The FishbowlDC Interview with NJ’s Jim O’Sullivan

Say hello to NJ Daily’s Chief Analyst Jim O’Sullivan. Over steel-cut Irish oatmeal, I pepper the blond-hair, blue-eyed scribe with questions about his career trajectory, whether or not he’s ever been arrested and what he thinks of Hollywood’s minor obsession with films set in Boston. I got answers to most of those questions, but not all. He has an unusual response to questions he doesn’t care to answer. Suddenly he’s the editor and insists that this intro is supposed to be brief.

The clean-cut O’Sullivan believes in old-school journalism principles and takes professionalism seriously. But back in February he wrote and filed a story with the following nut graph: In many ways, the base warfare is the embodiment of a political reality already apparent in the 112th Congress: despite the president’s sermons of bipartisan optimism, and the likelihood that at least some mutation of is essential to alleviating the country’s fiscal ills, it’s still a place where people like to fuck with each other.  His editor, Terence Samuel, promptly emailed him the offending words in blown up War font. O’Sullivan meant to change that “fuck with each other” part.

O’Sullivan grew up in Cohasset, Mass., 15 miles south of Boston. He has seen all the Boston-made movies and says you can’t believe everything you watch: “They try awful hard, but you sort of have to detach yourself from any local knowledge because otherwise the accents and the high speed chases through the North End render the whole thing pretty unbelievable,” he says in his own faint Bostonian accent. By far the most interesting thing about him, he says,  is his college roommate. “Like how is that not one of your lead-off questions?” he says in a subsequent email, apparently shifting back into editor mode. His roommate at Boston College was Kofi Kingston, a Ghanaian-born professional wrestler and WWE Intercontinental Champion. (Watch Kingston wrestle in a spectacularly skimpy green getup here.)

O’Sullivan came to NJ from State House News Service in Boston in September 2010. He had never lived anywhere else apart from a term abroad to Galway, Ireland. He won’t talk specifics about the interview process in Washington. “If you like covering politics then this is a pretty damn good place to be,” he says, explaining that the publication’s “tight, balanced” coverage of government drew him to the job. His career began at 14 covering sports when a neighbor got him a big break with one of the local papers.

Aside from that college roommate, O’Sullivan has had other brushes with famous people. His next door neighbor in college was “The View’s” Elizabeth Hasselbeck. O’Sullivan was nothing but chivalrous concerning the shoveling of her driveway.

If you were a carbonated beverage which would you be? OK Cola.

How often do you Google yourself? I did before answering this question, to make sure I was still CEO of Mazda. Dude probably gets some of my hate mail.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to an editor (or vice versa)? Just about every time I’ve ever had a correction sticks with me and none is a pleasant memory. “I got it wrong” is pretty much as bad as it gets.

Who is your favorite working journalist? My older sister. If my younger sister would stop healing the sick and get into the family business, I’d have to call it a tie. But for now, Kate O’Sullivan (Williams) of CFO Magazine.

Do you have a favorite word? Negative [Meaning he doesn’t haven’t one.]

Who would you rather have dinner with – First Lady Michelle Obama or Bestselling Author and former V.P. candidate Sarah Palin? Organic FLOTUS or Super Bowl FLOTUS? Because if it’s the former, I’d have to say Palin. But the White House spread on Super Bowl Sunday was enviable.

What’s the name of your cell phone ring? Vibrate or silent, usually.

When did you last cry and why? Tuesday. Completely spontaneously.  Walking past Tortilla Coast and just lost it.

Find out why he considers himself  “passively Irish.”

What word do you routinely misspell? I misspelled “Gingrich” in a Tweet the other day. Came out “Gingrinch,” which was unfortunate.

What swear word do you use most often? Aaron Boone

What word or phrase do you overuse? Ask Terence Samuel.

What TV show do you have to watch? None. I do catch a lot of “SportsCenter.”

Where do you shop most often for your clothes? Another question not in my wheelhouse.

Whom do you prefer for daytime talk, Dr. Phil, Ellen, Oprah, Tyra or the women of The View? Dr. Phil really helped me turn things around, but I also have to put in a plug for “The View,” because in college I lived next door to Elizabeth Hasselbeck. She was the comely grad student and we were the idiots who used Bud Ice empties as Christmas tree ornaments. We used to shovel her driveway.

Pick one: Leno, Letterman or Conan? Letterman. Though for true late-night comedy, I recommend Jason Colthorp of Lansing’s WILX. It’s purportedly straight news, but it comes across as comedy.

If you were trapped on a deserted island, which public official would you want to be trapped with and why? James Rowe. He was a Truman adviser and LBJ pal who wrote the memo that mapped out the 1948 reelection campaign, changing the way campaigns were won and providing a template that endures even through the technological and social changes since. Second place would probably be Nixon. We could play corrosive mind games with each other to keep from getting bored.

Who is your mentor? One of the best things about this business is the vets’ eagerness to help out the young or woebegone. I’ve been lucky enough to have had several. Mark Vernazza, Kilian Betlach, Bill and Ed Forry, Tom Mulvoy, Carlo Rotella, Helen Woodman, Michael P. Norton, Craig Sandler, Amy Lambiaso and Glen Johnson have all taught me a great deal.

What’s the best advice you ever received in the course of your career? No single line sticks out, but the cumulative lessons provided by the above mentors boil down to: Never trade integrity for news, never burn a source, and always get it right.

What and where was your first job in journalism? Covering high school sports as an eighth grader. I believe the Abington Green Wave turned back the Cohasset Skippers, 18-6, on my first assignment. My dad acted as yardage spotter, and later faxed the story from his office to my editor.

What’s your most embarrassing career moment? With the caveat that this could change depending what photo you use, I screwed up a story about a candidate dropping out of a D.A.’s race because I rushed it. That was pretty ugly. I check his campaign finance account and was stupid enough not to check whether he had money in a CD. Without stating that he was having a hard time he was raising money, it was implicit. He had more money than we had reported.

Which one interview of your career did you enjoy most? When I was working for The Dorchester Reporter, we found Charlie Lloyd, who had retired from the Negro Leagues in 1936. He’d raised a family, worked on the railroad, and volunteered at Children’s Hospital for maybe 50 years. Unbelievable stories about his playing days, taking Model Ts over icy and rutted roads to play games up north. A terrific guy, and I never understood why he didn’t get more attention. After a while I ran out of excuses to put him in the paper so I’d just go and listen to stories.

Which one interview of your career did you enjoy least? Any time I had to interview parents who lost kids.

What’s the biggest scoop you’ve ever had? This is largely unknown, but I wrote in the early autumn of 2009 that Scott Brown was going to rise from the fifth-ranking member of a five-member Massachusetts state Senate minority to the brightest political star in the constellation. Meticulously researched, beautifully written, but my editor screwed the pooch and it never made it to print. Still haunts me.

When and why did you last laugh so hard you had tears in your eyes? A few weeks ago, listening to a buddy enumerate his various physical ailments in hilarious and self-deprecating fashion. Comedy is the tragedy that is other people’s lives.

When and why did you last lose your temper? Never happens. I’m what they call passive Irish.

Which movie title best describes your journalism career? The Hurt Locker

Who would you want to play you in a movie? Michael Rapaport, circa Cop Land

Name some jobs you’ve had outside of journalism. (Can start as young as teenage years): Handed out deli menus on the side of the road for a summer. Bussed tables at a restaurant, since burned to the ground, where my sole distinction was teaching the mostly post-menopausal wait staff the “Macarena.” Strung tennis rackets and fitted sneakers. Landscaped. Bartended at college reunions (15-year events were best for both tips and raw entertainment). Worked the door at a couple places in and around Boston, including T.K. O’Malley’s in Scituate, where I recommend the patio, and The Avenue in Allston, where I do not recommend the mussels.

Who should just call it a day? As someone who hopes to traipse gracefully into retirement at a ripe age or with a killer severance, I’d find it unseemly if a whippersnapper presumed to hurry me along. That said, I think any purported journalist whose salary is paid by viewers and advertisers banking safely on that person’s dreadfully predictable political ideology, of whatever stripe, should hang it up.

What song do you want played at your funeral? The Gus Johnson Fort Minor Remix. Or “Paddy McGinty’s Goat.” Maybe both. One on the way in, one on the way out.

Finally, please come up for a question for our next FishbowlDC interviewee. Make it good. What’s the best book about the reporting business? There are wrong answers.

In response to the Guardian’s Richard Adams’ question from last week: Is Journalism doomed? No.