Nick Miroff is a correspondent for The Washington Post covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He is also a senior correspondent for GlobalPost and a contributor to National Public Radio. Miroff has a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley School of Journalism (2006) and studied Spanish and Latin American literature at UC Santa Cruz (2000). He grew up in Albany, New York.
An Interview with Molly Mae Kaplan Molly: What’s your favorite ice cream flavor? Miroff: I don’t have one. M: Favorite animal? M: No. Nick Miroff, while indifferent to both ice cream and animals, is partial to all things Latin America. That’s why he’s forsaken Chunky Monkey, Mint Chip and the domestic house pet for his career as a journalist writing for the Washington Post about Latin American politics and foreign relations. His journey to journalism started while studying Latin American Literature at UCSC where he graduated from in 2000. He got his masters degree in Journalism from UC Berkeley in 2006 and began writing for the Washington Post in 2010. He is fluent in Spanish and does most of his assignments in South America where there is no ice cream because it is too hot. M: Your bio says you were a Latin American Studies and Spanish Major when you were here at UCSC. Was journalism your goal when you were here or was that something you figured out later? M: That was something I figured out later after college because I moved to Havana, Cuba to be with my girlfriend who is now my wife. I needed something to do and I knew I liked to write and there was an opportunity for me to start doing journalism so I went with it. I quickly found that it was something that I loved and thought that I wanted to take the next step and become a professional, and the way to do that would be to go journalism school, grad school. M: How was your transition from literature to journalism? M: I wasn’t getting much for my fiction so I started writing for this publication called the World Press Review and then I started working for National Public Radio with a fixer, which is like a person who helps a correspondent when they arrive in a place and they need someone’s help. Then I started finding stories. After not too long I realized that this was a really exciting and meaningful life. That this was a way to write and to deploy the power of words. But also a way to fit somewhere in society. And I went to journalism school because I thought that was the way to become more of a professional. After graduating from Cal I got an internship at the Washington Post. The Washington Post sent me out to the outer suburbs of Northern Virginia and I thought ‘gosh, this is a boring, dull place.’ It was Prince William County for any of you who know the D.C. area, where the Battle of Bull Run was fought. There’s still a lot of…traditional Southern values and it was also a place where a lot of Spanish speaking migrants, Central American mostly, were pouring into to build houses as a big new housing project in the DC area. I quickly realized that I had stumbled onto a goldmine. The county became one of these flashpoint in America where you see the tensions, the passions and the anger about immigration and the American dream, who owns it, what it means and what the future of American culture and language is and all these things. I had had this preparation for that with my contacts, travels, language skills. It just became a great place to do journalism, to learn more. Since 2009 I’ve been a correspondent in Latin America. For the past four years I’ve been working in Mexico primarily covering the drug war and the violence there. More recently I’ve gotten a new job travelling all over Spanish-speaking Latin America and getting to go to many of the places I haven’t seen in many years since I took that first trip when I was a student here. That’s been very exciting. I just want to say that the journalism path isn’t easy and it isn’t necessarily clear and there isn’t one clear or sure way to do it. It’s not like becoming a Lawyer or a Doctor. It’s sort of a gamble, but if you love writing and you love words don’t underestimate the ability to make a life out of it. There are jobs out there and there certainly are stories that need to be told that need people to hunt them down and to explain the world and I wouldn’t discourage anybody in this room from pursuing it.
M: How long was the interim between graduating from UCSC and going to grad school?
M: I graduated form here in 2000 and then I lived in Cuba until 2003 and then my wife and I moved back here to the Bay Area and applied to grad schools that fall and I started in 2004. So I was at Cal from 2004 to 2006. M: As fiction writers, we generally develop a style by reading other writers. How do you develop a Journalistic Style? M: I read less fiction the older I get. When I was a student and when I was younger I read a lot of fiction. That’s what I wanted to read. And now I read more non-fiction and I read fewer books. Like a lot of us, I read online more. In terms of developing a style, you read and try to imitate and learn from the writers that you admire. You try to figure out what is it that I like about the way they write? A lot of it is just caring about the craft and caring about words. The ability to describe something, some element of reality is so fundamental to journalism. And it’s also fundamental to fiction right? You’re creating some kind of world that’s got to be believable. In some way when you’re describing a town in Mexico or something, you have to pay attention to the details, the little things, to be able to make it real for readers. Those are just basic skills from reading and from practicing writing. Then as you go, your own style emerges from that. By paying careful attention to words and descriptions. This is key.
M: In your piece about Mexicali you interviewed three people. Do you have an interview technique or style or is it usually impromptu?
M: It depends. If I’m going to interview an official and I have fifteen minutes and I know they’re recording the interview and I want to get them to disclose something, then I’ll sometimes go in with written questions. But if I’m on the streets of Mexicali talking to deportees, I don’t have prepared questions. I don’t always necessarily take notes. I’ll converse and then when they’re comfortable then maybe I’ll take out the notebook and I’ll write some things and I’ll ask permission. But those types of interviews flow organically out of the situation. It’s all very obvious. It’s more of a conversation. And I like that so much more than sitting down with the secretary of transportation and getting them to spin me in whatever direction they want. So it depends on the interview.
M: Do you ever look back at articles you’ve written and wish you could change or revise them?
M: I have deadlines and I can’t always wordsmith a sentence the way I would’ve liked. I’ve learned through Journalism to just accept what I was able to do in that moment on that day and not dwell. I rarely go back and read what I’ve written but I do sometimes and it makes me wince. In some ways its almost healthier to just keep going forward. What’s the next story, that one’s done. A big part of this job is planning. You want to be a person that has ideas. You can’t just sit around and wait for something to happen. You need to know where you want to go and the stories you want to tell. It’s a job that has its own forward momentum. M: You work in pretty high risk areas. How to you cope with and prepare for assignments in places like Venezuela and Honduras which you mentioned has the highest homicide rate in the world? M: Whenever possible you try to have a local person who you work with. Like in Honduras I had this guy (it’s called a fixer). So I have this guy in Honduras who’s my trusted companion. The paper pays him and he drives and knows every neighborhood and everywhere we need to go and he has an extensive contact list and he knows who to call if we’re in trouble and he’s super security-conscious. The problem is what do you do when you have to go to a place where you don’t have [a fixer]. Sometimes I’d have to work by myself and sometimes I’d have to work with fixers who I don’t trust. That’s scary because you’re with somebody and generally you’re not just going with anybody, you’re going with somebody who was recommended by somebody else, but you don’t always get a great companion out of it. In those cases you really have to have your guard up. You have to have your defensive radar on high alert and you don’t linger on the street and you don’t tell people what your plans are, you try not to stick out too much. You weigh every risk and decide if it’s worth it. Everybody does it slightly differently. For example I don’t accept interviews with Narcos. I don’t want to interview drug lords. I don’t want them to know me. Even if they’re giving me a great interview, I don’t want to even exist in their mind because what if someday they don’t like what I wrote? I don’t what them to know where to find me or to even remember me. So to me that’s not worth it. But there are other situations where you take a calculated risk. Is it safe to drive that road? And then you say, ‘well, it depends what time you go.’ If you say ‘let’s go in the midmorning because by then maybe the bad guys are asleep because they’ve been out all night. But you don’t want to go too early because then they’re still out. But maybe by the afternoon because by then they’re up and ready to do bad tings again.’ So it’s a calculated risk. M: Do you ever experience blowback from your articles? If so, how do you deal? M: There’s blowback all the time. If I’m writing about something that the people around me care about, they’ll often complain to me about the story. Does it destroy relationships? It can, but usually not. Part of this job is that people react. Faster now with social media. So a big part of this is putting something out and being ready to defend it. I can’t want to be too defensive. A lot of journalists take it too far and take things too personally. So one of the tricks of the trade that you have to learn is how to put something up, how to be fair, how to be confident that what you wrote was fair. Then when people come for you, be ready and stick by your work and have editors that stick by your work. Last year I wrote about Central American migrants going through Mexico on freight trains, all this after cargo, a lot of it on rails and Central American Migrants have been using freight trains for a long time but in the past couple of years the risks that they’re exposed to are more dangerous than ever. Organized crime has branched out to kidnapping migrants. A lot of migrants are also injured or maimed by the trains. Anyway I wrote a story that had this striking picture taken by one of our photographers of a freight train with hundreds of people on the roof. One of the companies that operates the rail is a subsidiary of a US company. They came after me and said that it wasn’t true that there weren’t migrants on their trains, that they comply with all the safety regulations and they work with Mexican authorities. There was Blowback. Initially it’s kind of a shock. Their lawyers are writing my bosses and they want corrections. But I looked back over the article and I said ‘no, I know this is true, I recorded this, I saw this.’ So I went in and made a file for my editors and their lawyers. ‘Here are ten incidences of migrants being killed and maimed and kidnapped on this company’s train.’ And that was kind of the end of it. But I had that because I knew that what I was writing about was true. And when what you write about is true then you can handle almost any blowback. M: Is there conflict between your career and your personal life? M: Always. I have a one-year-old son and he’s in Cuba. He’s a US citizen and a Cuban citizen and every time I go to work I have to leave him behind. I mean he’s with my wife, his mother, so it’s not like I’m abandoning him, but it’s never easy and it always sucks. It’s the worst thing. It’s not a job where you’re always with your family a whole lot. So, journalism can be hard on families. Even my colleagues who work in Washington often work ten, twelve hour days. They go in at nine and they come home at seven thirty and that’s hard too, in a different way. One thing I do appreciate is that when I’m home from a trip I’m home all the time, I’m working from home. So I’m around. But I think every parent or spouse struggles with this in any career.
M: Do you find yourself having to censor or edit yourself in any way for an American audience when you’re reporting about foreign issues? How do you cater to your audience from a standpoint of being more immersed in the culture your writing about than your audience is?
M: My editor is always reminding me of this. That the readers don’t know nearly as much as I know. They don’t know this place. They don’t have the same background to it. She’s always reminding me to simplify it, write for a general audience and remember that my readers don’t know about this. They aren’t coming into it with a kind of background knowledge that I or someone who knows this area really well is. I am writing for a broad audience so I’m writing for people who are Latin America experts in Washington who are going to read my stuff and actually follow my work more closely than almost anyone else. But my ultimate obligation is to the general reader. So I have to keep it simple and not write in a way that’s going to be inaccessible.
M: Do you have to suspend your Americanness to report on foreign places? M: I don’t think you can do that. I don’t think you can erase your ways of perceiving and interpreting the world. You can be as aware of them as possible and you have an obligation to really get to know the place you’re writing about. For example in Mexico. So I’m writing for an American audience mostly and it’s not fair to make the same assumptions or projections that I would about the United States. At the same time I want to know what Mexicans want. So if the Mexican government says that its goal is “x” and then it fails to do that, I’m holding it to an accountability that a Mexican reporter would too. But I think that you can’t really ever completely check whatever you bring to it at the door.
M: What were some pivotal moments, opportunities or people that lead you to your journalism career?
M: When I was younger I loved adventure and geography and maps and I was curious about the world and other places. That was important. I travelled and that got me interested in the broader world too. Then my life just kind of took its own course. I met my wife when I was twenty-two. I don’t know what my life would’ve been, but I rerouted my life toward Latin America and rebuilding my life with someone who isn’t from my country or culture. I mean I think everybody has to do that at some level, especially if you’re in a relationship, you have to make compromises for the other person and you try to make it work. But I think your relationships come first and then your professional milestones are what end up defining or routing your life.
M: One last question. Did you give Hector Sauceda your pants?
M: No. (laughs). I told him I needed them. He goes “Man, you have any pants?” I didn’t have my suitcase with me either and I was like “Yeah, but I kind of need them.” I only had two pairs. Maybe if I had three I would have given him one.