AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   December/January 2011

Beltway Buzz(bee)    

Sally Buzbee brings her global savvy to Washington as the AP’s bureau chief.  Posted:  Tue, Nov. 30 2010

By Madhu Rajaraman
Madhu Rajaraman (mrajaraman@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Los Angeles. Topeka. San Diego. Saudi Arabia. Tunisia. Egypt. Iraq. Iran. Washington, D.C.

That's just the beginning of an extensive list of locales from which Sally Buzbee, the Associated Press' new Washington bureau chief, has lived and worked as a reporter, editor or homemaker.

So when the globe-trotting Buzbee confessed to me that early in her college career she did not think she had the makings of a journalist, I was stunned. "I thought I would dive into academia and teach literature and things like that," she says. "I thought I didn't have an aggressive enough personality to be in journalism, to be a reporter."

Michael Oreskes, the AP's senior managing editor, thinks it's clear the young Buzbee was wrong. "Whatever issues she had in college, she seems to have gotten over that problem," he said with a chuckle. Not only is Buzbee "a very good manager and a good leader," he says, but she is also "quite aggressive, and very demanding — but most demanding of herself."

Buzbee's rich international background also should help deepen the bureau's coverage. "Washington is one of the most important places for global news," Oreskes says. Buzbee "will be very instrumental in our international coverage. She's got a good range of experience."

Most recently, Buzbee, a 22-year AP veteran, worked in the wire service's "Nerve Center" in New York, a new operation that monitors how its customers use AP copy. Before that, she oversaw coverage of national security and the current war in Iraq. She started her new position, in which she directs about 100 reporters and editors, on October 1.

Buzbee, 45, succeeds Ron Fournier, who left the AP in June to become editor in chief of the rapidly expanding National Journal Group. Fournier's sharp-edged approach to politics, a contrast to the wire service's traditional straight-down-the-middle coverage, stirred controversy, with some charging the AP had veered too far away from objectivity. Asked about the flap, Buzbee replied that the situation was "a little misunderstood," and that her focus will be on making accountability reporting a priority. "I don't want to dive into the past," she says. "Our goals are to report news and hold people accountable about claims they make..and to provide insightful journalism."

Buzbee grew up in both Washington state and California, and attended the University of Kansas, where she wrote for the University Daily Kansan. Although she had doubts about her potential as a reporter, she stuck with it, graduating in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She says she learned that one did not necessarily need to be an "aggressive, knocking-on-doors" type of person to get into the field. Rather, she found, the most important traits were to be curious about the world and have an analytical mind. Journalism "satisfied my natural curiosity," she says. Buzbee joined the AP in January 1988, covering the Kansas Legislature, a temporary assignment in Topeka she describes as "a roller coaster..an intense experience." After reporting from Kansas City from May 1988 to January 1991, Buzbee caught the travel bug, took a leave from the AP and spent the remainder of '91 backpacking in Asia.

Upon returning to the United States, Buzbee moved to the West Coast, where she covered the riots in Los Angeles that followed the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. "I plunged into this intense coverage," she says. "It was an enormous learning experience — just being in L.A. during the riots, I learned that you need to go where the news is."

Ted Anthony, assistant managing editor at AP headquarters in New York, says that Buzbee's perceptive nature was one of the first things he noticed about her. He recalls speaking with Buzbee following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and thinking to himself that she was one of the few "very human journalists" he had encountered. "You feel like you're in good hands" when working with her, he says. "Just to see the way she runs a story — she's very good at seeing beyond the news itself."

In addition, Anthony believes that Buzbee's ability to develop both local and global relationships will benefit the Washington bureau. "A lot of people in Washington build relationships based on expediency and what someone can give you at that moment," he says. "But Sally comes across as genuine, and she doesn't have to try."

Buzbee was the AP's San Diego correspondent until January 1995, when she joined the Washington bureau. In D.C., she worked as news editor until June 1999, directing a team of 11 reporters covering issues such as the economy, taxes and health care.

Although she was on extended maternity leave from 1999 until 2001, that hardly diminished Buzbee's wanderlust — she lived in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where her husband worked at the time, and later lived in Tunis, Tunisia.

Buzbee's most challenging task was supervising coverage of the war in Iraq. From August 2003 to November 2004, she concentrated on national security as the AP's assistant Washington bureau chief. But, she says, she "felt very strongly that I wanted to be more directly involved in war coverage," which led her to move overseas to Egypt in 2004, where she was Middle East regional editor for five years. "It's an extremely intense and challenging thing to cover a war," she says.

Bob Reid, the AP's Middle East regional editor, says Buzbee's international experience means she will be able to "cover Washington as more than a giant city hall" and discern the implications of U.S. policy on both the domestic and international levels. Reid, who worked on war coverage with Buzbee for four years, says he was impressed by her ability to dive right into reporting in new territory. "She was like a whirling dervish in attacking these jobs," Reid says. "She really got herself up to speed quite quickly."

During that intense period, Buzbee felt pressure to balance on-the-ground reportage with caution. "The basic issue in covering a war is getting good, effective coverage without getting your staff killed," she says. In Iraq, "militants often would target any Westerner, including reporters. Al Qaeda-affiliated people did not view any distinction. All journalists felt targeted at times. Any foreigner is fair game."

Today's bitterly polarized political atmosphere complicates the task of covering news out of the nation's capital. Asked about the challenges of reporting from D.C. in such a fraught environment, Buzbee responded, "When there is a very sharp political situation, our challenge is to report and not lose sight of the issues, and to write substantive stories about the issues." She adds, "We're failing at our job if we're only covering the horse race aspects."

When she's not busy directing news coverage, Buzbee devotes her time to her two daughters, ages 11 and 9. "I spend a lot of time cheering for kids' sports teams," she says. And she continues to travel with her family whenever possible.

As for her goals in her new domain, Buzbee says her priority is providing timely news about what's going on in the capital. "Washington changes every couple of years," she says. "We strive to get ahead of our competitors to break stories. I want to aggressively cover those issues. I'm pretty hungry to do that, and that's why I wanted this job — to help [the AP Washington staff] do what they're capable of doing."