Lessons Learned With Peter Osnos

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Founder, PublicAffairs; Author, An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen; CFR Member


Author, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea; Former Foreign Correspondent and Beijing Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times; Former Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations

Peter Osnos discusses his distinguished career in journalism and publishing, including working as a foreign correspondent in Vietnam and the Soviet Union, and as a long-time editor for the Washington Post, as editor and publisher at Random House, and founder of PublicAffairs where he has worked closely with leaders in business, human rights, and politics, most notably Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama, and Trump.

Lessons Learned is a roundtable series, open to term members and younger life members, which features distinguished speakers who reflect on their career experiences, the choices they made along the way, and the lessons they have learned from them.

DEMICK: Thank you very much. I'm honored and excited to be here with an old friend, Peter Osnos, who has done just about anything and everything you can do in the media business. He started out clipping newspapers for I.F. Stone, reported from Vietnam for the Washington Post, and then concluded that journalism was not a profession for an old man or an adult, and moved into book publishing. So I'm delighted to be here with him. We will start right in.

OSNOS: Barbara, you didn't say who you are.

DEMICK: Okay, who am I? I am also a former foreign correspondent; I think I spent even more time abroad than you. I've work for the LA Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. I was in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Korea, Beijing. I was also a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And I'm the author of three books, most recently Eat the Buddha, which is about life in a Tibetan town. Thank you, Peter, for that prompt.

OSNOS: We could easily be having a meeting which I was interviewing Barbara, rather than she's interviewing me because it's that interesting. Eat the Buddha is the most recent, right Barbara?

DEMICK: Yeah, that's right.

OSNOS: I just wanted to say one thing, looking at the list of registrants yesterday, I think Barbara and I both said, "Wow, this is a hell of a good list." And what I noticed on the list, two things, one is it's a Council is evolving in the nature of its membership, certainly at this level. And also that I'm going to be telling stories to people who have not already heard them many times over, which would be a danger if it was a general meeting. So this is especially, for me, fun because you are going to hear, if Barbara asks the right questions, stuff you haven't heard before and that's going to be fun. Thank you, Barbara.

DEMICK: Well, a new audience is great.

OSNOS: Right. And you did say "old" twice, right?

DEMICK: (Laughs.)

OSNOS: I want to make the point to this particular audience that "old" is a pejorative, let's deal with the fact. "Elderly" is even worse. "Old" is chronological and "elderly" is a state of mind. So I will acknowledge "old" for sure, "elderly" not yet. So there.

DEMICK: (Laughs). I recently had the word "veteran" deleted from my official bio -- "veteran journalist," almost as bad. Full disclosure, Peter and I are friends, so that might be obvious. But let's go back to the "experienced" journalist. What fascinated me reading the memoir, and I am not as old as Peter, but I am "old", is looking at how the business has changed over the years. As I said, you started out by clipping articles out of a newspaper for I.F. Stone, it was an era when you couldn't say to your boss, "Oh, just go Google it." In Vietnam you used teletype machines, in London you wore three-piece suits. You know, nowadays, we're sending everything by Slack, we're working in our sweatpants, if pants at all. Can you reflect some on how the journalism business has changed? What was better about the old ways in terms of the news that the reader or viewer consumed? And what's better now?

OSNOS: I have thought it through over the years and realized that there are two sides to this equation. One side is content, and the other side is how its distributed, how it reaches people. Content, on the whole, is eternal. We even go really right back to the beginning of cave paintings, and storytelling, news gathering, town crier. The news and the various ways in which it was distributed, newspapers, and Pony Express, and by mail, which was a major way in which news was distributed. Until today, news and information and content is always going to be consistent, although it, of course, varies according to the times, and the tone, and so forth.

What has dramatically changed, and continues to change, is the way it's delivered. The way it's delivered, now, the fundamental difference is that today the consumer, the reader chooses what they want. Whereas in the past, you got what we gave you. Whether it was the evening paper, or the morning paper, or the radio program, television program, it was on at a specific time and the consumer either got it or didn’t, but they were given it.

The fundamental way in which people access information now, and I'm sure just about everybody on this Zoom chooses what they want. You are, in effect, the editor-in-chief. It's a huge modern responsibility to pick out what you need to know, and how you need to know it, and through what format you're going to take. It used to be the format was print or broadcast. Now, obviously, it's print, broadcast—broadcast meaning radio, television, podcast, so forth. And the platforms are diverse, they're digital, and they're print, and they're Instagram, and so forth. So what's changed really fundamentally, Barbara, in the 270 years that I've been involved, it's this. I believe that content is in the hands of the person creating it and they have skills on a spectrum from vast to minimal. They have voices that are sophisticated to crude, and that's always been true. But what's really fundamentally changed is how the reader, viewer, consumer accesses it and they choose. You, every one of us, is now editor-in-chief.

DEMICK: Since I'm guessing that this audience has not read your book, do you want to start out telling us about how you became a journalist? And why?

OSNOS: Sure, the book is what I would call, not would call but do call, a "reported memoir," meaning it started in the way, so often these things do, with a grandson, teenage grandson saying, "Tell me the story of your family in World War Two" and I said, "Well, Ben, actually, it's our family." I realized the extent to which, this young man and other grand-offspring were going to really know the story, I had to tell it to them. I had to find out as much about it as I could. In my case, if it wasn't sort of colorful, why would you bother?

I mean, I was born, curiously, in India, which does not necessarily—my birth certificate, says "caste: Polish" because my parents were there during the war and that's where I happened to be born. I left the country, India, in a basket into the United States with my refugee immigrant parents and grew up here in a completely different universe from the first half of their lives, which were European. But I decided that I was going to take all my memories, what I call "passages," growing up, essentially. Then my years as a journalist, which were the years working for Izzy, was just for one year, but the Washington Post was eighteen years. Then the decades I've spent in publishing as an editor, and eventually as a publisher.

To put all of it together, I call it a sort of a "buffet" of things, which appropriately for this event, really is, among other things, "lessons learned." What is it that you acquire along the way, the judgments about what you've seen. The book is called An Especially Good View: Watching History Happen, which is the nature of my life experience. I like to quote Yogi Berra, who actually did say, "You can observe a lot by watching," and that's true, and I did. The nature of having been a correspondent in Vietnam during war, having been in the Soviet Union during the seventies when it was the ascendancy of the Soviet state, having been an editor in Washington, as national and foreign editor, and then going off to publishing where I ended up time and again in the presence of, and working with some of the most famous, notable, in some cases, big notable people in the world. Not as a reporter, per se, as an editor and publisher, but because I'm a reporter, I was always reporting. I was always looking, I was always watching, and I was always judging the people I was working with.

DEMICK: You obviously have a prodigious memory and that's apparent reading the book. I mean, there's amazing amounts of detail that I found fascinating about growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, about your high school classmates or college classmates. But you also, as you said, have done a "reported memoir". What is a "reported memoir", it's like you just don't make this stuff up, you went out and reported it.

OSNOS: Not only do you not make it up, but you test your memory. I can give you one specific, dramatic example which reflects the theme, in a sense, one of the main themes of the book. It's a story in Vietnam. I was a reporter for the Washington Post from 1970 to—there professionally for two years, 1970 to 1973 ceasefire. About halfway through the tour, the editor of the Washington Post, extraordinarily charismatic, glamorous, brilliant figure named Ben Bradlee, there's not a person on this Zoom who hasn't heard of Ben Bradlee or seen at least one or two movies played by people who are not nearly as good as Ben Bradlee. He was coming to Vietnam on a trip, he was on his way to India, where he had a son in the Peace Corps. He was due to come on a Monday, so Sunday night, I agreed with a Newsweek correspondent to meet him at 8:00 a.m. the next morning to go with a Vietnamese general to the Cambodian border by helicopter. When I got back to the office, there was a telex from Ben Bradlee, saying that he was actually coming a day early so instead of coming Tuesday, he was coming Monday. So I let the Newsweek guy know that I wasn't going to be with him in the morning because I was going to go with my colleague from the Post. The two of us were going to go pick up Bradlee. We did. Came back to the office. We arrived in the office and the office assistant, a wonderful woman named Joyce was ashen, she said, "You know, that helicopter blew up on takeoff, everybody's dead." And I, you know, not surprisingly, there was a Naugahyde chair, and I fell into it. But in half an hour we were at lunch and didn't think or talk about it again until Bradlee's assistant researcher called me and said, "Did anything much happen on that trip to Vietnam back then?" I said, "Well, there was this one..." But then I said, am I pretending that I was able to dust it off in the way that I did? Blow it off? So I called Peter, the other guy, and it's true that, yeah, it was striking, startling, but it was over, and we went on with our day and our life. When I came to understand that that is a characteristic of journalists and certain personalities. It's called "deflection," It's when something happens, and you decide or your instinct is just to put it aside.

DEMICK: We foreign correspondents, or it was when you sort of cruise along on a steady drip of adrenaline and then you come to look back on things. One of the parts of your book that I found most interesting or many interesting parts, was when you reflected back on Vietnam. I think that came about when you were editing McNamara's book.

OSNOS: Mmhm.

DEMICK: Can you tell us what your impression was of the Vietnam War at the time you were recovering it? And by the time you were a book editor?

OSNOS: Yeah, well, it's important first of all to just to put a little bit of context here. When I worked for Izzy Stone in the mid-sixties, for those of you who are perhaps not as familiar with him as you might be, he was, you know, in today's terms, he was somebody who had a substack, newsletter, blog, whatever. He did it, he started it, because in the fifties McCarthy era, he was considered left-wing, so he said, "Look, I'm going to do my own little thing." And he did and became immensely successful and popular with people in what was then called the "New Left." The New Left were not the ideologues of the thirties, sort of the communists or fellow travelers. They were people who rejected that but believed in civil rights and social equity and so forth. And that was Izzy. Even though he was already in his fifties he was immensely popular with young people. There's a wonderful documentary that you can watch on YouTube, called I.F. Stone's Weekly. When it came out in 1973, Vincent Camby, then the New York Times film critic, said it was one of the ten best movies of the year. It made him feel the way other people thought they felt about The Sound of Music.

OSNOS: So what was going on there was I had already an experience working for someone who was very critical of the war, but in a very spirited voice, which was investigative and yet, never shrill. So when I went to the Washington Post, and I'd been there a while, a few years. I was twenty-six when Mr. Bradlee called me into his office and said, "Do you want to go to Vietnam?" And you don't say, "Well, let me consider it. I'll talk to my broker." What you say, "Sure I want to go home and pack." Right? Wouldn't you? But he never asked me my view on the war. He never asked me whether I knew anything of consequence about the military. I actually hadn't served. I had one wire to firm it and I wanted to go on my terms. So I went to Vietnam with some context about what I thought but the confidence that he had selected me to go to Vietnam because he knew that my main goal there would be to get the story, not to make a case, and I didn't. Most, I'd say, reporters did not. We knew what was going on. We knew the nature of the war. We knew the nature of the likely outcome for all kinds of reasons. If you were there, you could see it.

But when I was done with that, and I left after two years. I left, as I said, when POWs just came home. I then, as an editor, and publisher ended up doing a bunch of books on Vietnam. The most famous of which, there were others, but the most famous of which was the memoirs of Robert McNamara, who had been Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administration and the person most closely associated with the escalation of the war and the belief that when we were saying everything was going fine, we knew full well that it wasn't. So Bob, who was now in his seventies, and he came to me wanting to write an autobiography. I was then with Random House. He said, "Well, I'm going to write about my experiences with Ford, and so forth." I said, "No, Bob. Start with Vietnam because that's what people really want to know." He came back with 100,000 words on Vietnam. We then spent the next year and a half—this is what I mean by reporting. I wasn't hooking paragraphs and changing adjectives, I was sitting with Bob and his young historian researcher and my young editor who was working with me. Basically, talking to Bob, interviewing Bob, enabling him to figure out what he wanted to say about the war. I have transcripts and tapes, it's a fascinating document. In one of the very last sessions, we say, "Well, Bob, tell us what goes through your mind when you go to the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall." And he said, "The war was wrong, terribly wrong. We owe it to future generations to explain why."

DEMICK: That's a very—

OSNOS: —And I said, probably blurted, "That's the book!" And that was the book. When the book was published, immensely controversial because an awful lot of people said, "Wait a minute, he's telling us now? Why did he wait twenty-five years?" Truth is, he needed to work his way through to the point where he could say that and the book became the vehicle for that. I'm sure most of you are aware that a few years later, Errol Morris made a documentary film called The Fog of War. When Bob called me to say that this man, Errol Morris, wanted to make a movie about him, "I said, Bob, what is your capacity for further evisceration and humiliation? Because Errol Morris is not going to be friendly." It turns out he wasn't friendly, but he was fair. The movie won that year's documentary Oscar. So the end of the story was that when Bob McNamara died at ninety-three in 2009, he was never forgiven because what happened had happened and it was appalling.

DEMICK: Peter, can you just mention briefly, what it was like to cover Moscow? I said briefly because we're running low on time. That seemed like it was also a very stressful assignment for other reasons. I think the Soviets assumed you were a spy.

OSNOS: Well, they said I was, but I'm confident that I was not. In fact, once when they attacked me and called me a spy, I actually got a piece of paper that at the CIA, they went to look into their files to see if I had any intelligence connection and they said I did not, mercifully. All they had were clips. Yeah, Russia was fascinating, I mean, you know, if there was hours, we could talk about it. It's all in the book. But what it really was is the years we were there, which was the détente period and the fall of détente. One way that the Soviets showed their power was with jailing dissidents and harassing journalists and that's where they got on my case. I'm very pleased to say that when the crap hit the fan, we were told that we should probably leave by people from Washington and didn't because we knew that the short term, I'm talking about my wife she was with me, of course. We said "short term relief, long term regret." So we got out, unfortunately, one of my principal contacts among the dissidents, now known as an Natan Sharansky, I was supposed to be his CIA handler, he went to prison for nine years and I went home.

DEMICK: And then to London, which was not a bad landing.

OSNOS: Well, later, yes! I was first the editor in Washington and then I went to London. And you started out by saying journalism is not a fit profession. The story there is that when I was—one of the visitors to Moscow was Bob Bernstein, the chairman of Random House. We had a wonderful time whenever he introduced us to dissidents, or we went places, and so. He said, as he was leaving, "You know, journalism is not a fit profession for a grown man. If you ever get serious, call me." Well seven years later, I did. Because of the timing, I felt I had done what I could do at the Post, I'd been there eighteen years, and I just felt that if the next ten years would not be as interesting as the previous ten years because I had done enough.

DEMICK: Was this about your personal career? Or was it a judgment that maybe daily journalism was too superficial, too fleeting?

OSNOS: No, I think it was about—look, when journalists have this wonderful experience, particularly foreign correspondents and I also was national and foreign editor. You know, you're constantly learning, you're learning, and what I felt was I had gotten to the point where I was going to be learning less, teaching more, or whatever. At the point in which I was at the Post, getting into the scrum of working your way up the ladder, and so forth. I pretty much felt that I had done it. The idea of being a book editor and publisher, appealed to me. I like books. I know how to edit. But what I didn't know, and this is really the key, journalism, you get the story, it's written, goes in the paper, and you go home. Publishing, you get the story, it's written, it's in the paper, and then you sell the paper. What turned out to be the case with me is I liked selling the paper. In other words, I like the process of making the book available to people as much as I like the process of getting the material and editing the material. That's the spectrum in publishing. Publishing is a business. It's acknowledged as a business. The old notion of church and state where you just write the stories and other people sell the ads, that's not true in publishing because there are no ads.

DEMICK: You know what I'm going to ask you about book publishing, and these are books that you didn't have to try very hard to sell. You did the presidents. You were editor of former presidents, present presidents, and future presidents. You can--

OSNOS: The family story is—because we really don't have a lot of time—but I'll just highlight to this. Yes, yes, yes, I was the editor of Donald Trump's Art of the Deal. I was tasked to do so by the owner of Random House who said, "This Trump fella is a comer." Anyway, there's a whole chapter called "Editing Donald Trump,” which is sort of fun.

DEMICK: That was excerpted in the New Yorker, too.

OSNOS: That was excerpted in the New Yorker, yeah.

DEMICK: We still want to hear the stories because we—

OSNOS: Well, I'm going to because you want to get to questions. Then one day I get a phone call saying that this fella, Barack Obama, who had been the president of the Harvard Law Review, the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. He had a contract with Simon & Schuster for a lot of money, he missed his deadline, they canceled the contract, and he was going to have to pay them back $40,000 and would I meet with him? So I met with him, I was very impressed. The book was Dreams From My Father. We published it in 1995 and did nicely. Nine years later, he gives the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention. Same book. I'm gone. Dusted off. Sells four million copies. Extraordinarily and completely unplanned, I ended up being the publisher, editor of Donald Trump and Barack Obama. And what my daughter says, that when I get to the pearly gates, and they look at the record, and they say, "Hmm, Trump" and I say "Obama", so they're going to say, "Purgatory."

But in all of those cases, and this is what's really important to remember, as an editor, I was a partner not an employee, and that gave me the opportunity to see these people up close. Because I was very much engaged with, less so with Barack because when he was finally inaugurated I got all the people who worked on that book together and we said, "What do we remember about working with Barack Obama?" This is historic. It's one of the greatest books ever written. But we realized that our only regret was that he wasn't more trouble because once he got going, he got the book done, he was good. I knew, when I met him, that this was a person of real consequence. I also knew when I met Donald Trump, that he was trouble. To put it simply, when I saw him, he was a developer with a whole set of personal characteristics. Thirty years later he was the President of the United States with the same characteristics, only now he was the President of the United States and that was a very different picture. I feel privileged to be able to have an opinion about Trump and Obama based on experience, rather than just my beliefs, or ideology, or my instincts.

DEMICK: Whose book sold better?

OSNOS: Oh, God. Well, initially, Trump's book was a phenomenon. This is why I was weary. His book The Art of the Deal, in the first three months sold a million copies before The Apprentice. So he was a New York, sort of, celebrity who wrote about making deals and the book was a phenomenon. A million copies. Why? Because Trump, then, and we all know subsequently, has a certain hold on people of a certain kind. About eighteen months or so afterwards, your friend, my son, Evan, is a friend of Barbara's, and I went to a professional wrestling match in Atlantic City which was an aberration in our normal activities. Trump was the promoter. Eighteen thousand people in the Atlantic City arena. The wrestler Hulk Hogan, or his equivalent, is there. Trump, the promoter comes in, and 18,000 people cheer and roar and all this other stuff. That's 1988 or nine, maybe '89. Thirty years later, he's the President of the United States and it's the same crowd, only now there's seventy-five million of them. Something about Donald Trump was irresistible to certain people.

Barack, the other end of the same, I would say, spectrum. Something about Barack appealed to people mercifully more, ultimately, than would have appealed to Donald. Two terms. His book sold four million copies, but only when he was famous. When he was not famous, it sold very modestly. Same book! So the answer to the question is that both of these were phenomenal characters. Both of them wrote books that really will be memorable for history. I had the, I don't know, the privilege, whatever it is. I had the experience of seeing both of these books happen.

DEMICK: Our hosts have given us permission to go on to 5:40 before we break for questions, so I will be greedy and ask more. One of the books you published, that I found the account very interesting, was of Jimmy Carter, with his wife, and that was one where you were really very intimately involved in the writing process. How do you help somebody write a memoir? And, you know, I mean, again—

OSNOS: Well, first of all, the degree to which Jimmy Carter—I published a bunch of books with Jimmy Carter. I published his, believe it or not, poetry, which was very successful. I published a children's book. I mean, my Jimmy Carter experience was more than a memoir. The first book that I did, he and Rosalynn were going to do together about how to take advantage. Remember, when they left Washington and went home, they were young, by the standards of age. They were barely, I don't think they were sixty. Well, he's now ninety-six and he left in '80, so it's forty years ago, so he was about fifty. He had to start over, the peanut business was not good, Rosalynn took the defeat very hard, she had the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. So they wanted to write a book together about how to make the most of the rest of your life. They started working together and the net of that is that Jimmy Carter has said repeatedly, and I first thought it was a joke but now I know it's serious because he just said it recently in a podcast with Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue, that it was the worst period in their marriage. Why? Because writing a book together just didn't work. He's fast, she's slow. They had opinions that differed. So what I did, in that instance, went down to Plains. By the way, when you go to visit Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter in Plains, you are not going to Trump Tower. You are going to their very modest, by any standards, but simple, not modest, single floor. We sat in the kitchen over meals, we said grace, maybe in the sweatshirt served up the meal. But I came up with a plan of how they could deal with the book, which I said, "You're going to put an 'R' in front of Rosalynn's paragraphs, and a 'J' in front of Jimmy's." They adopted it. And so he, thereafter, called me his referee. He said, "This editor came down from New York and saved my marriage." You know, if he was kidding, he wouldn't have said it over and over and over because their seventy-five year marriage is the centerpiece of the Carter story. It's gotten into all the memoirs and biographies of Carter. So that was my one experience at marriage counseling.

DEMICK: Peter, I'm going to ask you these questions rather quickly. But reflecting back, what book that you worked on are you proudest of? And what newspaper story are you proudest of? Or magazine story?

OSNOS: Well that's hard. You know, choosing among what proverbial children is hard. I would say that what I am proudest of in my coverage of the Soviet Union, was the fact that I didn't fall into the trap of what the Russians have set (unintelligible) "your house, our house?" What about-ism stuff. I believed that I had to understand the country on its own terms. That's hard because access was not all that great. Certainly, we had to ask permission to travel. But I sat in a courtroom in our neighborhood for a couple of months. I would go to the courtrooms three or four times a week and sit there and watch routine justice to understand what it was like, not in the political cases, but when somebody stole a loaf of bread. And that was the piece I wrote and that was an unusual piece for journalists to do. It was not argumentative, I wasn't challenging the system, I just wanted to know what it felt like to steal a loaf of bread and end up in a Russian court. I would say that part of my coverage there.

OSNOS: With books, you know, I have to say that books. PublicAffairs, which was started in 1997. One of my colleagues said, "We publish books that matter." We published Muhammad Yunus, the person who developed microlending, who won the Nobel Peace Prize. We published Duflo and Banerjee, who won the Nobel Prize for economics. These are people who were real thinkers and we were able to publish them. The whole concept of PublicAffairs, which should be really clear to members of the Council, was look there's a whole lot of Americans who are never going to buy one of our books, so let's create a company that is a business built around its potential. So we published as many important books as we could, recognizing that the potential of most of them was limited. So we had to have a business model that suited it and since the company has been around now for twenty-four years, that business model was the one that was right.

DEMICK: Peter, I want to circle back to changes in the media, book publishing, newspapers. It is more open now, isn't it? I mean, you yourself have been writing for Medium. You've adapted to a newer age. Is there more opportunity for people to get their voices across?

OSNOS: There's no question. Anybody who has anything to say, can say it. I find writing, particularly at this stage of my professional career, I am no longer the person who owns PublicAffairs, I'm no longer an executive. What's my current career path? It's writing and pontificating, to some extent. I've always written. For years I did a column that ran on So I started doing this because I wanted to understand social media. If you don't understand social media in the twenty-first century, you're sort of an illiterate and I knew that I did not understand. So I decided to write for social media. Meaning I write for Medium, which is an open platform. I created something called Peter Osnos' Platform, which is actually a publication within the Medium universe. I have it properly edited. I put up, what I hope, is an interesting graphic with it. And then it goes on to Facebook and Twitter. I used to say, I have dozens of devoted readers, now I can actually say I have a couple of hundred devoted readers. The issue here is that I want to--if I was just telling it to my wife and my dog it would, you know. This way my own my children, grandchildren are no longer, you know, on hand. So I write it because I have something to say, and I need to formulate the ideas. But also, it was really important, and I believe this to be the case, if you want to reach people, you need to understand the way in which they access material. We all know now that social media is an absolutely central part of the way information is delivered. So that was really the purpose of doing it.

DEMICK: You know, this is going to be my last question. Towards the end of the book, you talk about the process of writing a memoir, of keeping notes, of keeping diaries. I think you had some specific advice for readers, particularly younger readers about preserving their memories.

OSNOS: You know, there's a thing at the end of the book, in the book in its printed and digital form, is there a thing called a "virtual attic" which is a bunch of stuff that you would find in an attic, with some articles, it's photographs, it's documents, and so on. Then I created what I call a "virtual attic", which is What that is, is an effort to capture all the material that I used in writing the book, but a whole lot of other stuff. Links, photographs, documents, stuff that, in another time, you might put in an attic and forget about. But if you reach my stage, and you really think you need to do something to capture that before it's gone. We're not going to have as much in a hundred years because, you know, one thing I didn't put in the virtual attic was emails. Just doesn't seem, you know. So what I think we all need to do, and I urge everybody to do it. If you think you're doing something interesting, and I'm sure most of the people who are on this Zoom are, don't let it get away from you forever. It's easy enough to keep things and remember that other people after you may want to know. Just like my grandson wanted to know. Therefore keep it. Think of these as a way of putting stuff in a trunk, most of us don't have space for trunks anymore, and then putting it online.

DEMICK: Okay. And, yes, put it online because we're all in to decluttering these days and I—

OSNOS: —Right.

DEMICK: I, of course, wondered how you could have such memories and such detailed accounts without having a very cluttered apartment, which I know you don't.

OSNOS: Not anymore. (Laughs.)

DEMICK: But it's fascinating. The process of memoir and the reflections on refugee life and the foreign correspondent experience and book publishing. There's a lot in it. I will—

OSNOS: —I trust your judgment.

DEMICK: (Laughs.) You've always given me good advice, so—

OSNOS: Good.

DEMICK: Peter is one of my advisors as a writer. Anyway, I've been too greedy about asking questions. Shall we open it up?

STAFF: (Gives queueing instructions.) Our first question will come from Delphine Shrank.

Q: Hello, thank you so much. I am a journalist. Also thank PublicAffairs because you were the publication that published my first book on Burma. But I'm a foreign correspondent and I wondered how you see the landscape of foreign correspondents changing radically? It's very hard to do deep, serious foreign correspondence, that's actually paid because so much is determined by clicks online nowadays. So the landscape of social media has obviously evolved, and everyone can opine. Deep, serious foreign correspondence is not the same thing. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, this is really a question--

OSNOS: The nature of what it takes to be a journalist is an instinctive sense that it's never, you know, "the old days are better." I actually think, first of all, as a young woman, there was a time when the idea of a young woman just traipsing around the world was very unusual. Marguerite Higgins. Today, anybody with that urge, and a certain amount of daring, eventually, can find a way to write.

One of my favorite stories recently was the Linux Awards and every year they give out an award, it's Pulitzers for under thirty-fives. A couple of years ago, they gave it to a woman, her first name was, Christina Goldbaum. Christina Goldbaum graduated from Tufts, she went on her own to East Africa, she ended up in Somalia. She was a stringer for the AFP and then she wrote pieces for the Daily Beast, which won the Livingston Award, meaning they were really highly regarded by a very tough group of judges. On the basis of that, she went to the New York Times where she was a reporter on metro staff covering transportation. She's now on Africa, South Africa. What she had most of all was the daring, energy, luck, talent, and I think that's the prerequisite. Yeah, I mean, it's not like it was when the London correspondents at major newspapers had Bentleys and chauffeurs and now everybody does their office out of their hat. It's not fancy. But really, just as it's always been, the experience, the opportunity, it's 10 percent given and 90 percent taken. If you can figure out how to do it. Do it. Don't be discouraged by what people say about "oh, well, it's all about clicks." Write well and people will notice.

DEMICK: I was just going to interject something in here. You know, we started out quoting Mr. Bernstein saying that "journalism is not a profession for grown men," but what about grown women? The profession has become much more female.

OSNOS: Oh yeah. There's a new book out called You Don't Belong Here by Elizabeth Becker. It's about three women journalists in the Vietnam era. Francis Fitzgerald, and a UPI correspondent, and a photographer. I knew all of them. I didn't know the photographer, but I certainly know Elizabeth. Elizabeth went to Cambodia in 1973 and that was unusual. She was a stringer. She was probably making, you know, by the word and that was the nature of her book, which is it was unusual and that you had to overcome certain challenges. I would find it very hard to imagine. Sure, do women still feel the sting of misogyny? Yes. I'm sure it's true. I can't really speak to it because it's not my thing. But the point is that you want to do something these days, if you're a woman, there’s nothing to say you can't or shouldn't. It's really up to you. As I said in the case of this young woman who went to Somalia and lived, essentially in a packing crate, what she had was the qualities that make a good generalist, which is that she was daring and she was curious and she knew how to write.

STAFF: Okay, we'll take our next question from Natan Shklyar.

OSNOS: Or not.

STAFF: Or not. Let's see, we'll try that again. Okay, he is not there. (Gives queueing instructions.)

Barbara, if you want to jump in while we wait for some more hands to raise, please.

DEMICK: I will. I mean, I had more questions about the process of doing a memoir. It seems to me that the best memoirs are not necessarily written by famous people, but by people who are good writers and have something to say. I'm thinking about Tara Westover's Educated, which was a great bestseller. Or James McBride's The Color of Water. Two of my favorite memoirs. How would you advise somebody who is kind of an ordinary person, and I think they both started out, as more or less ordinary people, about writing a memoir? If they're not famous, I mean, how would they--

OSNOS: Well, in either of those cases, were they ordinary people? I mean, the fabulous thing about Tara Westover was that she was raised in the hills of Idaho by survivalists and ended up getting a PhD at Harvard. What was completely fascinating about it was the process. I would say, lives, by their nature, are interesting. The ability to take anybody's life and turn it into a readable memoir is, you know, anybody can take a photograph, but taking a great photograph is hard. Anybody can put a piece of paper down and start writing, but writing well is hard. The best memoirs are, as you said, they rise on the strength not only in the story, but the way the story is told. To some extent, people say, "Well, if you are going to write a memoir, boy, you better have had trouble." If you haven't had trauma, you better have this, a lot of drinking, abuse, all of that stuff. In today's world, there's an awful lot of stuff that's done and it's important, very important, which describes the challenges of race and gender.

I think that if you feel you have a story, don't be overly shy. Tell the story. One thing that I believe deeply, it's in the book. It's the front of the book, it says two things. One is, "Books are better than buildings. They've got your name on but they can't be torn down." And two, Maxwell Perkins, who is Ne Plus Ultra book editors, used to say, "Look, just get it down on paper and then we'll figure out what to do with it." That's sort of the way I feel. If you think you have a story to tell, and you want to tell it, write it down. Write it. Don't think about whether somebody will at the end of the day give you a buck and a quarter for it. If you write it, it's done. If you don't write it, it isn't.

So I believe in writing. I think making a living as a writer, as making a living in any one of the more or less creative arts is not easy. But if you believe in it, it's certainly worth it. You want to be a dentist, be a good dentist. You want to be a writer, it's tougher than, I suppose, being a dentist, although, I don't know. But the point is, being a writer, if that's what your instinct is, is a tremendously interesting way to experience the world, and to leave a legacy of what you've seen, right? For me, no one can fire me if this book is not a great success. It's not going to happen. But it's there. It is a record of the things I've seen and what I've learned and what I've felt. Hopefully, it has enough in it of interest because of the places and the people so that the lessons come through.

Deflection. What does it mean when something profound happens and you don't really know how to deal with it? It's going to go somewhere and eventually you're going to have to deal with it. Deflection. Memory is not enough. You got to ask the questions. Be sure work that you're not kidding yourself in the way you remember things because there's a tendency. Anyway, I could go on, and hopefully, somebody will read the book and know something about the essence of it.

DEMICK: This is a maybe a tougher question, but in the process of doing a memoir, what did you learn about yourself? Did it change the way you thought about yourself? Were there personal revelations that came out?

OSNOS: Oh yeah. I've done so many memoirs that I approached my own with trepidation. And I thought, what if I don't like what I find? What if it turns out I'm vain, crabby, grumpy, whatever? But that's not exactly what I found. The most important thing I found, which is this characteristic I've mentioned a couple times, of going through life as an observer. In the nature of two things, one because I came halfway through my parents' life and they were from a different universe. And secondly, my instincts as a reporter. When I became editor in Washington, the managing editor Howard Simon said, "Peter, just be a sightseer." Well, I was a sightseer. But more than that, if you get so sucked in and it's all about your prestige, and blah blah, you're going to lose that ability to watch and look. I believe that there's a lot to be learned by just watching, observing, thinking and eventually writing.

DEMICK: Interesting. I think we have some more questions.

STAFF: We do. Our next question will come from Tyler Godoff. Please accept the unmute now prompt.

Q: Excellent, thank you. This has been an incredible talk, you've lived an incredible life. A lot of lessons to be learned and I look forward to reading your book. You now have spent a lot of time on social media. I am thirty-three. I feel like I was a first digital native group. After about fifteen years interacting with it, I feel like it's going to become, in many ways, the cigarettes of our generation. I can see my future grandchildren saying  "Granddad, I can't believe you spent six, seven hours a day on that!" Just like how I look at my grandfather who smoked a pack a day, woke up in the morning having one, as insane. I'm soaking my brain in that and it scares me a bit. So the question to you is, now that you have spent a lot of time on social media, what are your rules of the road? If you could kind of shape the future of social media so it's a healthy medium to engage with, what would it be? Thank you.

OSNOS: Look, I think the answer is to recognize that social media is still in its earliest stages. The iPhone didn't come along until 2007. The closest parallel we had to this, in modern times, was television. No one had televisions in the late forties. Everybody had televisions in the fifties. Parents were tearing their hair, "my kid wants to spend all his time watching photos." Believe it or not, in the forties, the great obsession about kids reading comic books, it got so bad that they started reading comic books, and there were congressional hearings, and so on. I think that we will come to an understanding of social media that we do not have now. There is no question of its positive influence. There's absolutely no question of its negative influence. I think that the best way to handle this is, is if you're a parent, really having a discussion and talking about it.

I mean, the really, totally bizarre story, in my case, was that my father didn't want me to watch too much television so at the age of ten, or whatever, he took me to a notary public, and I had to sign a document promising only to watch half an hour a day. Of course, it was ridiculous, I was a child. But it set, kind of, rules. Don't turn it into a battle because the battle you can't really win. Try to emphasize the-- I mean, this sounds also kind of gooey and Pollyannaish, the truth of the matter is, you can't avoid it. So figure out how to take advantage of it.

OSNOS: And finally, what's the most popular new form of information in the last couple of years? Podcasts. And what is podcast? Radio. It's radio. It's the most old school form of broadcast. It suddenly, for your generation, has become very popular. I believe there are certain things as I said at the outset that are returned. Storytelling, information that's interesting, and eventually we will come to an understanding. I think also, by the way, you will see much more like regulation or whatever the word is. But this is a wild and wooly internet period will evolve into something more organized, is my sense as it did. Remember, AT&T was broken up, IBM was sued, Microsoft was sued. Google, and the others are going to--Facebook--are going to face a point at which people say, "Look, we need to bring this into some coherence." But we'll see. I'm absolutely sure that whatever happens, your grandkids won't compare it to smoking.

Q: Thank you.

STAFF: And we have time for one last question. And that will come from Andres Small. Please accept the unmute now.

Q: Hi. Thank you very much. Peter, when you were talking a little bit about interviewing Trump and Obama, there is this element of judgment of character and how you would find yourself doing that with all of the amazing people you met and making sure your weren't following the script but really judging character. What tips would you give us?

OSNOS: Well, I'm not sure I got the question. But I'll tell you that one of the things that I brought to the table as a journalist was a judgment process. One of the pieces of advice I got early on, which mercifully, I took, was, despite the fact that I like to talk and I'm expressive, listen. I'm better at listening than perhaps I realized I was because I would listen and make judgments based on what I heard. And that was very helpful. They were time and again, in working with people on their books and memoirs, where I was able to give them language that they might not have been able to give themselves because I had come to understand them well enough. In almost every book, people say, "Well, if the book doesn't say X, then it's not really a book." So you have to find a way to say X, even if the person doesn't really want to. Typical example, the great Tip O'Neill, speaker of the house, didn't want to talk about Jack Kennedy and women, even though everybody said if he didn't, the speaker of the house was not writing a true book. I mean, a ridiculous challenge. The line we came up with in the end working with Tip was, "There are a lot of stories about Jack Kennedy. I'm not going to repeat any of them." The fact is, I could not have helped him get to that point, if I didn't understand the man and what his instinct was and why he wanted to say it that way.

OSNOS: So are we out of time?

STAFF: I'm afraid we are. Barbara, that's all the questions. So I'll turn it back to you to wrap us up.

DEMICK: Well, thank you so much. Thank you for the excellent questions. And thank you, Peter, for the advice. I guess one of the takeaways here is sort of take stock of your life and keep notes, keep datebooks. Don't forget.

OSNOS: And don't underestimate yourself.

DEMICK: Yeah. One of the clichés of journalism is that everybody has a good story to tell. You know, some better than others, in your case, Peter. But there's a story everywhere.

OSNOS: I think that anybody who cares enough to be a member of the Council on Foreign Relations has a story. It means that they're curious and probably ambitious in certain ways. Don't underestimate how interesting you are and how interesting the world is. Anyway, that said, it's all kind of a bromide, but don't underestimate. Read Eat the Buddha. Thank you.

DEMICK: Read An Especially Good View.

OSNOS: Thank you.

DEMICK: And it's getting sappy now, so.


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