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Covering The Arts In Tumultuous Times


And next, the Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we speak with those who've made a difference through their work. Today, we will meet a longtime observer of the Washington scene, former Washington Post reporter Jacqueline Trescott.

And when you think about reporting in the nation's capital, you probably think about politics and policy, the Watergate break-in, the shenanigans of government officials, but Jacqueline Trescott has made her mark covering the arts - theater, museums, gallery openings and movie premiers - as well as taking readers behind the scenes with stars like Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep.

And Jacqueline Trescott joins us now in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JACQUELINE TRESCOTT: Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you to reflect a little bit about the role of, you know, arts reporting and entertainment reporting in this culture right now. I mean, when you started out, some people considered it, you know, not so serious. But now some people feel that kind of arts, entertainment, culture has taken over the news business, that it's become too much driven toward entertainment and culture and stuff, in part because people feel it's easier to report on what Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez are up than it is to figure out how much money is going into X campaign or where - why certain people are voting the way they are, because that's hard and people get mad at you. Can you talk about that?

TRESCOTT: Well, it's sort of a confluence of a lot of things. First of all, the celebrities want to be known, so now all the celebrities have PR outfits. They give their photographs or sell their photographs to the popular magazines, and then the reporters are not only newspaper reporters anymore, or even television reporters. There are - on cable, there are 30 minute shows every night devoted to entertainment news. And then you have the blog industry, which, you know, is still a relatively new phenomenon.

But anyone can start a blog, and anyone can start reporting and picking up from any kind of source tidbits about entertainers, about what the celebrities were wearing. You know, the celebrity fashion reporting industry is really a big one right now.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, I mean, we've talked with your former colleague, Robin Givhan, who was - wrote about fashion for the Washington Post, won a Pulitzer Prize, one of our industry's highest honors...

TRESCOTT: Certainly.

MARTIN: ...for her reporting on fashion, and she still, to the day she left the Post - she's now reporting for Newsweek and The Daily Beast - still has to contend with people saying: Why are you writing this garbage? Why is this in my newspaper? Why is this important? Just what do you make of that, I mean, that something can be such an important industry on the one hand, and still have people be so irritated that you're talking to them about it on the other?

TRESCOTT: Well, people can't forget two things. One, fashion is money. Secondly, Robin approaches her job not just with what the latest dress is or the latest shoe. She really looks into explaining how it fits into what trend, what cultural trend and how we're identifying ourselves, you know, through the latest, you know, look that Michelle Obama might have. I think it's a tough job to do.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with longtime arts reporter Jacqueline Trescott. She just retired. Should I use that term? What would you say?

TRESCOTT: Making a transition.


MARTIN: Transitioned from reporting at the Washington Post, where she'd been a reporter for decades, covering arts, culture, entertainment, film stars, the whole gamut, you name it.

What's been the biggest change over the course of time that you've been covering arts and culture?

TRESCOTT: You know, the growth of the Smithsonian from, you know, being a cluster of museums on the Mall to restoring the buildings at Gallery Place, which housed two very popular museums, the building of the Indian Museum and now the building of the African-American History and Culture Museum, I mean, those are tremendous changes and they've added a lot of responsibility, both to the reporters who cover the beat and also to the Smithsonian itself.

MARTIN: If someone were to listen to our conversation would want a career like yours, what would you say? You'd say it's not possible.

TRESCOTT: Well, you'd have to try very, very hard and you'd have to look very hard to see where there was an employer that covered, you know, everything, covered everything that you would be interested in. You know, not that you would just, you know, walk in and sort of write your ticket, but you have to look to see if there's a magazine out there or a newspaper out there that still, you know, feeds that kind of interest and feeds it with a lot of credibility, because a lot of the new media is still being tested.

MARTIN: How do you feel your race intersects with your lens? Do you feel a responsibility to bring kind of an African-American perspective to a production or to something that you review to say, for example, with a television show, where are the black people? Or do you feel that it's your job to keep it out? Or how do you decide when race should play a role and when it shouldn't?

TRESCOTT: The perspective of being an African-American woman is always there. I mean, it just - it doesn't go away, whether you're looking at an exhibit about Amelia Earhart or you're, you know, looking at a play by Lynn Nottage, you know, you're going to have that perspective, and I relish that perspective. I wouldn't try to downplay it for any reason.

And I think, you know, sometimes, you know, you do have to step back and say, OK. Well, I can't apply my criteria, you know, to everything that I'm doing. But for a lot of my career, I did some training of other younger, you know, reporters who were Hispanic and Asian and African-American through the summer program for minority journalists to have that perspective, you know, to not forget that we can always look at something and decide that there's a pathological, you know, reason that some sociologist has come up with, you know, for what is happening to that, you know, family, you know, to really develop your own standards and to develop them through a lens of you're a minority in the newsroom. You're a minority - or used to be a minority - in America and, you know, there is some truth in what you feel, as well as what all the, you know, talking heads are saying.

MARTIN: But you are writing for a diverse audience that is not exclusively African-American or African-American female, for that matter. When do you decide when it's appropriate to include that lens and to withhold it?

TRESCOTT: Well, I think, at times, what I've done is just step back and say: What is happening here? At some point, all the black actresses had disappeared. They weren't getting any roles. So that's the time to say, OK. I need to do a story to say what's happening. And I never received complaints from, you know, the reading audience that, you know, that was offbeat or something that shouldn't be discussed.

MARTIN: We call this a Wisdom Watch, so we like to end by asking if you have some wisdom to share.

TRESCOTT: You have to develop your own truth, what you care about yourself, and that, even though you may be doing different things on different days, you still come back to that. And one of the things that I, you know, believe and I really believe is that everyone has a story. So - and everyone has a good story, and that your gift - and if you don't have it, you have to develop it - is to listen, really listen to everybody's story.

MARTIN: Jacqueline Trescott covered arts and culture for the Washington Post for 36 years, and, as she told us, she's on to new ventures. And she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Jackie Trescott, thank you so much for joining us.

TRESCOTT: Well, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.