Connecting with Ben Feller
One of the secrets to good reporting—and it’s not much of a secret, really—is connecting with people. So about five minutes into Ben Feller’s talk Tuesday night at the Foster Conference of Distinguished Writers, it was pretty clear how he’d risen from general assignment reporter at the Centre Daily Times (“you should read my bear-hunting stories—they’re awesome”) to chief White House correspondent for The Associated Press.
Feller ’92, who appeared on the cover of our May/June 2009 issue, talked about visiting his dad in his campus office, eating lunch with his mom at the HUB, and his favorite bar. “To this day,” he said. “If I could pick anywhere in the world to have a beer, it would be Zeno’s.”
And just as everyone on the Penn State football beat has a Joe Paterno imitation, Feller displayed not only a good Barack Obama, but a pretty darn good Bill Clinton, whom he never covered in the White House. Asked if he wanted to do George W. Bush, Feller said, “Not right now,” in the voice—and with the hand motions—of The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart imitating Bush.
A young woman sitting near me exclaimed, “That was awesome!”
As was Feller speaking in his own voice, telling his own stories. He provided a gold mine of nuggets for aspiring journalists (and us professionals, too), and also a lot of insight into how Feller has risen so high in the field.
This is a guy who was walking across campus one day and watched a limb from an elm tree crash to the ground in front of him, just missing him but landing on a young woman. His first instinct: Call the CDT, where he was working part-time, and get out to the office to help with the story. Even after he was told the young woman had died—and was shaken up enough to need time in the men’s room to compose himself—he didn’t leave until the story was complete.
“That was a feeling to me that I had an interest in covering the news,” he said.
It was also a signal to the editors; he heard later that after he’d left the newsroom, one of them said, “We need to hire him.” Five months later, he was a full-timer.
My favorite writing professor once told me, “The ones who make it, they have the talent and the drive. Some have the talent. Some have the drive. Few have both.”
Feller, clearly, has both.
He recounted how hard he had to work to break the story of Obama choosing Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court: “I didn’t leave my apartment for months; it was pathetic.” He explained why it’s so important to take the time to develop sources: When Bill Clinton made an unscheduled visit to the White House briefing room with Obama, he was one of the reporters who found out that Clinton and Obama couldn’t get into the briefing room the first time they tried because it was locked.
Asked how he balanced his professional and personal lives, he admitted that he was usually “tethered to the office,” even on weekends, when he’s not usually on the clock.
But his most compelling story was his first—telling the story behind the story of Obama’s October 2009 trip to Dover Air Force Base to pay tribute to dead soldiers coming home from Afghanistan.
At 9 a.m. that day, Feller got a heads-up from the press office that he would be part of a pool to accompany the president. For security reasons, he wasn’t allowed to speak of the trip with anyone except his editor, but he prepared a story that could be distributed once the president was en route.
By the wee hours of the morning, in the cold and dark, he was on the tarmac at Dover as Obama met privately with the families of the fallen soldiers. He did some interviews while waiting for the president to come outside, but mostly, he observed. “Atmosphere and color were not a luxury,” he said. “They were essential.”
By 4 a.m., Obama had saluted the last fallen solider. Feller filed a quick story and was back to his D.C. office by 5 a.m., when his editor said that an additional, big-picture story was needed for readers who wouldn’t know what had happened when they awakened.
Her instructions: “Put me there.” (Reminds me of this true story: Henry Felk, a blind editor in North Carolina who demanded of his reporters: “Make me see!”) Feller said: “You’re right. I can do that.”
An hour later—let me repeat that: one hour later, having been up for more than 24 hours straight—Feller had finished his piece, which you can read here. It won the Merriman Smith Award for presidential coverage under deadline, and if it doesn’t break the stereotype that AP reporters are all about gathering information, not writing it elegantly, well, I don’t know what will. Talk about quality work.
Lori Shontz, senior editor