Mark Murray is the Senior Political Editor at NBC News, where he writes about political races, trends, and issues. Prior to Murray joining NBC News in 2003, he worked for a variety of political magazines such as: The National Journal, The Texas Observer, and Harper’s Magazine. Mark Murray graduated from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Washington, DC. Amar Shabeeb sat down with him to discuss his career and how the field of journalism has changed since he entered.
The Gate: What inspired you to become a journalist?
Mark Murray: I became a journalist more because doors opened up to me by luck. During my third year at the University of Texas, I wanted some additional things on my resume. I started thinking about how an academic career would turn into a real job. I had some interviews; I was actually thinking about becoming a resident assistant because I enjoyed the company of my own resident assistants when I was at the University of Texas. I eventually turned that down because it just wasn’t in my heart, so I thought to myself, “If I’m not going to be an RA, what am I going to end up doing?”
Then, I walked into The Daily Texan, the student-run newspaper. Because the University of Texas is such a big school—it has fifty thousand people—The Daily Texan had the eighth or ninth largest circulation in the whole state of Texas. It was a really big paper, and everyone would read it! I got my start as a columnist, writing a weekly column about politics, ranging from student to national politics. Later, that job turned into an internship out in San Francisco, California where I worked at Mother Jones magazine as a political fact checker.
After I graduated from school, I got an internship at a political magazine in Austin, Texas called The Texas Observer where I was covering then-Governor George W. Bush in the 1990’s. I was just an intern, so I only wrote about three stories and mostly helped with research. Then, I got my final internship at Harper’s Magazine in New York City where I helped editorially. I ended up getting a few freelance jobs within but was never writing. I was more so on the research and copy-editing side. Right after that, I got my first job being a Washington reporter at the National Journal. So it was really me walking into the Daily Texan and deciding I wanted to do something that I never really set out to do—becoming a journalist—which led to a few internships that eventually led to my first job. The lesson is always to take that journey and see the doors that open.
Gate: How has your field transformed since you’ve entered the industry?
Murray: My first job was as a political reporter in Washington, DC at this magazine called the National Journal. Although new magazines were released weekly, my editors would sometimes give me about three or four weeks to work on a four-to-five-thousand-word story. I kind of had my start doing public policy journalism for a magazine where you have a lot of time and resources to get the job done. What has changed is that our news business is sped up.
While there is a lot of long form journalism that still exists, so much of it is faster and more demanding. Instead of the two or three weeks that I sometimes got to write two thousand to three thousand words on, you now have about forty minutes to bust out five or six hundred words. Also, sometimes the amount of time you’ve put into a piece of work is really reflected. In the market’s demand, there is a need for faster and more immediate news, but I feel like this has come as a sacrifice on the time and effort that it really takes to get news done.
The other way that journalism has changed is how polarized the news is. In some ways, that’s a good thing because people have all of these ways to get news. You can be on the right and have the opportunity to read from so many conservative publications and websites, which is a similar experience for people on the liberal side or in the middle public policy side. With all of these new outlets, it’s a great time to be a journalist because there are a lot more jobs and things are now always changing. Since news has become more polarized, places like NBC News and the mainstream media and the middle have shrunk a little bit.
Gate: What is your opinion on the current state of politics?
Murray: It’s a mess [laughs]. The history of our politics has always been very contingent. It’s been very violent. We saw the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Also, you ended up having a caning in the US Congress, which built up to the Civil War. We’ve had a lot of hard philosophical disagreements and uglier politics. With all that being said, after World War II, with the rise of the Cold War, and the new geographical realignments, there were areas for compromise that people found. A lot of the compromises that were made had to do with there being a common enemy; the Soviet Union. It allowed for the creation of coalitions that may not have been formed otherwise where Southern Democrats were working with Republicans and Northern Republicans were working with Democrats with legislation being passed as a result whereas even Richard Nixon was able to have big growth in the welfare state.
For me, the biggest change in our politics has been, in particular, the lack of compromise. During the Obama era, no one wanted to compromise because no one wanted to give the other side a win, which greatly differed from before where you would have Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush working on “No Child Left Behind” and education reform. Often times, for our political system to work, there needs to be a sense that people are being collegial and agreeable. People want their public servants to be champions on some ideological issues, but they also want them to get things done. If no one is getting anything done, then you have a political system that’s broken.
Gate: According to a Monmouth University poll, more than three in four Americans believe that traditional major TV and newspaper media outlets report “fake news.” How do you combat this perception the typical American has about media and it being “fake news”?
Murray: It’s such a damaging perception. There’s a big difference between fake news and articles that someone disagrees with or even that are factually incorrect. Media is not infallible; sometimes we miss stories and facts, but that’s not fake news: fake news is something completely made up. That misperception that has been pushed forward by President Trump is quite unfortunate. People equating fake news to whatever might make your political figure appear bad can be very harmful. It’s also been very troubling that we’ve seen other authoritarian world leaders respond to tough questions by saying, “That’s just fake news.”
All of the sudden you can sidestep a question by calling it fake news rather than answering the question. I find that sometimes the media and news organizations get things wrong. For example, the Iraq War and its buildup was something that the American political media ended up missing at the time; however, missing something does not mean it’s fake. I try to correct that misperception in any way that I can because calling our news fake allows for world leaders and people to dismiss a lot of the tough questions and stories.
Gate: How has your experience been at the Institute of Politics?
Murray: I’ve been here for one month, and I’ve found this to be the most engaging experience [with] thought-provoking exchanges of ideas. I have really enjoyed the office hours and talking politics with students. It has been very invigorating. I came to the Midwest and Chicago to get a little bit away from the news chaos in Washington, DC, but to me, it’s been invigorating and really interesting. I’ve found that what has been built here is such a great advantage for students where you can discuss journalism or politics with the IOP fellows or a speaker. If we had something like this back in my undergrad days at the University of Texas, then I would be there every single day. What I’ve described to a lot of my friends and colleagues in Washington, DC is that it’s almost as if David Axelrod has built the most amazing fraternity or sorority house based on politics. Instead of having beers and parties, it has very serious speeches and exchange of ideas. I have been singing the praises of The University of Chicago and The Institute of Politics to all of my friends and colleagues in Washington, DC since what you guys have is very lucky and an incredible experience.
The image was provided by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics website, and can be found here.