01 Feb 2002
Karen Tumulty Reports on AmericaTopics:
After more than twenty years in journalism, covering
everything from the coroner's office to the Oval Office,
Karen E. Tumulty (MBA '81), Time magazine's national
political correspondent, has seen it all. So how to explain the
warm smile, ready laugh, and upbeat manner, where one might reasonably
expect doom and gloom or world-weary cynicism? Maybe it's
because being an inside witness to the good, the bad, and the
ugly provides such fascinating raw material for Tumulty to work
with as she carries out her mission: interpreting the nation's
political fortunes for legions of concerned citizens.
An Air Force brat whose most frequent home while growing
up was San Antonio, Texas, Tumulty attended the University of
Texas at Austin, a hotbed of journalism that has produced household
names such as Walter Cronkite and Bill Moyers. "In college,"
she recalls, "the highlight for me was working on the school
paper, the Daily Texan - I just loved the reporting.
It became clear to me that this was what I wanted to do."
She got her professional start in 1977 at her hometown paper,
the now defunct San Antonio Light. After six months of
covering fires, murders, and city council meetings, she was named
business editor. "I could see even then that newspapers were
expanding their business coverage," Tumulty says, "and
that got me thinking about going to business school, but always
with the intent of staying in journalism."
the White House is "the most frustrating thing I've
ever done and perhaps the most prestigious bad job in journalism."
At HBS, Tumulty discovered that "the case method
is the best kind of training in the mental discipline that a journalist
needs, especially for covering politics, which is really all about
outcomes and trying to determine the best course of action."
She contributed "once or twice" to the Harbus
and "drove my Management Communication professor nuts -
my style clashed with memo writing. When he found out that I actually
wrote for a living, he cut me a little slack." Although business
training and experience may sharpen one's analytical skills,
they don't always translate well into politics, Tumulty believes,
"in part because politicians are held to a level of second-guessing
and criticism that no corporate executive would tolerate."
Since Tumulty's days at the Light, the media industry
has changed significantly. "Back then," she recalls,
"several influential newspapers and magazines and three TV
networks pretty much held sway. Now there's the 24-hour news
cycle - and the Internet, where every whiff of a rumor finds
its way into the national bloodstream. There's a greater
burden on the consumer to figure out what to trust." On the
issue of media conglomerates, Tumulty says, "I don't
worry too much about corporate ownership creating biased reporting
or editorial pressure, but I do have concerns about the drive
for bottom-line profitability. That's caused the closing
of foreign bureaus, the consolidation of operations, and more
pooled coverage, even of presidential candidates - I think
you lose something without having those different perspectives."
Another big change she has observed is that women journalists,
once rare, are everywhere. And she further notes that nowadays,
it's not unusual for a male journalist to be assigned, for
example, to profile a candidate's wife - or husband.
"Men have come a long way," Tumulty laughs.
In 1980, between her first and second year at HBS, Tumulty took
a summer job at the Los Angeles Times. After graduation,
she continued at the paper, working out of the New York, Los Angeles,
and Washington bureaus for fourteen years on economics, business,
and energy issues, in addition to congressional, political, and
general assignment reporting. While at the Times, she garnered
the 1982 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial
Journalism and the National Press Club's 1993 Edwin M. Hood
Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. "My biggest adjustment
in leaving the LA Times, a daily newspaper, for Time,
a weekly magazine," notes Tumulty, "was that here we
have to make judgments days in advance about what people will
still need to know next Wednesday. My current assignment as national
political correspondent is a wonderful opportunity to put pieces
together in a way I couldn't when I was assigned a beat,
such as Congress or the White House."
Moving to Time in 1994, Tumulty started out covering Congress
and wrote the magazine's "Man of the Year" profile
of Congressman Newt Gingrich in 1995. She was part of Time's
White House team during the Clinton impeachment process and later
was the magazine's principal correspondent with the Gore
presidential campaign. Of covering the White House, Tumulty says,
"It's the most frustrating thing I've ever done
and perhaps the most prestigious bad job in journalism. Unlike
covering Congress, where you can rub shoulders with the people
you're writing about, the President is really shielded from
Tumulty, who was in Washington on September 11, says her first
assignment that morning was family-oriented: She made certain
that her husband, Paul Richter, the Los Angeles Times Pentagon
correspondent, was not at the Pentagon, and that her two sons,
Nicholas, nine, and Jack, five, also were safe. In the aftermath
of the attacks, stepped-up security, an overseas focus, and support
for a wartime administration has somewhat restrained politicking-as-usual
in Washington. Out in the rest of America, however, based on polling
results and last fall's elections, Tumulty is able to discern
some changing attitudes in the aftermath of September's horrific
"People are looking at government as part of a solution to
their problems in a way that they weren't before the attacks,"
she observes. "But they are also holding politicians to a
higher standard, not just in terms of safety but with regard to
jobs, schools, and other services. Republicans waited so long
for a Republican President, and now they are watching him preside
over a bigger, more active, and multilateralist government. This
is not the presidency that George W. Bush thought he was getting
into. And that," Tumulty says with a smile, "is just
the kind of unpredictable twist that makes my job so interesting."
- Garry Emmons (send e-mail
to the author)
Class of MBA 1981, Section F