Thomas Friedman on Lessons Learned After 20 Years of Writing Columns at Stanford GSB – Full Transcript
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Thomas Friedman – NY Times Columnist
When they invited me I just thought about like, talk about what. I didn’t want to give another talk about globalization, or the Middle East. I thought I’d actually talk to you today about what I do, which is writing a column. And how to write a column, what constitutes a column and what I’ve learned in the process of writing a column for the last 20 years. So that’s what my talk is going to be about today.
Be three parts, let’s say, the first part will be about where my own opinions came from. What are the roots of my outlook on the world. The second part will be about the nine different kinds of columns. And for there are many more, but to me there are at least nine. And the last part will be about what I’ve learned.
I’m actually thinking about turning this into a book. And it all kind of started, the idea. Really just about three months ago I was in Saudi Arabia. And I was meeting with a group from the Acumen Fund, an entrepreneurial philanthropy. The Saudi chapter. Who knew that there was a Saudi chapter? But there is. And a very impressive group of young Saudi men and women were meeting at the home of one of the women in the group.
And after dinner, we were sitting around. We were sitting around with these young Saudis and they were asking me about how do you write a column? And I said, well, I actually taught a course once for my, other daughter, Williams College during their winter term on how to write a column. And I said there are really just nine kinds of columns. And if you write one of these nine, you’ve got a column. And I started ticking them off as we were sitting around the table. And I noticed right in the middle of it. They all took out their cell phones, and were writing down with their thumbs everything I was saying. And when one missed one was, I missed number four. Did you get four? What was seven?
And I was sort of watching this process, and thinking about it afterwards. And it really struck me, that we are in an age now where everyone wants to, and can, really opine. And be a columnist. You know, I always tell people, when I started the New York Times, as a columnist in January 1995, I actually inherited James Reston’s office in the Washington Bureau of the New York Times. What a great thrill and honor to have the office that was used by this great columnist and editor of the Times in the 60s and 70s. And I suspect when Mr. Reston came to the office back in the 60s and 70s, he would start every day by saying, I wonder what my seven competitors are going to write about today? And he personally knew all seven of his competitors. I can name them. Walter Lippmann, Mary McGrory, Stewart Alsop, Joseph Craft, Tony Lewis, I know them.
I now do the same thing, I come to the office every day and I say to myself, I wonder what my 70 million competitors are going to write today. I have 70 million competitors, because we do live in a world where anyone who has access to a blog is now a potential columnist, everyone who has access Twitter is a reporter, anyone with access to YouTube is a film maker, or a paparazzi. And so many people now are engaged in, opining about the world in their own ways and I think it’s actually very exciting and it’s very rich and everyone is doing it in their own way.
And what I want to talk to you about for the next 40 minutes or so and then we’ll have some Q&A is what is my way. I don’t know that it’s the best way. It certainly isn’t the only way, but I can tell you it’s my way.
Now my way starts and I think every columnist has to start with a point of view, with a take on the world. No one’s interested in your disconnected thoughts. Everyone has a take on the world, and if I do write this up in a book, this chapter will be called, always looking for Minnesota. You won’t understand my way without understanding where I come from and how my worldview was shaped. So let’s go back to the beginning when I first fell in love with journalism.
It all starts back in Minnesota with my own version of the Jersey Boys, the musical about the 1960s singing group, the Four Seasons led by Frankie Valli. It’s one of my favorite musicals, and I particularly like the opening monologue when the group’s founder, Tommy DeVito, locates their beginning. DeVito comes onstage following a French rendition of the Four Season’s Classic, Oh What a Night. And he begins by saying that’s our song, Oh What a Night, French, number 1 in Paris. 2000. How’d that happen?
You ask four guys, you get four different versions, but this is where all of them start. Belleville, New Jersey, 1000 years ago. Eisenhower, Rocky Marciano, and a few guys under a street lamp singing somebody else’s latest hit. Every time I listen to that riff it transports me back to my own roots. To this day, I pinch myself that I’ve been the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times for 20 years. How did that happen? You ask my family and friends, you get 40 different versions. But this is where all of them start. Minnesota. A thousand years ago. Hubert Humphrey, 10,000 lakes, the Minnesota Vikings, and a few guys and girls, including me, growing up in a tiny, one high school suburb outside of Minneapolis called St. Louis Park.
Something was in the water there in the 1960’s. During those post-war years, this tiny community, St. Louis Park, ten square miles, was the birthplace or childhood home of the movie directors, the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, political scientist Norman Ornstein, Senator and former comedian, Al Franken, Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, Chicago Bears football coach Marc Trestman, film director Joe Nussbaum, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel and yours truly. We all grew up in about six block radius of one another during the 60s.
The Coen Brothers, you may know, based their 2009 movie A Serious Man on St. Louis Park circa 1967 and among other things memorialized our Hebrew school. When they were young, the Coen Brothers often hung out at Mike Zoss Drugs in Minnetonka Boulevard, a few miles from my house. And if you look closely in their classic film No Country For Old Men, the pharmacy just across the Mexican border that the lead character Chigurh played by Javier Bardem, enters to get medicine after he blows up a parked car, is called Mike Zoss Pharmacy.
Vice President Mondale once asked me to speak for his Minneapolis law firm and in preparation for introducing me, interviewed the Coen brothers, Franken and Ornstein, on what they thought was going on in Saint Louis Park back then. Franken said, when people hear that the five of us all grew up in the same suburb, they’re astonished. What’s in the water, they sometimes joked. But it’s not a joke.
During our childhood, at St. Louis park, it was home to a large creosote plant, which leached tons of toxic materials into the groundwater. Studies have shown that ingesting large quantities of creosote can lead to two things: increased levels of intellectual creativity and/or prostate problems.
The Coen brothers compare Saint Louis park to the small region in Hungary that had produced numerous nuclear physicists and draculas. My English teacher, Miriam Kagel, who later taught journalism at Park High told the Jewish Daily Forward, it was partly rooted in the migration of Jews to St. Louis Park from the inner city of Minneapolis, the northside in the 40s and 50s. It was the time of great political ferment had reached the Midwest and people were just full of ideas and protests and opinions and speaking their mind. I think there is something to that.
In my case, my parents subscribed to Time, and Life magazines, and to both the morning and afternoon newspapers, the Minneapolis Tribune and Minneapolis Star. That is where I trace my love of journalism, and opinion writing. I don’t know why, but from the moment I started reading newspapers, probably in junior high school, I enjoyed reading columnists. I can still see myself coming home from school, picking up the Minneapolis Star and spreading it out on the living room floor and reading Peter Lisagor’s syndicated column from the Chicago Tribune. I devoured Time Magazine as soon as it arrived, and I got my first experience in opinion writing by writing a letter to the editor of Time magazine to protest a swipe that Time magazine took at my favorite baseball player in those days, the Minnesota Twins talented utility player Cesar Tovar, who once played all 9 positions during a single game. Time criticized the fact that Tovar got one vote for the American League’s most valuable player award in the 1967 season. Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski received all the other votes. I rose to Tovar’s defense as a worthy MVP candidate with my outraged letter to the editor of Time.