New York Times columnist Frank Bruni headlines Speaker Series

Frank Bruni of the New York Times and Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman.

Frank Bruni of the New York Times and Ken Herman of the Austin American-Statesman.

New York Times Op-ed columnist Frank Bruni drew a full-house crowd to the Headliners Club this week for the Michele Kay Distinguished Speakers Series.

In a conversation with Ken Herman, Austin American-Statesman columnist, Bruni covered topics including the Republican presidential campaign, his assignment as the Times’ restaurant critic and the rapidly changing landscape of American journalism. Bruni has filled many roles since joining the Times in 1995, and was named as Op-ed columnist last year.

Spending time on the campaign trail this winter, Bruni said he was impressed by Rick Perry. “He seemed fluent” on the issues; “he seemed commanding.” But he knew the Perry campaign was in trouble when conservative bloggers began writing “withering reviews.”

Bruni shared that, as the Times’ restaurant critic, he didn’t often use disguises when visiting a restaurant to review, as some of his predecessors had done. He did, however, employ pseudonyms in an effort to remain anonymous when calling to make a reservation.

He sometimes struggled to come up with a phony name when he was making a reservation. Once, he blurted out, “Stiller. . . umm . .  Ben,” realizing too late he had given the name of a high-profile actor. Bruni worried the restaurant really thought Stiller would show up, but was relieved when no VIP treatment awaited him.

Concerning the state of journalism today, Bruni believes that “more and more, coverage of politics is coming from people who have declared their allegiance in advance…  It’s people of like minds talking to each other.”

As for aggregation news, the Internet has spawned a generation of journalists who simply “read a bunch of wire copy and then riff on it,” instead of doing their own reporting, he said. “Everyone is drawing from the same well.”

It is hugely expensive to produce the kind of high-quality, original, independent journalism that the Times is famous for, Bruni said. Yet, he believes the public has an appetite for “unadulterated information” on serious issues.

“I don’t think people want to spend 24/7 thinking about the Jonas Brothers.”

The Distinguished Speaker Series was created through a grant by Robert Schultz in memory of his wife, Michele Kay, a longtime Texas journalist who died in 2011. Tuesday night’s audience included Headliners Foundation members, professional journalists and scholarship students.

–Kathy Warbelow

Frank Bruni joined The New York Times in 1995 and has held a variety of positions at the newspaper including chief restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief, and most recently, Op-ed columnist. In addition, he has authored two New York Times best sellers: a memoir titled, Born Round, an overeater’s story, and Ambling Into History, a chronicle of George W. Bush’s campaign for presidency.

Ken Herman, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, is currently an editorial board member and columnist for the Austin American-Statesman. He began his journalism career in East Texas at the Lufkin Daily News in 1975. In 1977, Herman joined The Associated Press in Dallas, later moving to Harlingen to serve as the AP’s correspondent there and, in 1979, to Austin to join theAP’s Capitol staff. In 1988, he became Austin Bureau Chief for theHouston Post, a title he held until the paper folded in 1995. Herman then joined the American-Statesman as its Capitol Bureau Chief. From 2004-2009, he was the White House correspondent for Cox Newspapers.