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An interview with Jefferson Morley


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 25 May 2006 - 05:29 PM

Jefferson Morley writes for the Washington Post and is currently working on a book on the CIA.

http://blog.washingt...opinionroundup/

(1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an investigative journalist and historian?

(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?

(3) How do you decide about what to write about?

(4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your research will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

(5) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?

(6) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in and covered-up serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

(7) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

8) Why is it that most books written about political conspiracies; assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. are written by journalists rather than historians? Is it because of fear or is it something to do with the nature of being a historian?

#2 Jefferson Morley

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Posted 05 June 2006 - 05:22 PM

1) Could you explain the reasons why you decided to become an investigative journalist and historian?

I knew I was going to do journalism at about age 17. True to cliche, I saw "All the President's Men" and just knew. In college, a superb seminar about American history and the New York Times Book Review, with publisher Andre Schifrin steered my instincts in a more historical direction.


(2) Is there any real difference between the role of an investigative journalist and a historian?

Yes. If your investigation lacks a contemporary news hook it is going to be difficult to publish journalism around it. As a journalist/historian you are more of a feature writer than an investigative reporter


(3) How do you decide about what to write about?
I look for stories that haven't been told that tell you something about the larger picture of American society and politics. I'm looking for the unexpected. Sometimes it happens very quick. When I first read a footnote about how Francis Scott Key, author of the national anthem, slave owner, and District Attorney for the City of Washington got caught up in a race riot in 1835, I just knew I was going to do a long article about it. Other times an idea takes a long time to develop itself. In my JFK reporting, I follow certain hunches and listen to very experienced people in the field.

#3 Jefferson Morley

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Posted 05 June 2006 - 05:40 PM

4) Do you ever consider the possibility that your research will get you into trouble with those who have power and influence?

I consider the possibility but I don't worry about it.

(5) You tend to write about controversial subjects. Do you think this has harmed your career in any way? Have you ever come under pressure to leave these subjects alone?

Pressure? I don't know about that. Some people have advised me to stay away from some subjects because it would hurt my career. I listen to advice given in good faith.


(6) The House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the “committee believes, on the basis of the available evidence, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. However, very few historians have been willing to explore this area of American history. Lawrence E. Walsh’s Iran-Contra Report suggests that senior politicians were involved in and covered-up serious crimes. Yet very few historians have written about this case in any detail? Why do you think that historians and journalists appear to be so unwilling to investigate political conspiracies?

Iran-contra conspiracies I think were very well documented by historians and journalists. I'm thinking especially of Theodore Draper, the very model of an independent historian. There were good journalistic accounts.

For popular historians and working journalists, the Iran-contra story lacks a contemporary hook and the Central American Cold War politics that underlay it have vanished without a trace.

The lack of journalistic attention to JFK is harder to understand. Given the enduring public interest, there is always a contemporary hook. But since incremental journalism has never been practiced on the this subject--what do we know about JFK now that we didn't know last year--lots of good interesting, non-conspiratorial stories that would draw lots of readers are ignored. At a time of declining newspaper circulation, this seems self-defeating to avoid JFK.

That said, the Washington press corps stays away from it because they know their credibility and the government's credibility on this subject is very low. They despair of mastering the documentary record (and with good reason, it is fantastically complex) or breaking ranks with the complacent Washington-centric conviction that the American political system could not have failed so badly as to have failed to discern a conspiracy. Such considerations outweigh the new evidence. The possibility of non-conspiratorial journalism of new facts seems to have been discarded.

(7) What is your basic approach to writing about what I would call “secret history”? How do you decide what sources to believe? How do you manage to get hold of documents that prove that illegal behaviour has taken place?

I work mostly from government records, informed by interviews and popular histories. From many years of reporting I rely on my own judgment about what people are credible.


8) Why is it that most books written about political conspiracies; assassinations of JFK, MLK, RFK, Watergate, Iran-Contra, etc. are written by journalists rather than historians? Is it because of fear or is it something to do with the nature of being a historian?

Well, again, I don't hink Watergate and Iran Contra have been ignored by Historians. Stanley Kutler's Watergate books are excellent. As for RFK, MLK and JFK, I don't think the first two are that interesting as historical events.

#4 Michael Hogan

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Posted 19 August 2011 - 03:21 PM

David Talbot has hired Jefferson Morley to be the Washington Editor of Salon.com

http://www.poynter.o...hington-editor/



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