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Matt Bai: Returning Public Service to Journalism

Monday, July 1, 2013

The Tufts alumnus, one of the top political journalists in America, is joining the Tisch College Board of Advisors.

Tufts alumnus Matt Bai

“Everything in journalism is in flux,” said Matt Bai, A90, chief political correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and a new member of the Tisch College Board of Advisors. “There’s tumult over ownership and whether media entities should belong to communities or conglomerates. The weakening of the institutional power of large papers and media networks has favored bloggers and tweeters who see themselves as active citizens. The whole concept is being remade in our time, and that includes the media’s relationship to citizenship.”

It was Bai’s concern for active citizenship that first drew him to Tufts, and set him on the journey to journalism.

“I fell in love with the school immediately,” he said. “Tufts is so imbued with dynamism, activism, creativity, and the spirit of service and higher meaning that includes and go beyond the academic experience.  It’s why I’ve been drawn back over the years.”

After arriving on campus Bai was soon immersing himself at the Tufts Observer.

“I met my closest friends at the Observer, and really spent the majority of my college career there,” he said. “It was my first education into journalism.”

After graduating, Bai worked at the US branch of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a role that included writing speeches for Audrey Hepburn, then a goodwill ambassador. Eventually, he longed to get back to journalism.

“I couldn’t get a job,” said Bai.  “So I went to grad school.  That’s one piece of advice I have for students:  take some time to test how your ideas match reality and find out what you don’t want to do.  Then use grad school as a ‘get out of jail free’ card to remake your resume.”

At the Columbia School of Journalism, Bai was awarded a Pulitzer fellowship.  He went on to work for the Boston Globe and Newsweek, before moving to the Times Magazine.

“Political journalism, and all journalism really, is and ought to be a public service,” said Bai.  “But the public has lost faith in our commitment to serve, and as an industry we’ve gone astray from our mission to serve. To me, active citizenship is about a passion to make sure that what I do matters, and that it benefits someone other than myself, which means helping people understand the choices they have, and the effects policy decisions have on their lives.”

Bai, who spoke recently in D.C. at one of Tisch College’s CASE (Connecting Alumni and Student Experiences) gatherings, hopes that sharing his perspective from Washington will be useful to the Board and the school.

“Tisch College is right to focus on all forms of service, because there are myriad ways to serve that have nothing to do with politics,” he said. “For example, we can’t have a functioning democracy without a vibrant civic minded media. Tisch College can help to include thinking about the role of media in any discussion of service.”

Bai is currently at work on a book that will examine what he sees as the origins of some of the current media climate. Tentatively titled “All The Truth Is Out: Gary Hart and the Week that Changed Politics,” it will be published by Knopf in the fall of 2014.