NEW YORK (Reuters) - After decades at the center of the media world, including jobs as Newsweek’s editor-in-chief and his current position as CNN’s managing editor, there was still one topic Mark Whitaker never covered: his own life.
Then, exactly one year after his father passed away, he woke up in the middle of the night and decided it was time.
The result, “My Long Trip Home: A Family Memoir” published on Tuesday, details Whitaker’s complex family history and upbringing, focusing on the ups and downs of his relationship with his bright but self-destructive father.
Whitaker’s first book explores how growing up as the biracial child of the “doubly taboo” marriage between his white professor mother and black student father influenced his professional and personal path.
While Whitaker had long been hesitant to delve into the darker aspects of his family history — and always resisted being boxed in by his racial background — he realized that those very things contributed to his success as a journalist, husband and father.
“I wanted to prove myself on my own, both vis-a-vis my parents and my race,” he told Reuters.
“But at the end of the day, you are formed by your racial identity, by who your parents are. The fact that I was ready to not only explore my past, but embrace the way in which my parents and my racial background and my family influenced me, in a way, was a sign of growing up.”
Whitaker shares tidbits about the heroics of his French grandfather during World War Two, his father’s alcoholism and womanizing, and his year spent at a middle school in France.
His journalistic skills, he noted, helped piece together the book.
“Because I’m a reporter, I became more and more curious about the things I didn’t know, so I decided to start reporting the story,” he said. “It was really the reporting and finding out all the things that I didn’t know that really made me even more fascinated and compelled.”
Whitaker acknowledges the changes in the media landscape since he found his professional calling reporting for the Harvard Crimson and interning at Newsweek during summers away from the university. He points to recent industry developments such as social media and self-publishing.
“It’s disrupted traditional media in significant ways,” he said. “I don’t think traditional media is going to go away, but I think it’s radically changed people’s sources of information, and that’s something that I think all the big media organizations are going to have to deal with.”
While new technology has posed challenges for the media outlets where Whitaker has worked, he sees many positive outcomes of changes taking place in publishing and media.
“What has been bad news to some degree for the industry of journalism is good news for a lot of people who want to do some of their own reporting — about their own family history, or anything else,” he said.
He encourages his readers to do just that, even writing a piece for CNN.com about his reporting methods. His recommendations include interviewing and recording the stories of surviving relatives, asking for letters and photos, and even DNA testing for those interested in their genetic backgrounds.
As the managing editor at CNN, Whitaker said that bringing foreign news to U.S. audiences is a satisfying way to connect his family history and career.
After a long trip, it seems he is finally home.
Editing by Chris Michaud and Bob Tourtellotte