By Marin Scott
As a previous editor once told me, “if you wanted your job to love you, you went into the wrong profession.” I find myself facing this statement often—after a long day of breaking news, endless documents from FOIA requests, even having to transcribe an hour-long interview at the last minute. It’s in those moments when you think, when will it all just stop?
While every journalist can relate to this sentiment, there is no one more in love with journalism than The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, Yaffa found himself working in Russia, a surreal country for those in the U.S. While there he was hooked by the spectacular life of a journalist, one that he would later come to embody through his reporting for publications like The Economist, The New York Times and Bloomberg Business. Along the way he found time to write a book, Between Two Fires, about the ambitions and dreams of those living under Russia’s governing eye.
At the time of this conversation, our award-winning journalist sat in a chair drenched in sunlight, patiently answering each of my questions from a remote part of Karelia, Russia. There was talk of politics, the state of American news and objectivity in journalism. But most importantly, Yaffa articulated what drives him—what drives all of us—to keep reporting.
Here’s a peek into that conversation.
What about journalism first hooked you and when was this?
I was living in Russia in the years after college, so this would have been the mid-2000s, and I was first doing some State Department related scientific exchange work. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. I had thought that the diplomatic or policy track might be the thing that would interest me, and that’s what I was interested in college. But somehow, as I was getting prepared to come back to the States after spending a couple of years in Moscow… something about journalism just grabbed my attention. It’s hard to explain or remember exactly what. It seemed like a way to indulge and pursue the interests and curiosities and wanderlust I had without subjecting myself or without turning myself over to large bureaucracies that would be harder for me to control.
Is it difficult to find everyday Russians who are interested and willing to talk to a journalist?
No not really. I mean, it’s hard for me to compare. To your first part of your question, I know from talking with colleagues, I have way less access to official and government sources here than say friends who work as political journalists in Washington where being cozy with the press and saying things off record, developing relationships– that’s just part of the culture and ecosystem of Washington. That doesn’t exist here. But when it comes to getting the stories and experiences and opinions of, as you say, everyday Russians, I don’t feel like that’s so difficult.
I feel like you have a great deal of access to the rare, interpersonal stories you’re able to tell.
People seem motivated to tell [their stories]. But, I think, to your point, people here can often be motivated to get their story across to a foreign audience, knowing that that perspective isn’t always transmitted to American readers.
Konstantin Ernst says in your book that journalism isn’t the civic duty that it has been made out to be, but rather a game where everyone has a stake in the outcome. Do you believe that this is true?
I mean, like all good propaganda claims, what makes it so maddening is that it contains this kernel of truth that it would be foolish to deny or argue with. So, you can’t just sort of tell him he’s 100% wrong because that’s not believable, and you don’t necessarily believe it, and you look foolish, and it’s not convincing.
There is, especially in the age of Trump, we can talk about the American media– and this really comes in the chicken or the egg problem. I do sort of blame, in quotes, Trump by making the press the enemies of the people. That adversarial tone comes from Trump rather than it coming from the media but nonetheless, three years into the presidency, we are left with a situation where the press has an even more adversarial position vis-à-vis the Trump administration than any other administration where good political journalism should be adversarial to those in power– regardless of who they are– but there’s something particularly personal, it feels like, between Trump and the press. Now, I don’t know if you call that an agenda, but it’s when your job is to be a faithful truth teller and you’re dealing with someone who is a veteran liar.
What keeps you invested in reporting?
It’s just so fun! Reporting is just this totally gleeful excuse to indulge in all sorts of curiosities and interests. What other excuse could you have for calling up these fascinating people and saying you want to sit with them and have them tell you their stories, or even better to go to wild, far-flung or just interesting places rich with history or the kind of intensity of current events– it’s just such a joy to be able to have that sort of built into your job…
It’s just the best job there is.