An Interview with David Cay Johnston

Haegwan Kim

Today I am going to talk with David Cay Johnston, who is a internationally renowned reporter for the New York Times until 2008, and received the Pulitzer Prize in 2001. It’s an honour to talk with you David, thank you so much.


David Cay Johnston

Thank you for having me.


HK

Let’s talk about your personal life at first. Why did you become a journalist?


DCJ

Oh it was a way out of poverty. My father was a 100% disabled veteran of World War Two. So I had to go to work when I was 13 years old, and when I was 17 I found out I could make money writing for a little weekly newspaper. Then when I was 19 I talked my way into a job at a big city newspaper. So on a Friday I was struggling with four jobs, 90 hours a week at work and not getting enough sleep, and on Monday I was making a decent living.


HK

So technically, you didn’t ‘want’ to become a journalist?


DCJ

No my original career goal was to be a homicide detective for the Los Angeles police department.


HK

Cool.


DCJ

Many years later I actually personally hunted down a killer the police had failed to catch, and won freedom for a young man who was tried five times for the crime, and finally acquitted at the last trial.


HK

Can you tell me, what is the important thing to be a good journalist?


DCJ

The fundamentals of good journalism are that you must be skeptical of everything you hear. There’s an old phrase, ‘If your mother says she loves you, check it out.’


HK

[Laugh]


DCJ

Secondly you have to cross check everything. The first rule of journalism is check it and cross check it until you know. Deeper than that is having an understanding of what you’re writing about. Many journalists accurately quote what people say, but all they know is what people tell them. However, if you understand the industry, the government, whatever it is that you are writing about, on a very deep level then you can do much more serious journalism.

So when I start to cover a new subject, the very first thing I do because I speak English, is I get the Oxford English Dictionary out. I look up every relevant word. When I started to write about the gambling industry 22 years ago I lucked up odds, dice, roulette, betting, vigorish … all the words I could think of, and studied their history. Then I went and studied the underlying principles that are behind gambling and the regulation of gambling.


HK

There are many arguments against reporters by saying that they are just subordinates of government. True or false?


DCJ

Well, subordinate is not the word I would use. But there is no question that a lot of reporters simply report the official version of events. The Soviet Union had newspapers named Izvestia and Pravda. One means news and the other means truth and the Soviets joked that there’s no truth in the news and no news in the truth. In the United States, many journalists report the official version of the events and the official criticisms of the official version of the event. I’m not in that business. I’m in the business of the unofficial version of events. It’s much more difficult to do that because you have to know independently what it is that you’re writing about in order to write the unofficial version.


HK

Is that your own justice as a journalist?


DCJ

Well I’m not alone in this, there’s thousands of journalists who do this in the country, but we’re the minority. The important feature of that is that you must have independent knowledge. For example, I write a lot about the tax system. Because I studied it back to the beginning of civilization I actually understand how it works on a very, very deep level. Very few journalists who write about taxes have more than a mechanical and policy level of knowledge. They know what the politicians say about taxes, but they haven’t read the tax code. So I now teach the history of tax from the beginning of civilisation to today at Syracuse University College of Law.


HK

You’ve proved loads of ‘inconvenient truths’ of authority. I guess many companies think, “Oh David, he did it again.” And you know … my question is how can you shrug them off?


DCJ

First of all, everyone is entitled to their opinions; they’re just not entitled to their own facts. Facts are facts. Empirical and provable facts are facts. There may be new facts and someone may disagree with how important I say this fact is versus another fact. But if you know your facts, if you know what you’re doing and you have a rounded sense of the facts, that is you understand everybody’s involved in an issue’s position on the facts, then you could write about it. Now people bring their own interpretations of things, and I’ll give you a hilarious example of this, and maybe sad and bizarre, but hilarious.

When I was a very young reporter, I wrote a story about a man who needed a heart transplant. And in the beginning of the story I described him lying in his bed and how he looked almost blue, because he didn’t have enough blood flow. And a bunch of people called up me the next day and they wanted to donate. I said, “Excuse me, what do you want to donate?” They said, “He needs blood, his blood is blue right?” And I said, “He needs a heart,” and, click, they would hang up the phone. Somebody also wrote me a letter, this was a Frankenstein monster idea that you should take the heart of a dead person and put it into somebody else. People bring their own view of things to whatever they read. And the trick is to get people to see things that they are blind to. To find ways to tell the story so that the important fact, a fact you might not want to have been true, you accept.


HK

Would you say today reports are not based on your knowledge, research, or investigation? But I think they should have ‘right’ thing.


DCJ

You’ve got to have your facts right. I’ve seen many, many reporters’ careers come to an end because they didn’t have their facts right or they didn’t properly understand an issue. Without question, that’s a crucial issue. When you read the journalism of reporters who simply quote what other people say, that’s most of it. The President of the United States, the Prime Minister of China, the head of BP Oils said xyz yesterday. Those are accurate accounts of what they said, but they don’t have any real depth to them. If you ever go below the surface to the unofficial version of events, you’d better damn well know your stuff.


HK

That’s intriguing. Okay, talking about the tax issue which is a part you are really familiar with. You talk about tax is fundamentally necessary for democracy. Can you talk a little bit about the relation between tax and democracy?


DCJ

Sure, well democracy is the child of tax. It was the invention of the moral basis for progressive taxation, the greater your gain the greater your burden, the larger the share you must give back. That led to the birth of democracy 2,500 years ago in Greece. And therefore I argue if it’s lasted 2,500 years, it is a conservative principle because it’s lasted all this time. Now many, many people today don’t have this knowledge of the past, and so they think of tax in terms of Karl Marx. Many people think that a progressive tax is some awful communist plot, when in fact it’s very conservative. And that goes to how poorly – particularly in the United States – the education system has done in terms of giving people and understanding of history and philosophy and the underlying principles. I didn’t learn these things, by the way, when I went to public school in America. I learned them as an adult through my own research. Now all governments tax, it doesn’t matter whether you are a dictatorship, a military hunter, a democracy or a republic. Without tax there is no civilisation. Without civilisation there’s no wealth. Because in his natural state man lives in the jungle, and in the jungle the tiger, the warlord or the thug just takes whatever he wants from you. So you have to have taxes in order to create wealth and peace and civilisation.


HK

You would say the best tax policy is a progressive taxation?


DCJ

In general yes.


HK

Talking about globalisation, as you said, civilisation is fundamentally necessary for our wealth, I know. But the civilisation is not the only one. For example, the civilisation of the United States and the civilisation of China, the civilisation of Korea, Japan, all countries are different right? Even between states. How do you legitimise the integrative democratisation or international tax policy?


DCJ

Well here’s the fundamental tax policy. In the United States we created a government that is beholden to the people. And the very first power in the constitution of the United States granted to congress the power of tax. Article One of the United States constitution begins with the words, “The congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties and impose them.” It doesn’t define it beyond that. Now there are lots of different ways you can organise taxes. We happen to be heavy in America on taxing, for example, incomes. And taxing capital. But you could run a government where you tax, say, electricity. Because what is the defining technology of the modern world? Electricity. So how much electricity you use is a pretty good proxy for how wealthy you are. We could just tax electricity, which is already metered. We could just tax carbon, gasoline, diesel, jet fuel etc. because they are metered. We could tax water. There are lots of different ways that you can tax. The important point is – at least in the United States – the tax system is what the peoples’ representatives have voted. When I have people say we have a terrible tax system, I say, “Well I agree, so let’s go an elect another congress.” Elect different people to congress and get a different tax system.


HK

Can we impose same amount of tax on countries which have different income condition?


DCJ

Well you have to have an historical perspective about these things. Okay? The United States is the wealthiest society in the world right now. It was always. China was a very poor country very recently, it is still a country with a lot of poverty but it is much better off than it was. And these things change over time. To some degree, those people who are in power in the world have always seen to it that they take care of their interests first, I’m shocked, shocked I tell you! The Romans were not worried about how the Semites were doing in Palestine. The United Kingdom didn’t worry about how well the people in their colonies were doing overall. And so of course the United States right now, and Western Europe and Japan as the dominant economic forces, they tend to want those rules that benefit them. That doesn’t mean people are powerless. China for example, by artificially holding down the value of its currency, has increased its ability to export. That’s distorting, too. So it’s not like other countries are powerless. It’s just they have to address the power that is held by those who have got the gold.


HK

Can you give me your perspective on the transformation of tax and economic progress for the coming ten years?


DCJ

Here’s what taxes I believe should fundamentally be used for. They should be used to grease the wheels of commerce. So in the United States when it was developing from an agrarian society to after 1865 an industrial society, there was the building of canals, of bridges, dams, roads, infrastructure. There was the creation of a huge university system that I think is the marvel of the world. The US I think clearly has the best research universities in the world.

Now look at China. I’ve been to China and I’m coming again in a few weeks. The planners in China clearly understand that they need to have a highway system that allows for the rapid movement of vehicles. They have these very broad roads and they appear to be very well built. The Maglev train at Shanghai airport is being extended all the way to another city down the coast, and I expect eventually China will be the leader in the world at developing magnetic levitation trains, which are a brilliant way to move people and goods. The Three Gorges dam project is anther example. If we in fact have, in the next few hundred or a thousand years, a huge rise in sea level because of global warming, that Three Gorges dam project allows big ships to go inland about 1,500 miles. So China can simply retreat back from the current border of the sea and continue to be a prosperous society. There seems to be in China a lot of forward thinking about investment, infrastructure and education, just as there was in the United States in the years after 1865 when our American civil war ended and industrialization took off.


HK

I want to move our conversation about media. You were belonging to so-called old media, The New York Times. Obviously the best newspaper in the world in terms of quality, writers, reporters, and reputation. I am just wondering what do you think about the transformation to new-media based on the Internet. Millions of people now are getting information on the internet not from papers.


DCJ

Well first of all, the way the newspaper provides material doesn’t have to be on paper. What’s happened in the news business is a breakdown of the economic model, not the readership model. Readership of the New York Times, because of the Internet, is vastly larger today than it was 20 years ago. Newspapers began as a way to connect buyers and sellers through the ads in the newspaper, and the internet is destroying that business. It’s destroying lots of different kinds of businesses all around the world. So newspapers have to come up with a new kind of economic model. A lot of the social media that people rely on -- blogs, Facebook, things like that -- they don’t do original reporting. And one of the things that have become clear is that at least some people are now recognising the value of reporting. It’s very easy to type out a blog and say such and such without having checked and cross checked and knowing what you’re writing about. Journalists are in the business of having their facts down solid.

And the biggest problem with journalism has been superficiality, not accuracy. Too much reliance on what the business, the government or whatever it is you are covering says is the story, instead of checking deeper. So there’s a continued need to have journalism based on cross checking facts and empirical facts. And I don’t think that’s going to go away. I think demand for that is going to increase over time, and the delivery mechanism is just going to change. There will be more and more of it on screens. And actually we’re going to have pieces of paper like they had in the Harry Potter movies, where you open it up and there’s the news page, and then the story gets updated, you flick on it and it adjusts to another page.


HK

[Laugh]


DCJ

That can actually come here where I live in Rochester New York. This is where Kodak is, and where Xerox developed electronic ink. And so those things are coming. There’s a wonderful new future of technology and ways to deliver information.


HK

Then you think it is still worth paying for the NY Times? Of course?


DCJ

Well here’s one of the issues. When you watch television with commercials it doesn’t cost you anything out of pocket to watch it. As news organisations rely on their readers for money, rather than advertisers, it means that the poor are going to be relatively worse off. They are going to have less information. I don’t know how damaging or good that is, or how important that is, but it clearly will be an important issue as we go forward. I have done well in my life and handled my money well, so I can afford to buy whatever I want to buy in terms of news. But not all of my children can, I have eight children. Not all of the people around me can. I think you’re going to see that this will become an important issue over time. Whether we begin to have news that primarily is going to people who have higher incomes, I don’t mean wealthy people, but people who are above the poverty level. But I don’t know what the social impact to that will be, it’s too early to tell.


HK

Conversely from perspective of the readers, what is required for readers to get information in the 21st century?


DCJ

Well you need to have people who know what it is that they are reporting on. So take a plane crash. It doesn’t take much knowledge to say, “There’s an airplane here on the ground, it crashed and burned.” But to write about was this an error by the pilot, was there a mechanical failure, is it a combination, was there an electronic breakdown? And to be able to explain that requires knowledge of engineering, systems, regulations, a whole variety of things. So it’s important to have journalists who are well trained in these things and who also know how to ask the question. There’s an old saying that someone who’s trained knows how to answer a question, someone who’s educated knows what question to ask.


HK

That’s a really good point. Time moves on, so this is the final question. What is your advice to be successful in general?


DCJ

Work hard, be persistent and always forthrightly acknowledge when you’ve made a mistake. And once you realise you made a mistake, don’t invest in that any more. Make a new decision, go in a new direction.


David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize Winning Investigative Journalist.

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