Toner Prize winner Jason Zengerle on the power of political journalism

Journalist Jason Zengerle, the 2019 recipient of the Newhouse School’s Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting, delivered the annual Toner Lecture Sept. 24 before sitting down for a discussion with associate dean of professional graduate studies Joel Kaplan.

“I try to do stories that are just a little bit off the beaten path, like one or two ticks removed from where the action is,” said Zengerle. “The project that I’ve been trying to develop in the past couple of years is a series of stories on the downstream effects of the Trump presidency.” 

The stories that won Zengerle the Toner Prize were about the divisive effect of Devin Nunes (R-California) on the House Intelligence Committee when he was chairman; the surprising competency with which the Trump administration has seated federal judges, and the expected long-term effects of those efforts on the judiciary; and the three incoming Democratic House committee chairs after the 2018 election who were headed into their positions with the clear intent of holding the Trump administration accountable.

“The stories that I wrote that were ultimately recognized for the Toner [Prize] were not about the sort of ‘Game of Thrones’ contest at the White House,” Zengerle said. “They were about the ramifications and the implications on other institutions and individuals in Washington from what was occurring at the White House.”

Jason Zengerle
Jason Zengerle delivered the Toner Lecture at the Newhouse School Sept. 24.
Photo by Kai Nguyen.

Zengerle, who is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a correspondent for GQ, spoke of the difference between the day-to-day process of writing for a newspaper versus the more in-depth style afforded to magazine articles. Zengerle said that often, by the time his articles are published, his news reporting has been “scooped,” but that the longer view of magazine storytelling is rewarding in different ways.

“One of the things that a long magazine story can do, hopefully, is pull together all these different threads that have been playing out in the daily press over the last year and bring them all together,” he said. “It’s important to back up a little bit and explain how these daily events factor into the larger story of what’s been going on.”

Zengerle’s career happened more by accident than design. He attended a school that didn’t have a journalism class, much less a journalism major, but he enjoyed writing college papers. When he graduated in the mid-90s, he knew he didn’t want to stop writing, so he got a job as a fact checker at The New Republic, then a small weekly political magazine. Once he moved on to writing articles, he found himself uninterested in writing about politics for an audience that was already so well-informed.

“As a writer, you wind up having to delve into deeper and more esoteric discussions of what you’re covering to satisfy the reader’s curiosity,” he said. “I enjoyed politics but I didn’t want to write about them at that level.”

Ironically, once he left The New Republic, he started writing almost exclusively about politics.

“I discovered, much to my chagrin, that editors only wanted me to write about politics because I was identified with The New Republic,” he said.

To his surprise, he found he enjoyed writing about politics, as those stories turned out to be rich in exactly the kinds of personal narratives and fascinating characters he had always been drawn to, he said.

“Various issues in various places had the traits of a really good short story,” he said, “so it turned out to be a subject matter that really lent itself to the kind of writing and reporting that I was doing before when I was trying to avoid politics.” 

By doing stories “off the beaten path,” Zengerle found himself able to dive deep into the broader implications of the daily political stories, covering the ripple effects of Washingtonian hijinks on places like Montgomery, Alabama and Casper, Wyoming.

“Then 2016 happened and Donald Trump was elected and that really narrowed the focus of political reporting to Washington,” Zengerle said. “What’s happening right now in Washington is very significant, oftentimes unprecedented, oftentimes beyond belief, and it’s a very important story to cover.”

But covering those stories comes with its own challenges. Living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina wasn’t a disadvantage for Zengerle when he was traveling to Wyoming or Texas for a story. But for a writer covering politics, which turns on personal relationships, living outside of Washington can be a hindrance, he said.

The antagonistic relationship between the current administration and the press is another difficulty, one which Zengerle experienced personally after writing the article about Nunes. Nunes had refused to speak to Zengerle for the article, Zengerle said, but once it was published, the congressman went to a conservative news outlet and claimed the article was incorrect.

“If he’d given me those denials, I would have gone back to the sources [for confirmation] and [their assertions] would have stayed in the article with the statement that Nunes denied [them],” he said. “This way, Nunes was able to go to a friendly media outlet and say, ‘The New York Times wrote a hatchet job on me that was all wrong, and if they’d only asked me, I would have told them.’”

While Zengerle expressed some concern about the challenges faced by journalism, including the disappearance of small-town journalism and the hostile environment in Washington, he remains hopeful for the future.

“In a lot of ways the last couple of years have been a real testament to the importance and the power of political journalism,” he said. “It’s my hope that when we eventually emerge from the other side of this, the institutionof journalism will be strengthened rather than weakened.”