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An Interview With

Mr. David Vise


June 6, 2006

 
 

Introduction

Taipei Tokyo, an Asian restaraunt in downtown Bethesda, was a great setting to meet with one of the great jounalists of our time.
David Vise is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who spent 22 years with the Washington Post. His investigative work led to the writing
of his widely-praised book, The Bureau and the Mole.  He is the author of several other books including the bestseller, The Google Story.
He is now a Senior Commentator for Breakingviews.com. Reading this interview, you will experience, as did I, some of what is inside the
brilliant mind of David Vise.

"Read, read, read; write, write, write. Just read and write as much as you can." - David Vise

Spencer:


You started your career in journalism as a copy boy for a Tennessee newspaper. You quickly earned respect as a reporter.  By the 1990s you had received many awards, including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for your book, Eagle on the Street Winning the Pulitzer Prize must have been a highlight in your career.  What did it feel like to win journalism’s most prestigious award?

 

Mr. Vise


Well actually I won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in the Washington Post that the book, Eagle on the Street, ended up being based on, and the Pulitzer Prize was awarded for explanatory journalism about the extraordinary period in the 1980s when Wall Street and Washington clashed over insider trading, corporate takeovers.  So, I wrote it with a colleague of mine, a series of articles called The Man from Wall Street. And what we really did is, for the first time, shed light on those darkened corners where Wall Street and Washington meet, and really got far inside the FCC using a lot of different reporting techniques that…the irony is that the FCC pushed public companies to disclose lots of information, but a lot of its activities, itself, are shrouded in secrecy.

So, what gave me the greatest satisfaction was helping the public understand the FCC better during the most important period in its existence since it was founded in the aftermath of the Great Depression, and winning the Pulitzer Prize was the icing on the cake.  I felt great about the series.  Winning the Pulitzer Prize was very exciting.  It’s a great honor to be recognized for your accomplishments and achievements.  It’s a byproduct, really, of what was driving us and certainly not the sort of thing I would ever set as a goal that you try to achieve.

I would say that the funniest thing that happened is I was 29 years old at the time, and Ben Bradley was the editor of the Washington Post and he came walking out of his office on the day I won the Pulitzer Prize, reached out, shook my hand and said in a gravely voice, “You’re awfully goddamned young to win one of these.”  And then went back into his office.  And that was Ben Bradley in that era at the Washington Post.  He’s a fun editor and it was a fun time.

The other thing about it that was very special was that I heard from a lot of people from all over the country when they saw that I won a Pulitzer Prize, old friends, people I’d gone to high school with who I lost track of and hadn’t kept in touch with, people who I had kept in touch with.  In this case it was good news traveling fast and so I would say that one of the things that I enjoyed most was reconnecting with lots of people and hearing from lots of people.

I think the articles that we wrote for the Washington Post that led to Eagle on the Street took people inside the FCC further than anybody had ever gone.  I think it was considered worthy because the ground was really shaken then.  Financial market confidence was shaken by the insider trading scandals involving Michael Milkin, and others, and the seeds of the great takeover boom that, in some ways, created the opportunity for the insider trading problems, planted actually by the FCC itself.  And there was firm in that time that dominated the activity, and that was Drexel Burnham, and ultimately the FCC chairman who had presided over all these insider trading cases ended up trying to save Drexel Burnham by going and becoming chairman of that firm after he left the FCC, and after he became ambassador to the Netherlands.


Spencer:


As a Washington Post reporter you had spent some good deal of time covering the FBI.  How has the Bureau changed since the 1980s when you began covering it?


Mr. Vise


I covered the Justice Department and the FBI under Attorney General Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh, and probably the biggest changes at the FBI have been that once upon a time the FBI was really focused almost exclusively on domestic crime fighting issues, and the CIA was focused on foreign intelligence.  Today the FBI has a physical presence in dozens and dozens of countries around the world.  So I would say globalization is probably the single biggest change in the FBI. 

As crime became global, and as terrorism became global, and as the mission of the FBI moved away from fighting and catching bank robbers to hunting down terrorists and other things, it was important and necessary for the Bureau to become able to operate on the world stage rather than just within the United States.  That’s probably the single biggest change that has occurred.


Spencer:


How do you think journalism has changed since you first started in the business?


Mr. Vise


The biggest change in journalism has been driven by technology and the Internet.  

News travels faster around the globe than it ever did before.  Information that used to only be available to journalists is now available to anybody with an Internet connection who can tap in for free to numerous sources of news and data.  So, I would say that the Internet has really transformed and is in the process of changing and transforming journalism. 

Journalism at its core, the best journalism, is still done the same way.  It still involves good, hard, charging reporters asking tough questions, digging into documents, talking to lots of people, developing sources, but the way the news is delivered is quite different because there is kind of immediacy to the Internet and to news delivered online that’s different than. 

During the Watergate era in Washington people were very excited to wake up and read the next morning’s paper.  Today, people are constantly keeping up with the news online and television and other ways, and so there’s a big breaking story, it’s something that’s already been written about, reported on, and made available to users almost on a real time basis.  So, the danger is that, are we helping the public become wiser?  Or are we just doing things faster without the same depth of research and quality? 

However, the big advantage is that more people are reading news and have access to news than any time before.  People used to worry about whether young readers would read newspapers.  Well, it turns out young readers are not reading newspapers in print, but they are reading them online.  And so, I think the opportunities for growth in journalism have never been better, and I recently made a change myself from working at the Washington Post where I’ve been for 22 years to working for BreakingViews.com, a global online financial commentary service.  Without any printing presses anywhere, we have a handful of financial journalists in London, one in Italy, one in Germany, several in New York, and I’m their man in Washington.  We’ll soon add a few more, but we can create a global online financial news and commentary service that’s driven by views because news has become somewhat of a commodity, and we can deliver it to people by email, to their Blackberries, to their PCs and Trios and all kinds of other places, and cell phones.  Basically these are things that would have been unthinkable when I first became a journalist.

So, everything has gotten faster and more compressed.


Spencer:


Journalism can sometimes be a dangerous business.  Are there any times when you use anonymous sources?


Mr. Vise


I certainly have used anonymous sources.  I do use anonymous sources from time to time.  But I’d never allow an anonymous source to take a cheap shot at somebody.  I’m always committed first and foremost to fairness and accuracy in journalism.  My test for fairness and accuracy is what I feel something were fair and accurate if it were written about me.  I also believe in the doctrine of no surprises.  Just like you handed me a list of questions here, I try to let people know as much as I can what’s going to appear before it runs in the newspaper.

You have to try to rely on many different sources of information to make sure you get it right, and you have to always be careful when using anonymous sources that you’re not being misled and carrying out someone’s agenda, hidden or otherwise.  I think it’s very important also for editors to challenge reporters when they’re relying on anonymous sources to disclose the identities of who they are and everything else because I think credibility is very important in journalism, and the more that’s on the record, the more credibility there is.  But there are some stories that would never come out if there weren’t opportunities for anonymous whistle blowers to talk about things without fear of retribution.

So there is a place in journalism for the responsible use of anonymous sources.


Spencer:


In 2002 the Maryland basketball team won the NCAA national championship.  Following the victory you wrote a book together with coach Gary Williams telling the story that led up to this title.  Your career for the past 30 years has not been spent covering sports.  Why did you choose to tell this story?


Mr. Vise


Spencer, I’ve written four books, and they’ve all been about different subjects.  The first one, Eagle on the Street, we talked about Wall Street and the Securities and Exchange Commission.  The second one, The Bureau and the Mole, was about an FBI agent who secretly spied on behalf of the Russians for 20 years, and ultimately was brought down by Louis Freeh, the FBI Director.  It was a situation where both of those men lived in northern Virginia, both had six kids, sent their kids to the same schools, attended the same church, one became the director of the Bureau, the other became the mole.  This was their story.

Sweet Redemption was a story of overcoming adversity, a triumph over the odds.  It’s the quintessential American story, really.  I’m passionate about sports, so that’s one reason I wrote that.  Secondly, I thought that Gary Williams was someone, because he looks like such a maniac during basketball games, he can tend to easily be misunderstood.  He’s actually a very rational, smart teacher who cares deeply about his players.  If he doesn’t yell at you it means he doesn’t care about you.  I think I identified with him in some ways.  I sweat a lot.  He sweats through those suits at games.  And I guess most of all, I remember where I was on June 19, 1986, when a man who may have been the greatest athlete in Maryland history, Len Bias, had just been drafted by the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA draft and died of a cocaine overdose before he ever dribbled the first ball.

That cast a dark cloud over Maryland basketball and led to the departure of coach Lefty Driesell.  When Gary Williams came in 1989 he faced a real uphill battle.  There were people who wanted to get rid of basketball at the school because it had given the school a black eye.  The Len Bias case changed the perception of drugs.  Nothing in Washington that happens is purely local because it takes place against the backdrop of the federal government’s presence, so when the Len Bias tragedy occurred it led to the changes in the way drug testing occurred throughout college sports.

The ghost of Len Bias hung over Maryland basketball as his number 34 hung in the rafters at Cole Field House.  Now the face of Maryland basketball changed.  Gary Williams slowly built a stronger and stronger program.  Many referred to this scrawny kid named Juan Dixon that nobody believed could, except Gary Williams, could make it because they said he was too small, and he wasn’t this or he wasn’t that.  He didn’t fit the mold.  But Gary Williams saw something in him.  He saw determination.  He saw positive attitude, and he saw a will to practice and work hard. 

Juan Dixon had to overcome adversity in his life.  He lost both of his parents while he was in high school.  Growing up in Baltimore his parents were drug users and they developed AIDS and died.  So, on so many levels, this was really a story of triumph over adversity for Gary Williams, for the University of Maryland, for Juan Dixon, and the face of Maryland basketball.  That ghost of Len Bias that I spoke of really changed, and the new face of Maryland basketball on the court became Juan Dixon.

The other book I wrote, The Google Story, is also kind of a great success story.  You can say, well, how do you end up writing books about four such different subjects?  In the end, they’re all about character, and they’re all about what it is that motivates people.  And, you know, things that went well, things that went poorly, things that were surprising, things that were amazing, and in every case I learned a great deal and helped to do my best to try to better inform the public about what was going on.

Sports has always been a passion of mine.  I threw out the basketballs when I was a little kid at the Vanderbilt University games, and played high school basketball.  Like Gary Williams, I played point guard.  So I’m a big college basketball fan.  So for me this was a dream.  It was really a lot of fun.


Spencer:


Your recent book, The Google Story, was published last year.  You told a remarkable story of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, two Stanford graduate students who developed a search engine that would change the way we use the Internet.  What lessons can we learn from their success?


Mr. Vise


I think the first, and maybe the most important lesson to learn from their success is captured in Larry Page’s favorite quote, and that is “having a healthy disregard for the impossible.”  If these guys had listened to their teachers at Stanford they never would have achieved what they achieved.  Larry Page was unhappy with the quality of Internet search and said to his professors that he was going to download the Internet.  They laughed at him when he said he was going to download the Internet.  And he did it.  So I think that one lesson to learn here is that if you really believe in something, even if people you respect sometimes in a well-intentioned way think you are way off base, and if you have a dream about something and you have a vision for something, then you ought to pursue it because you may be right. 

I’m not talking about wild risk taking, here, but in a prudent way I think his healthy disregard for the impossible was responsible for the creation of a technology that gained brand awareness, prominence, and grew faster as a company than anything.

I think another lesson we can learn from this is that a best way to make money is not necessarily by thinking about how to make money.  It’s by thinking about how to provide a product or service that needs needs.  These guys never intended to create a company.  They were trying to create a better way to search the Internet, and advertising and the rest came later.  First they had to come up with something, and still until this very day at Google, the philosophy is to meet the needs of users and to come up with new ways and new ideas that meet the needs of users.  So the process doesn’t start about how do we make money; the process starts by asking questions about how to make existing applications better, how to come up with new and fresh ideas.

Another lesson we can learn from their success, I think, is that it’s very important to think about motivation and what it is that drives people.  Especially to think about what it is that brings about innovation. These guys have been the most continually innovative company of any, coming up with new ideas and new applications, and one of the ways they do that is they keep the team working on new ideas.  A lot of the time these companies grow larger, they have thousands of employees now all over the world.  They lose their edge because lots of committees are formed and big groups and all the rest.  These guys still work in an environment where software engineers and technologists work in teams when they’re embarking on a software project, no matter how ambitious it is, of either three or five people.  That’s it.  You have to have an odd number because you have to be able to break a tie.  You need it small enough that everybody feels invested in it.  And you need it large enough that you got the brain power to really tackle it heavily.  And when it comes to rolling out something as successful as a business idea, then they’ll add those people in.  They have a zillion teams of three to five people working on things.  It’s a totally different model.  And it does work.  The other question is, companies create expectations and then some fail to live up to them.  These guys don’t create expectations; they don’t talk about the future and what they’re going to do.  They just come out with new things.  So while the world is talking about Microsoft delaying the release of this and the next operating system for Windows, these guys are innovating and pushing things out there.  Part of it is that Larry Page goes around the Googleplex, forces engineers…he doesn’t let go of things before they’re perfected.  He says, we won’t really know what’s right and what’s wrong with this, if it’s in very good shape, until we actually get feedback from users.

He likes the notion of perfect, the enemy of the very, very good.  And I think that’s also responsible for a lot of innovation there.  Engineers don’t want to let go of these things when they don’t feel they’ve got it 100% finished.

 

I think the other thing is that, I guess people learn the importance of a brand name. 

Here’s a company, ironically, that makes almost all of its money from advertising, and yet it spends virtually no money itself to promote its brand name or to advertise its brand name. By word of mouth, by media coverage, and other things, free publicity.  They hit the note right, they continued to hit it right, and they’re playing on the largest stage ever.  I would say IBM defined the mainframe era of large scale computing.  Microsoft defined the era of the personal computer.  Now we’re playing on a world stage with the Internet and Google is defining the Internet era.


Spencer:


Google is in the process of downloading the human genome.  How will this mix of technology and medicine be used?


Mr. Vise


Carefully, I hope.  Basically the idea is to move from an era of generalized medicine to an era of personalized medicine.  Right now you go to the drug store and you get a list of potential side effects of a medication, and the list is so long it says it will make you tired and it says it will keep you awake.  It says it will make you drowsy and it says it will make you unable to sit still.  It says it will make you sick to your stomach and your hair will fall out and your eyes will turn green. In an era where people could Google their genes, which is what Sergey Brin talks about, that’s really his passion, Googling your genes.  People would be able to find out what all these things really mean to them personally based on their own genetic makeup.  At least with some statistical probabilities.  Are you that one in a million person who might actually have a fatal reaction to some medication?  How might certain foods interact?  But, we’re all going to need a lot of counseling in a era where we know more about our genetic makeup and how it relates.

I don’t know, Spencer, someday you may ask a woman to marry you.  She may say Spencer, before I answer that question I want to Google your genes and find out what I’m really getting myself into. 

If somebody wants to project ahead and find out what’s going on in terms of your genes.  It’s exciting and I think Google, the search engine turns out to be a pretty perfect match for the human genome in terms of identifying a lot of needles in a haystack, and this work is going on very carefully at Google now.  Sergey Brin’s action is moving toward an era at the intersection of technology, medicine and science.  Larry Page’s passion is tearing down the walls of libraries, making all of the world’s books available.  Google’s mission is to organize all of the world’s information and make it universally accessible.

So we learn from them, too, that having a clear mission statement that’s very ambitious is a great motivator, so Google is in the process right now digitizing millions of books at Harvard, Stanford, University of Michigan, the New York Public Library, and Oxford.  This company didn’t exist eight years ago. Someday soon scholars from all over the world will be able to tap into all these Ph.D. theses, all these books, all this material, and the walls of libraries…and the times libraries are open and closed, the physical locations of libraries won’t matter.  It will all be available to people right on a computer.  And it also means that a person who is poor or lives in a really rural area who has never had access to a decent library and decent books suddenly is going to be able to get access to all of this.

I think all of this can only make the world a better place.  Sharing and spreading of human knowledge.  And Google is very aware that the Internet is a young medium, and so there’s  a lot of valuable information.  Most of the information that’s valuable in the world is not online because, for example, with books, they’ve been written over hundreds and hundreds of years, long before the Internet ever existed, so they’re investing in making these digital copies of books available.

There are some lawsuits and other things over how to divvy up the rights or who has copyright protection and this and that, but by and large they’re moving forward and it’s going to change the world in a dramatic sense.


Spencer:


I agree.  Are there other ways Google could be used to better the world?


Mr. Vise


I think these guys have created a way for people to access information instantly about topics, and I think the spread of information and making information more valuable helps healthy functioning societies and economies operate.  I think it will draw people around the world closer together rather than making them further apart, because I think it will deepen people’s understanding of the world. 

They formed a charitable foundation called Google.org, and Brin and Page say they hope that the importance and significance influence of Google.org will some day eclipse Google itself, and they’ve already committed a billion dollars to all kinds of endeavors to fight illness and hunger and disease, and help create jobs around the world. 

There’s a lot of good that can come out of the Googleplex, which is the name of the headquarters that the company has in Silicon Valley.  They call themselves Googlers and they call the new employees who work there Newglers.

Google, itself, correctly spelled is GOOGOL and it’s an infinitely large number.  It’s the number one followed by one hundred zeroes, and they spelled it wrong actually.


Spencer:


So it’s a lot easier to spell than it really is.


Mr. Vise


But actually what happened was they spelled it wrong.  They were trying to find a name for the company and one of their officemates at Stanford recommended Googol and Larry Page types Googol.com, and it was available as a domain name, so he wrote it on the white board and he was very excited, and the next morning someone came in and said you dummy, you spelled it wrong.  It’s Google.  It’s a mathematical term of something infinitely large. 

They wanted a name that sounded like Amazon or Yahoo, they wanted something big.

So anyway they spelled it wrong and it turned out for the best.


Spencer:


Yes, it’s a lot easier to spell it this way.  Does the Internet change the way we think about our privacy?  For example, at a touch of a button, we can see a satellite photo of anyone’s house and property.  It this a good thing?


Mr. Vise


I think it depends on how people use the information.  Like anything else, we could talk about technology and it can be used for good and it can be used for evil.  On balance, I think, having more information available rather than less at our fingertips is a good thing.  I think that people need to remember, though, that virtually anything they type into a computer anywhere at any time can be retrieved, and so if you have any deep, dark secrets that you want to keep from the world, I don’t suggest putting them into an email or an instant message. 

I think that we’re going to see some negative repercussions that relate to privacy over time.  Google saves every search people undertake.  Google saves all the G-mails that people send.


Spencer:


What do they do with it?


Mr. Vise


They’ve got them all saved on servers because they’re trying to provide better customization by personalizing the search results that you get, so the search results that you get when you search are different than the search results that I get. Because they’re hopefully more tailored to your interests that the search engine gets smarter as it goes along.  The down side is if various people try to gain access, or anyone gains unauthorized access to that database there’s a lot of information there that’s personal in nature that wasn’t mean for public consumption.  So that’s a risk.


Spencer:


Google is coming out with new technology all the time.  With Google Talk I can talk to my friend in London for free.  With Google Sidebar we all can stay on top of info like sports scores, stocks and news up to the minute.  What is next for Google?


Mr. Vise


Well I think Google is continuing to build lots and lots of new things.  We’re going to see a tremendous number of new ways to do things through Google.  Not only to communicate and not only to search, but also to organize our lives.  You’re going to see heavier use over time of Google, for example, if people have a soccer team and they need to add names to lists and change schedules and whatever. Google’s just come out in beta form with a spreadsheet program that will let ten people simultaneously work on the same document from different places.  So you’re going to see collaboration coming out of Google in a way that is very cost effective.

Remember, Google gives away all this stuff for free.  So, I think we’re going to see more and more ways that Google is going to make it easier for people to collaborate with others and organize their lives.


Spencer:


In addition to your work, you served as a president for a synagogue and our activity involved in a world union for progressive Judaism.  How do you juggle all this and still be a husband and father to three daughters?


Mr. Vise


Well the most important job I have is being a husband and a dad.  I think it’s important to work hard and if you have the opportunity to get beyond yourself and your family to do things for the community and for the world.  Having said that, I have a very supportive family when it comes to spending time on these kinds of things.  I think children learn what they live, not what they’re told, and so I’m hopeful that our girls, and I see them doing it now, will be involved with trying to make the world a better place one way or another.  So I think that there’s some benefits in doing these things in terms of being a better husband and father, and in conveying to them that we all are responsible for one another.


Spencer:


I am a teenager interested in journalism.  What advice do you have for teens and young adults who are also interested in this line of work?


Mr. Vise


Read, read, read; write, write, write.  Just read and write as much as you can.  Find authors you like and articles you like and journalists whose work you enjoy and try emulating the style that they use, or see if you can develop your own voice and your own style.  But there’s nothing like practice; there’s nothing like experience.  The more you read and the more you write, the better you become as a journalist, as a writer, and as a communicator.

 


Spencer:


Can you finish our interview by completing this sentence:  During the coming year I am excited about…


Mr. Vise


Our daughter Lisa going to college at Vanderbilt University.

I’m very excited about our daughter just graduating from high school and starting college.  Very excited about that.