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Remembering Susan Rasky

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Managing Editor

JANUARY 12, 2014

When describing Susan Rasky, those of us who knew her professionally often highlight three characteristics: her razor-sharp journalistic intuition, her enviable ability to fully comprehend multiple perspectives and her extraordinary relationships with the students she taught. Rasky was an award-winning journalist whose reporting consistently elevated public discourse and a mentor whose leadership touched the lives of countless students and colleagues.

One week ago at a hillside cemetery in Marin County, I was among the many who gathered to remember Rasky, a tenacious former New York Times reporter and senior journalism lecturer at UC Berkeley who died Dec. 29 after a battle with cancer. She was 61.

In my experience as Rasky’s student, she demonstrated an uncanny knack for finding the most unique way to report a story. She consistently pushed us to do the same in our own writing — to “twist the lens,” as she used to say.

Rasky’s approach instilled in me a more nuanced perspective on journalism, especially on what the role of opinion writing should be within the field. I was fortunate enough to take her opinion-writing course — also labeled “The Reported Column” — during the fall 2012 semester with fewer than 10 other students. And so it is in the spirit of that class that I reflect on Rasky’s passing now.

(Courtesy/Mateo Hoke, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism photo)
(Courtesy/Mateo Hoke, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism photo)

Born and raised in Los Angeles, Rasky graduated from UC Berkeley in 1974 with a bachelor’s degree in history. Afterward, she earned a master’s degree in economic history from the London School of Economics before launching her professional journalism career in Washington, D.C.

There, Rasky started reporting on the economy for the Bureau of National Affairs. She then covered politics for Reuters before joining the New York Times in 1984, where she eventually became the congressional correspondent.

“Good, fundamental reporting was, I think, something she felt was so important[,] and the ability to understand the other side,” said her brother, Louis Rasky. “She was seen by the figures who she covered, the major people, as being fair. She always used to tell me that (Dick Cheney) was one of her best sources when she was covering Congress … the ability to gain the confidence of people on all sides would be very, very important to her.”

Understanding the “other side” was something Rasky accomplished exceedingly well throughout her career in journalism. In 1988, for example, she wrote a remarkably insightful profile of U.S. Senator John McCain — then a “rising star,” as she put it — in which she described him as “a compulsive backseat driver who interrupts himself to dispense route and traffic information while discussing the American role in the Persian Gulf or Arizona’s chances of attracting a major league baseball team.”

Rasky’s ability to make impossibly complex issues digestible to a mainstream audience was another of her defining characteristics. She received a George Polk Award, one of the most prestigious accolades a journalist can earn, for her coverage of the 1990 congressional budget crisis. The award citation praised Rasky and her colleague David Rosenbaum for “meticulously and insightfully” covering “the complex issues, political maneuvering and personalities in the greatest budget debate that has ever taken place in the United States,” according to the Times.

After the Times, Rasky returned to UC Berkeley in 1991 to join the faculty of the campus’s Graduate School of Journalism, at first temporarily. She ended up staying there as a senior lecturer until her death, imparting her wisdom onto scores of student journalists and continuing her own reporting for much of the time.

“She saw herself until very recently as primarily a journalist-reporter who happened to be a professor rather than the other way around,” Louis Rasky said. “That’s why she had such a direct connection to a lot of her students.”

I couldn’t agree more with that assessment. Working with Rasky always felt to me like a collaborative experience in which she was personally invested in improving our work. Her connection to her students is recognized so widely that, as journalism faculty Tom Goldstein and Robert Gunnison wrote in an obituary published in UC Berkeley NewsCenter, her students referred to themselves as “Rasky-ites.”

“She really tried to ignite in us a passion for reporting, putting ourselves in contact with subjects and going to places where our stories were alive,” said Kate Jessup, a former student of Rasky’s who specializes in food reporting. “Rasky taught me that when you have the story, it writes itself.”

Bruce Cain, a former director of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies who now works for Stanford University, recognized this as well, referring to devotees of Rasky as “Raskyfarians.” In a eulogy that Cain was unable to deliver at Rasky’s service due to travel conflicts, he wrote about how Rasky instilled her own relentless style into her mentees.

“Susan successfully imparted to them a keen eye for a story’s broader context and the accuracy of its details,” Cain wrote. “Woe to those of us who tried to duck (‘Raskyfarian’ students’) calls because we thought we had better things to do than give a twenty minute interview in exchange for a one line quote in the back pages of the Modesto Bee.”

This personal connection extended outside the classroom, too. Jessup and Louis Rasky both fondly remembered how Susan Rasky would make a point of bringing students to celebrate Passover Seder — a ritual meal that ushers in the Jewish holiday — with her family. Jessup was one of those students.

“It had the feel of an intellectual salon where we’d go around and read passages from these really interesting Haggadahs,” Jessup said in reference to the text, which acts as a kind of guide to the Seder. “She embraced multiple voices being part of the conversation. The diversity of her Haggadahs reflected that.”

Though I only knew Rasky for about a year, I will remember many little aspects about her — such as how her entrance to class was always signaled by the sound of her small dog Lucy’s paws on the ground. I’ll think admiringly about Rasky’s intense efforts to fully grasp the concept of “hipsters” during our class. And I’ll never forget the way it seemed a spark in her eyes would emerge as she poured all her energy into dissecting the heart of a news issue.

Rest in peace, Rasky. Your spirit lives on through the league of “Rasky-ites” (or “Raskyfarians”) you inspired to be better journalists.

J.D. Morris is the managing editor. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @thejdmorris.

JANUARY 20, 2014