Wesley Lowery

A Reporter’s Notebook

Air Date: July 12, 2014

Wesley Lowery reflects on his and colleagues' coverage of the 2013 marathon massacre.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. There may be no more precocious go-getting newspaperman in America than today’s guest – 24 year old Wesley Lowery – whom the National Association of Black Journalists named the 2014 Emerging Journalist of the Year.

Currently a Congressional and National Political reporter for The Washington Post, Lowery covers Congress, campaigns and other election-related news. He previously staffed the Boston Globe’s Metro Desk and contributed to its Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombing … endangering himself to report from fear-stricken Boston, the most visible ground zero of terrorism since the 9/11 attacks.

I followed in real time Lowery’s all-night posts during the standoff between law enforcement and the bomb suspects, and I have to credit him with the deftest journalistic Twitter use I have come across. (If you have a moment, visit him @WesleyLowery to retrace his Tweets on those fateful nights in Boston.) His feature stories and analysis are among the most buzzed-about on the Web, but they are also among the meatiest and most thoughtful scoops.

Today, we’ll venture with Wesley Lowery into the modern-day reporter’s notebook from his past Boston Globe and current Washington Post tenure. And I first want to ask him, as he grapples with the metamorphosis of our politics and national security state, if the lens through which Millennials view reporting is different from that of an earlier generation? Wesley?

LOWERY: Thanks for having me, Alexander. I mean I, I think that the lens is certainly different. I think that we’ve come up on a diet of real-time news in a way that’s different than any other generation prior to us.

You know previously, I think often of “breaking news” events, or, or a war … you know, we, we’ve been at a state of war since, you know, since we were kids … since 9/11 and since then we’ve gotten very real time up dates of every step of that, where I remember on 9/11 day in New Jersey … I was a kid … I must have been fifth or sixth grade … and listening to the radio live as … and running back to the other kids at the lunch table, giving them updates about the small incremental things … “Guys, they just … they closed Disney World … they, they … state of emergency at LaGurardia”.

I didn’t know what that, what meant then. But we’re just kind of parroting these things back. But in a lot of ways is very exemplary of kind of how we, as Millennials, have always consumed news.

When, when the Pearl Harbor attacks happened … no, no fifth and sixth graders were getting the incremental updates as Coney Island was shut down over a state of emergency. The small troop movements and the small deliberations … those of us who came up as Millennials, those of us who have come up since the advent of the Internet, since radios and since cable television, we’re so used to seeing every single piece of how the sausage is made, how every single decision is made, analyzing those things in real time. And because of that … we have a different appetite for news and we have a different, a different understanding of news and a different understanding of current events.

And so it, it’s fascinating to me as someone who’s come up and now works in media. But it’s just very different than any other generation.

HEFFNER: So, for better or worse?

LOWERY: It, it’s hard to judge. You know I, I think that often we kind of make hyperbolic sweeping statements, one way or the other that, you know, that journalism’s ruined and, and here’s why, or this is the best time to ever work in journalism and here’s why.

It, you know, I think that journalism is an evolving process. I think that often it’s easy to become very short-sighted. We talk a lot about how, you know, we talk about journalistic objectivity, for example. Ahmm, that’s something we all hold out because most of us have either gone to journalism school or had some formal training in journalism, it’s, it’s this tenant of modern American journalism and often we forget that it’s really an advent of the last 50, 60 years.

You know, we have a conversation, especially as you see more advocacy journalism … people who are … we’ve seen a lot on the issue of immigration … journalists who are saying, “I believe immigration reform should be passed and I’m going to be transparent about the fact that I’m going to report this way” and there’s been push-back, especially among some … a lot of my colleagues down in DC, a lot of the Beltway type journalists, a lot of the New York journalists … who say, “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. That’s not what we’re supposed to do.”

But what I always try to remember is that journalism is a … it’s a growing, metamorphizing process … that it changes. The rules of the game now are different from the rules of the game five and ten years ago. And the rules 20 years from now are going to be completely different.

We don’t even know how we’ll be delivering news, who our audience will be and so I think that that, that flexibility is something that is important. And I think that to try to in some ways answer that question … so I completely (laugh) threw the premise of it out.

I think that, I think that now the changes are happening more rapidly than at any other time. You know, I think previously we had large periods of time, just decades where the mediums didn’t change. Where newspapers ruled for, for decades.

And the magazines came in and they had their decades long run. But very rapidly over the last 20 years or so, 20, 30 years, we’ve seen huge inventions … the Internet being one of them … cable television being another one … that has completely changed the game. And now, little incremental changes … the Internet then goes to the way social media works and now it’s as small as different social media sites popping up and changing that completely change the way major news organizations do their coverage. And so, I think, in some ways it’s for the better because it makes us more nimble, it makes us have to be able to adapt better and it has to … it makes us have to be better at our jobs.

HEFFNER: So coming of age in the 9/11 generation, when you were hired as a metro reporter for The Boston Globe, did you recognize that job as being domestic terrorism coverage? Or the potential for covering a case like the Boston Marathon bombing?

LOWERY: It never once occurred to me that, that we would be thrust into this type of coverage, this type of situation. I, I think that … I always think back to what Brian McGrory editor of The Boston Globe said right after the Pulitzer announcements and he, he said, “You know this was a story that none of us wanted to cover and if we could all go back, we’d all make it that we didn’t have to cover”.

And it was, it was just certainly an unreal week in the city of Boston. And .. which stretched into an unreal year there.

HEFFNER: Is that because so much time had elapsed since 9/11?

LOWERY: I, I think it’s a big part of it. I think that, you know, as someone who grew up in metro New York, who knew people who were in the Twin Towers on that day … you know, it was so much of my life was shaped … or it’s the pivotal event of my childhood. As is … as is the case for pretty much the case for anyone around our ages growing up.

And, and I think that so much time had elapsed … we, we hadn’t had a successful act of domestic terrorism in, in quite some time and certainly not a large scale one.

And I think that in some ways you, you start to be lulled into a sense of, of security. I think the other thing, too, is that because of the random nature of terrorism, because of the way it operates … you know the Boston Marathon is, is a large scale public event … a celebration, a festival in some ways, a party (laugh) for a lot of the college students who were there.

It, it’s the kind of event that you don’t, you don’t necessarily expect something like this to happen. It’s not … you know I think that we often become very concerned and very cognizant in response to specific things … after 9/11 every time I get on an airplane I’m cognizant of “Well, if something were to happen …” the thought always goes to your mind because we have seen ourselves be attacked that way. We have not seen ourselves be attacked the way we were in Boston and I think that that was one of the reasons that you, you just weren’t expecting that to happen.

HEFFNER: Were you frightened?

LOWERY: You know, I think that … not until, not until later in the week. On, on the day of the marathon bombings I had been in … I was actually in Cambridge in my apartment. At the time I worked a Tuesday through Saturday schedule, and so I had just been travelling, I had been in Orlando the night before and I just got a late flight back, I slept in, I was watching the “West Wing” that morning and I was sitting at my computer … because the Pulitzer Prizes were going to be announced that day. Pulitzers were announce at 3:00 p.m. that after … so I was sitting at my computer, had my Twitter stream open so I could congratulate who ever … the winners were, hoping maybe some former colleagues from LA Times were, were going to be up for one.

And as I was watching social media and listening to a live stream of this pending announcement … I see … I want to say it was a Reuters tweet was the first one I saw … “Unconfirmed explosion at the Boston Marathon”.

And I’m thinking “Ahh, is it a manhole cover … I, I wonder what happened. You know that’s going to be terrible for the reporters who are out there having to cover that”.

And then I see a second one … “Confirmed two explosions … dozens injured.” And I said, “Oh”. And so I immediately called … I called in the office as I, you know, pulled on a shirt and some sweat, you know, some sweat pants … and I said, “Where do you need me, what’s going on?” And I got the political Editor of The Globe on the phone and she said, “We’ve got, we’ve got dozens at the finish line, come to the newsroom, we’ll deploy you from there.”

And so I got on the train from Cambridge into Boston and at that time, it wasn’t fear, it was adrenaline. It was this, this in the moment, you know, we’re trained so often, especially somebody who’s in a lot of breaking news coverage … you, you’re trained to run towards the fire, to run towards the explosion. You’re trained to inquire about what’s going on and to try to keep some poise.

And, and so I remember … as my heart’s racing as I’m sitting on this train and it was … it remains one of the oddest experiences I’ve ever had, because I sat on this train and I knew that these explosions, these explosions had gone off, I knew that people had likely died, that there were massive injuries … at this point I’m getting, you know, up dates from colleagues in the field who are talking about severed limbs, who are talking about potentially children being hurt and injured and I’m sitting on this train full of people who haven’t heard any thing of this. This was the last collection of people, the last grouping of people who lived in Boston who were not in any way going to be diluted by the idea of the Boston Marathon bombings.

See these are people throughout their daily afternoon commute and no one knows yet. And it, it was even odder because eventually as the stops were going into Boston, we start running into marathon runners who had finished minutes and hours before who were getting on the train to go home … and they didn’t know.

So, here I was taking a train towards the, the bloody finish line and encountering marathon runners. And so, again, it was a … one of many anecdotes of what was just a very odd and a very painful … an adrenaline filled week there in Boston.

HEFFNER: And what did that week reveal to you about the state of our national security apparatus?

LOWERY: You, you know I think that a lot is said about … a lot has been said about how we handled the, the terrorist attack in Boston.

And I think that, you know, and one thing that has to be said, is that especially with home-grown terrorists or, or people who come from internally, who are living here legally, who become disaffected or become upset … it, it, it makes them very difficult to spot and to stop. And, and that’s just a premise we have to accept.

It’s very different than someone who’s on a terror watch list coming from outside of the country and doing something. This is a lot harder to stop because these were two guys who lived in Cambridge, who just …

HEFFNER: And I wonder if it made it more frightening. Especially the college students …

LOWERY: Exactly … because these are people who have been in classes with them, you know. And so, so it makes it difficult to stop. I do think that the handling of the marathon bombings did really expose some weaknesses.

I mean there are some gripping reports. There’s one that I always refer to from NBC, that they did around the anniversary of the marathon bombings. Where they just talk about the chaos that ensued at so many of these scenes … at the shoot out scene, at the … when they captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the boat on the following day … because you had so many self-deploying officers, it becomes this … in some ways we romanticize this, this thing that … where law enforcement just shows up because there’s a threat … and you have people with guns just running through … but we really did see that in Boston.

There’s one anecdote I never forget from that NBC report, that, you know, as, as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is pinned down in this boat … he has no weapons, he’s been lying there for hours, and thousands of officers self-deploy themselves.

And so you have Boston PD and the FBI are trying to run point. But they don’t even necessarily know who these men with the guns are, who have shown up … other than that they have badges.

And there’s one anecdote of, of an FBI sniper or a CIA sniper taking position up on top of a roof top and another sniper showing up on that rooftop and then getting in an argument about who got to have that position.

Because there was no hierarchy, there was no taking command from anyone … in fact, when they opened fire on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the only known witness to the Marathon bombings, someone who it’s in everyone’s best interests to capture alive, they put hundreds of rounds into this boat, almost kill him and it turns out he’s unarmed.

And so, again, it did really expose a lot of potential weaknesses and potential areas where we just need to improve efficiency and improve our planning and training for how we handle a case like that. And again, it … it’s a terrorist attack, it’s unpredictable but it, it certainly showed us some ways where law enforcement could be a little better.

HEFFNER: Well, that’s at the local level … what about in terms of the national intelligence gathering process?

LOWERY: Of course, I mean I remember talking to Congressman Bill Keating, Massachusetts Congressman, who’s on the Homeland Security Committee and he went to, he went to Russia following these attacks and then he met with the Russian equivalent of the CIA. He met with their top intelligence agencies.

And the Russians said to us, they said, “We knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev had radicalized. We knew that he wanted to commit an attack. We had intercepted these phone calls between him and his mother. And we told you guys. Why didn’t, why didn’t you do anything.”.

HEFFNER: Is that true?

LOWERY: According to Congressman Keating and others, you know, the Russians had notified us essentially and said, “If he comes to Russia, if he comes to Russia, you let us know.” And the implication there was either that they would take him into custody or that they would just “handle” him.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

LOWERY: Because they were worried that he had become radicalized. In fact the Russians had intelligence that he had gone to the Middle East to Afghanistan to try to meet up with a terrorist group and was unsuccessful because he couldn’t’ learn the language.

But, it, it seems as if there was some mis-communication … some error … and, and on our end where either Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s name was misspelled on a Terror No … on a Terror Watch or a “No Fly” list … or there was some discrepancy where he was still able to board airplanes without it being flagged and so therefore we never told the Russians.

And, and so it really was a breakdown at some … at some level of our international intelligence sharing. Again, the Russians, who historically have not necessarily been inclined to our friends on, on many things. As far as we’re … as far as I know … told us they were worried about Tamerlan Tsarnaev but for whatever reason, whether they be a deliberate choice we made or whether they be a … a breakdown of the system over a complicated last name …

HEFFNER: As a journalist …

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: As a citizen, as a Millennial, given your reporting and the situation in Boston are you more or less sympathetic to the need for covert surveillance? And you can answer that question in multiple forms …

LOWERY: Of course.

HEFFNER: Based on your citizenship, your status as a journalist for top two newspapers ….

LOWERY: I, I think that … this goes back to … for me … it goes back to how I felt prior to … errrr … following 9/11. And following 9/11 I became as … personally … hawkish as I’d ever been. I felt personally victimized, I was personally victimized, and as, as we all were and I was very much on board with pretty much whatever the Bush Administration wanted to do. Now granted I was a 14 year old … younger than that.

But, as I’ve grown up and gotten a little older and have shifted from just being a private citizen to someone who’s covering and who’s really … with a critical and cynical eye looking at the way our government operates.

You look at a lot of the freedoms and the powers we afforded the Bush Administration and following … the Obama Administration, in terms of national security, in terms of the covert operations they run, in terms of the way we use drones throughout much of the Middle East, in terms of how the NSA operates … whether it be wiretapping, whether it be bulk data collection and we see now … how with hindsight being 20/20 … it’s the old “if you give a mouse a cookie”.

We, we gave the Bush Administration as many cookies as they wanted. We gave … we said, “We’ve been attacked and we don’t ever want this again.”

And I think across the aisle and media and citizens and politicians, we all agreed …

HEFFNER: That was the instinctive reaction.

LOWERY: It was. And now 10 years later … going on 15 years later … we all look and we say “Many of these things were, were 1) unconstitutional, but 2) true invasions of our, our Constitutional rights as citizens.”

And so for me while I, I do really think that I, I do understand the power of being victimized by these types of attacks. And I understand the need for our government and our military operations, in this new world, in this new battle front that we fight on … the, the need to conduct certain practices that we hadn’t previously.

I do think it’s extremely important, especially those of us in media … to continue to have that cynical and critical eye. That when something like the Boston Marathon bombings happen, that we don’t just trumpet this, “The law enforcement was the best in the world and they’re all the heroes and this is the …

That’s great and we appreciate the sacrifices of the people who work and keep us safe. But we also have to ask the hard questions. Did we need to shot that many bullets into that, into that boat? Were people there who didn’t need to be there? Could we have stopped this prior? And moment we stop asking those questions and the moment we give carte blanche approval to our government, to our military, to our intelligence organizations to do whatever they want because we feel unsafe … that’s the moment that when we try to give them a cookie, they going to take the whole pound cake.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm. But I think what you’re saying is that secrets can be justified.

LOWERY: Of course.

HEFFNER: But some journalists, Glenn Greenwald namely, disagree with that idea.

LOWERY: Of course, you know, and I think … you, you know I, I think that it’s not even my job as a journalist or, or I don’t see my personal job … not that it’s not anyone’s job in journalism … but I don’t see it as my job to, to even decide or map out which secrets are appropriate, which secrets are not appropriate. I, I do, however … I, I do however think that it’s important to continue to pursue transparency and I think that at the … you, you know, I think that a good example of that is a few weeks ago when the White House inadvertently released the name of a top CIA operative … in, in a press release basically (laugh) … they sent out this release to thousands of journalists that “Oh, wait, that guy’s covert, we can’t have his name in this.”

And certainly a secret … a secret that I would argue, and I, I think I’m safe in arguing is, is something most journalists would agree, “Yes, there are some people operating in other countries, whose names should not be public.” It’s a government secret … that someone being paid by the Federal government, by tax dollars who’s probably influencing foreign policy, all things that are of public interest, but I’m willing togo out on a limb and say some operatives names need to be protected.

I don’t know of any news organization that ran with that name. And so, I do think that there are choices to be made and I do think if you look at how a lot of the Washington Post … a lot of it’s coverage of those same stolen files are that Glenn Greenwald in almost every instance, my understanding is we went back to the Federal government and said … “Just so you know, this is what we’re publishing and you give us your best argument for why we should not publish this.”

Now, again, as journalists I don’t know that we can always be swayed by that. We still have to make that decision what’s in the best public interest. But I do believe that there are some things … with the massive democracy … the way, the way that we have, with the types of operations and counter terrorism we’re having to do, there are certainly some things that are best not in the public eye. But, we, well we have to be very vigilant to figure out what those are.

HEFFNER: You wrote in the Washington Post about how the marathon bombings changed everything. And you were talking about, in the short term politically in Boston. But I want to ask you, what do you think are some of the more enduring or the most enduring changes that result from that marathon bombing.

LOWERY: I think when you look at the marathon bombing you have long terms changes … I think any terrorist act in the United States, renews in some ways a certain … to start off, a certain level of patriotism … I think that we live in a very cynical society in, in some ways rightfully so, especially about our government and about our politics.

But I think that any time you have this type of act, it, it bonds people together in a way that you can’t, you can’t in almost any other way. You have this joint shared experience. You have a group of children who have grown up … younger than us, who … this will be their 9/11. 9/11 is something they will read about in books. And will have had no personal experience with. But they will remember where they were that, that Marathon Monday and they will remember watching the Red Sox afterwards and they’ll remember the tributes … the same way I remember the tributes at Yankee Stadium … it will shape their lives. And I think that that’s something that we can’t necessarily pinpoint exactly what that means and how that means, but that will have a long sustained impact.

HEFFNER: Speaking of patriotism, you are something of a social media maven …

LOWERY: Little bit …

HEFFNER: (Laugh)

LOWERY: (Laugh)

HEFFNER: … and you said that you tired of this trite, at a certain point, “Boston Strong” message in the sense that it was only communicating a slogan for the purposes of marketing … to the dismay of some Bostonians. But you defended that stance …

LOWERY: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … what did that experience reflect in terms of the population of Bostonians and also in terms of the fireworks that probably were unexpected elicited?

LOWERY: MmmHmm. You know, you know I think that any time you talk about something about the marathon bombings you’ve got a sensitive collection of people, no matter what. We all have very personal experiences and respond and recover and overcome that in different way.

But I think that … the point that I was making … the point that I think has been since then … by other people … has, has been that you, you can’t cheapen the depth of an experience like this.

And I think that that is what any time something becomes sloganized … it’s what … you know, I can go buy a can of Boston Strong mints if you’d like. Now, are those mints helping us recover as a society, are those mints doing anything for the victims … are those … no. And, and I think that that … as many Boston Strong t-shirts as were sold that, that … where the money went to The One Fund for the victims, just as many were sold where someone was collecting that money … where they were talking advantage of our sentiments and our patriotism to line their pockets.

Which, frankly, is capitalism and commercialism at its finest … but, I think at some point we have a responsibility, in these moments of patriotism … we saw this in the lead-up to the Iraq War, we saw this in post 9/11 and we began to see this in Boston. Is that the government can do no wrong and our society can do no wrong because it’s the good guys versus the bad guys and we’re the good guys and so therefore we hold no fault in anything that’s ever happened, therefore we need no context and, and Boston Strong … and, and we can just yell this over and over again. And, and part of my fear also is that it’s very easy … it’s very easy to go to the ballpark and, and say Boston Strong and to wear a baseball cap that says it.

It’s a lot harder to have the real conversations we have to have about PTSD, about psychological issues and problems, about how you truly recover from something like that … and I mean that about the personal level and the societal level. And it becomes very easy, when we see everyone rallying around some words, to think “Oh, we’re all okay”. And it’s important to not fool ourselves about that.

And so I think that … you know, I … like I said there are a, there were a little fireworks about that. I think that as time has bore itself on a little longer, I, I think many more people have come over to that camp where they say, “Yeah, why do we just yell these words all the time?”

It’s almost as if … it’s when the baseball team wins the world series and the people outside are chanting, “USA”. Now, now do those chants mean anything? No they don’t. (Laugh) Even the people chanting them aren’t doing it out of patriotism, they’re doing it because we’ve developed a society where when you get drunk you just scream things out loud. (Laugh) And people join you.

And I think that that … there was a real fear … there was a real fear … on my part … and I think that there is a real point to be made about how something as meaningful as a rallying cry for a city after a terrorism attack … not being denigrated to the point that it becomes a drunk rallying cry for college students.

HEFFNER: We’re running out of time. But I want to ask you, do you think we’ve overcome that visceral reaction and care, really, about the deep issues like the national security situation, so that future marathons, as was the case this year, are free of terrorism?

LOWERY: I think that we have in some ways really tried to address some of the underlying issues. I mean I was at the marathon this year and the security measures there were … it, it was almost airport security to get in and out … in and out of the marathon.

HEFFNER: Irrefutedly, undoubtedly improved.

LOWERY: 100% yeah, and, and I think that that … without a doubt. The deeper question here, though, is we, we can’t just look at the shiny object in front of us and assume that therefore all the objects are shiny. We have … yes …the Boston Marathon had much improved security … much “upped” security this year. And it probably will indefinitely forever. But the deeper issue here is how we improve our intelligence gathering, our intelligence sharing and the deeper institutional system that could have prevented something like this. And frankly, the jury’s still out on that. And because … and, and that’s why its so important for people who sit at tables like this … and who have these kinds of conversations … for journalists, for reporters to continue asking these questions and continuing shedding light.

That when we have Ed Davis, the former Police Commissioner of Boston at a table before a Congressional Committee that we don’t just pat him on the back and say, “Yup, you’re right, Boston’s Strong, sir”. That we say, “Okay, there were mistakes made here and, and can you show us how these mistakes aren’t going to be made again”.

Because it’s when we relax and when we don’t ask the hard questions, because it’s easier not to ask them. That’s when we potentially open ourselves up to vulnerability.

HEFFNER: Thank you Wesley Lowery.

LOWERY: Of course, any time.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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