Mark Whitaker Takes A Long Trip Home

In his new memoir, a CNN editor turns his reporting skills on his own family.

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Pete Williams

“I approached the book the way I’d been trained to report any story, which was not to pass judgment, not to have an agenda, but to hear everyone’s side and really get it right,” says CNN Worldwide managing editor Mark Whitaker. His new memoir My Long Trip Home chronicles his parents’ interracial marriage — his father was the grandson of slaves, his mother the daughter of white French missionaries working in Cameroon — as well as its painful unraveling and Whitaker’s own experience of growing up biracial in 1960s and ’70s America. A former editor of Newsweek and Washington bureau chief for NBC News, Whitaker spoke to TIME in his CNN office in midtown Manhattan.

The start of your book plunges straight into a you-are-there depiction of how your father, a 20-year-old black college student, met your mother, a 28-year-old white instructor, at Swarthmore College in the 1950s. How did you decide on that beginning?

At first, I thought the book was going to be about my father and me. The tentative title was Searching for Syl. But my mother had such an interesting story — where she had come from, how she came to America. I shoehorned that in there, but not in a very elegant way. It was only after I’d written a first draft and the book had been sold that my editor sat me down and said, ‘I think this is your mother’s story, too.’ Just that one note was enough for me to go back and do several more months’ reporting and restructure the whole book. That’s when I realized I wanted to start with my parents.

What is it like to report on the story of your own parents?

It’s not necessarily easier than other kinds of reporting, but it was easier to revisit all of these events in the role of a reporter. For a long time, people had said, ‘Your parents are such interesting people and their marriage was so unusual at the time — you could write a book about it.’ I resisted partly because there was this other part of the story: the pain of their divorce, my father’s alcoholism, my mother’s struggles with depression and money, my fighting with my brother. I was sort of ashamed about all that. But once I’d embarked on the book, I found that coming to it as a reporter gave me a kind of detachment that I needed.

Your mother went from a position at Swarthmore to substitute teaching at a high school, because she had to follow your father around on his various university appointments. It’s almost as if his professional advancement depended on her professional decline.

She realized that later, but at the time she didn’t really see it. It says something about the era — that even though my mother was older, and had the more established career, and she was white and he was black, the most important thing was still ‘The man’s career comes first.’ There were a lot of well-educated women like her — maybe not in an interracial marriage or with the age difference—who either didn’t pursue a career, gave up their career or took a back seat to the husband’s career. It wasn’t until the ’70s, when my mother was reading and discussing feminist literature with her female friends, that she realized this had happened. She thought she had failed somehow, when actually she was operating according to a social code.

There’s a stunning passage toward the end of your book when you are asking yourself if all your accomplishments, your self-discipline, even your love for your wife and children are a form of revenge against your father and his shortcomings. You’re getting at a big existential question there.

I had a deep need to come to terms with my father and how large he loomed in my life. And I was always conscious, once I became an adult, of how my choices compared with his. I wanted to show that I could be everything for my wife and my children that he was not for my brother and me. It was partly a form of revenge, but it was also a way of healing.

You’ve been the managing editor of CNN Worldwide since last February. How do you engage the attention of ever-distracted viewers?

When my son, who just turned 21, found out that I was taking this job, he said ‘Dad, when you get to CNN, could you tell them to get over their graphics? There’s just all this stuff going on all the time!’ The point he was making was: ‘I’m doing all these other things. While I’m watching CNN, I may be on my laptop or texting my friends; I’ve got enough other things going on. I just want to watch the main thing that’s happening.’ I’ve been fighting a battle to get us to simplify. The trick is to do programming that, on the one hand, people can watch out of the corner of their eye, but on the other hand, there are opportunities to stop people in their tracks and get them to listen, and say, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting. Let me put aside whatever it is I’m doing and focus on that.’

Do you think there has been too much coverage of the Republican presidential candidates? Most of these people never had any chance of becoming president, so the debates start to seem like site-specific performance art, or just an elaborate means to sell books.

A lot of political coverage is horse-race-driven and personality-driven, and it’s always been thus. We do a good job of focusing on the issues. But we also have a lot of air time. To some degree, how much attention you get depends on how you’re doing in the polls. So Herman Cain is getting a lot of attention not only because he’s caught up in all these [sexual harassment] allegations or because he’s a colorful character, but also because he’s polling incredibly well. A lot of political professionals think he’s not going anyplace because he has no ground game, but you have to take him seriously once he starts doing well in the polls. But there’s another reason we need to pay attention to all these contenders as they rise and fall. Mitt Romney is the frontrunner, but the fact that there is all this enthusiasm for a Romney alternative shows that big sections of the party are still not happy with him and are looking for someone else. It’s not just ‘Who is Herman Cain?’ and ‘Who is Michelle Bachmann?’ It’s also ‘Why do people keep looking for somebody other than Mitt Romney? Why aren’t they satisfied with him?’

Is it because they suspect he’s secretly a robot?

The right wing of the party, both the Tea Party types and the more traditional social conservatives — the activists, the ones who vote in the primaries — they don’t like him because they think he’s too wishy-washy. They don’t find him conservative enough. Others think he’s a phony or a flip-flopper.

What’s going to be the biggest story of 2012?

The economic crisis in Europe and how it affects global markets and our economy will continue to be a huge story. We are potentially on the verge of the unraveling of the European currency union, which would have profound implications. The other big international story is China, which is emerging as the other major superpower. There’s a sense that China has more potential to help bail out Europe right now than the United States does. Or you talk to young people in Pakistan and they’re very hostile to the United States but they think the Chinese are great. They look at China as a model that seems to be working, where people are becoming more affluent; it’s also because China is spreading a lot of money all over the world. But China is a very slow-moving story. If there’s a war or a big financial meltdown, that’s a dramatic story you can do 24-7 with updates every hour. China — which over the long term is arguably a much bigger story — is one that’s a little more challenging. You can’t cover it with breathless breaking news.