Q&A with Jeremy Peters

Monday, September 14, 2015 - 12:28pm

Most people spend their college years preparing for the job they'll have after graduation.

But for Jeremy Peters, a Daily alum who now works as a political reporter for The New York Times, the job overtook the preparation while he was still in college — and he's still doing it 16 years later.

During his time at The Michigan Daily, Peters, a 2002 graduate of the University, covered the 2000 presidential campaign as a news reporter and editor. Today, he is covering the 2016 campaign for the Times, with a focus on Republican candidates. At the Times, he has also covered a range of beats, including Albany and the U.S. Congress, as well as working as a stringer for the paper during his senior year of college. Before coming back to the Times after college, Peters worked for the Virgin Island Daily News for two years.

Q: What’s most memorable about your time at the Daily?

I was fortunate enough to have been at Michigan during a presidential election year — this was 2000, and so it was when Bush was running against Gore and at the time Michigan was a very important swing state, kind of more so than it is now because there was actually some hope that Republicans could win it. They of course didn’t that year, and haven’t in quite a while, but Gore and Bush were constantly visiting the state. So the Daily would send us out, me and a couple other reporters who were assigned to the politics beat, to cover these campaign events, from Flint, to Lansing, all over the state. And we would pile into a University-owned station wagon or something like that with a photographer and head out to these big events and it was really a great learning experience because it’s not all that often that college students are able to experience first-hand a presidential campaign like that and surprisingly, the campaigns were very accommodating of Daily reporters who were covering it.

We — I got to sit in on a round-table interview with a few other reporters and Dick Cheney. I got sit in the back of John McCain’s Straight Talk Express with him and a few other reporters. So it was this level of access that I never thought I would be having as a 19-, 20-year-old kid.

Q: What was it like being a student reporter, getting your first experiences with reporting at these campaign events where there are a lot of national, professional news organizations around?

I guess the thing was, is I always — maybe this was arrogant on my part, or the youthful inexperience of a 20-year-old, but I kind of always just considered myself to be a professional reporter right from the get-go, and I kind of expected to be treated as such. So when I would call up the campaigns asking for an interview or asking for press credentials, I really didn’t see myself any differently from any of the other reporters who were much more experienced and had been doing this for a lot longer than I had.

That was the thing that the Daily always instilled in me, was this sense that what we were doing was very important and it was a task to be taken very seriously.

Q: Beyond the 2000 campaign, is there any news story that stands out to you from your time at the Daily?

9/11 happened when my class was editors. And I happened to be the news editor on duty that day, that Tuesday, September 11. And that was certainly a horrifying experience, but also kind of one that really, I think, energizes your sensibilities as a reporter and really requires you to make decisions and judgment calls that you really never, in a way, never anticipated having to do.

And it was also, even more importantly, it was an experience that showed us we could all work together and be the best versions of ourselves when the paper and the University needed us to be.

Q: A lot of working for the Daily can be learning on the job. How much of that did you do at the Daily, and was there anything that you took away from it, either from at the Daily or with other experiences?

I think learning on the fly like that was probably the best type of experience you could get for becoming a career journalist. I think that, if I look back at all of the most educational experiences I’ve had as a reporter, they’re always the ones that I can say I knew nothing about, really, going into. When I got my first job after college, I was an intern at The New York Times for the summer after I graduated from Michigan and then from there I went to the United States Virgin Islands and wrote for the Virgin Islands Daily News. And I didn’t even know where the Virgin Islands were on a map. I thought they were next to the Bahamas.

So it’s kind of throwing yourself into situations like that, where you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get, that I think were some of the most formative.

Q: You’ve covered a range of beats since your time at the Daily, and you’ve now ended up back with politics and government. Why this area of coverage, and is it where you want to spend the rest of your career?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had an interest in politics. When I was younger, my parents always used to tease me because I was obsessed with the presidents, and I had a collection of presidential busts, which is a hobby that I imagine not many other elementary school kids had growing up.

The opportunity at Michigan with the 2000 campaign was one that I immediately tried to seize. And I knew, ever since I got to the Times, that even though I would be doing other jobs, and I will, throughout the course of my career, continue to do other jobs, that politics was always something I wanted to be deeply involved in.

Q: Is there anything that you miss about your time covering the 2000 presidential campaign for the Daily, as opposed to covering the 2012 and 2016 campaigns for The New York Times?

Well, now I can’t pretend that I don’t know what I’m doing. It was a lot easier to get away with it. I don’t want to say the stakes were lower, because they weren’t. To me, they felt exceedingly high, because I was always worried about getting something wrong on this hugely important story.

But I think the — for all the changes in technology and for all the acceleration in the news cycle, and for the ways that social media has altered the way we report and consume news, the experience as a journalist has been remarkably static. Take a campaign rally, or speech by a candidate. You observe, you look for things that kind of illuminate certain themes of their candidacy or the candidate, and you try to tell them to your readers in an interesting and compelling way. And to me, that’s what I love and I’m glad that hasn’t changed.