And great blogging, online writing and column writing for The New York Times is a product of great reporting and great analysis and great writing. And it’s true if you’re online, offline, or standing in the Speakers’ Corner in London. It’s really about the quality, not the medium.

TMH: What do you think the role of a good journalist is now? There are some who see themselves as objective journalists, then there are some who see themselves as advocates. What is your perspective?

TF: I think there’s a role for all of them. I guess I’m in the advocacy business because I’m on the opinion pages. There’s investigative journalism, there’s day-to-day reporting, there’s opinion journalism. Again, I think it’s all about doing any one of those to the highest quality and not confusing the three. To me, someone writing on the front page of The New York Times shouldn’t be opining. Someone opining shouldn’t be trying to just report, without opining. Someone who is investigating should be investigating. And so I think there’s all these roles.

For me, it’s not where or how, it’s whether you do any one of them at the highest standard. That’s really the goal. It doesn’t matter to me how it comes out, where it comes out. It’s holding yourself to really high standards. The great thing about today’s world is that you can go out tomorrow and write for a blog or online for The Hurricane, and if it’s really good, it can be read anywhere now, around the world. That wasn’t true when I was writing for the Brandeis Justice. That was it. It went to the thousand people on campus.

You can compete with me now. That’s a great thing. But, you’ve got to really compete with me. You’ve got to compete on standard, on quality, on reporting, on writing, and not by being louder, snarkier. There’s a lot of ways to get attention in this business. I prefer the ones that are sustainable.

TMH: Given your time in Israel and your Hebrew school education and Jewish upbringing, do you think that has influenced your coverage or thinking about Israel and the Middle East? Do you ever feel that colleagues look at you or your reporting in a certain way?

TF: I actually started in the Middle East in Beirut, not in Jerusalem. What I always told people is this: I’ve written now at The New York Times for 33 years. I’ve literally written thousands of columns and stories about the Middle East. If there were a pattern of bias, one way or another, it would be pretty apparent by now. … Now, a lot of journalists in the Middle East will tell you, “If both sides are criticizing me, I must be doing something right.” Actually, I thought that’s a pretty silly statement. Any fool can write in a way that offends both sides. That’s actually not a trick, especially in the Middle East. You want to be respected by both sides, and you want to be read by both sides. And so at different times, I’ve had my columns read by Israeli prime ministers on the Knesset floor, and I’ve had the king of Saudi Arabia give me his peace plan and be the vehicle through which it was transmitted to the world.

I think, at this stage, people know that I’m a straight shooter. I want everyone to succeed. I’m a big believer in a two-state solution. If you’re for that in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you’re my friend. … I believe Israelis will never be at home unless Palestinians are, and Palestinians will never be at home unless the Israelis are. I really believe that Arabs are capable of, desirous of and in need of consensual, democratic politics. And those two pillars really shape everything I do and write.