01 Feb 2002

Karen Tumulty Reports on America


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."

Covering 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 the media."

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 events.

"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)

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1981, Section F

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