As a new era on Beacon Hill begins, it’s the end of another as two doyennes of the political press corps ― Janet Wu and Alison King — sign off.
After 45 years on air, Wu, the first Asian American and first woman television reporter to cover the Massachusetts State House, retired last week from ABC affiliate WCVB-TV. King ― who has been covering politics for more than a quarter of a century for New England Cable News and NBC10 Boston ― will be leaving the station in March.
For decades, they have dominated the local political scene, scoring scoops and exclusive interviews.
Now it’s their turn to be in the hot seat. I had a chance to sit down with Wu and King this week to reflect on their storied careers, the future of local TV news, and favorite politicians. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q. Maura Healey is taking office as the first woman elected governor of Massachusetts. Her lieutenant governor is Kim Driscoll. In Boston, Michelle Wu is mayor. What does this moment mean to have so many women in power?
Wu: I’m going to look forward to watching this as opposed to analyzing it. But it is a turning point. I’ve been doing this for 50 years. I can’t believe there is an Asian mayor of Boston. I can’t believe there is finally a woman governor who was elected. Jane Swift was the governor, give her her due, but to actually get elected and to be the chief executive— long overdue.
King: Massachusetts, with it being so progressive, you think we’d have been way ahead of the curve. I remember doing stories back in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Shannon O’Brien was treasurer. She was the lone woman in this sea of white men. So now, to be ahead of the curve and leading the way nationally, it is about time.
Q. What do you make of the media coverage of female politicians? I wonder if there’s already a double standard in the way Healey is covered. She gets criticized for not answering questions, but how many times has Governor Charlie Baker done that?
King: Yes, there’s a double standard. People are still looking at the hair, makeup, and clothing. Maura Healey is interesting. There’s a series that we’ve done at the station where you have at-home interviews with the candidates and their families. I requested an at-home with Maura Healey. It was the first gubernatorial nominee I could remember who wasn’t married with children. And I remember thinking, ‘Should I ask Maura Healey if she wants to do this? Is this a double standard?’
Wu: She has a right to be cautious. I’m not comparing myself to Maura Healey by any stretch of the imagination, but I remember in the early days when I first started out, I knew I could not afford to make one mistake. I was the only woman there. I was the only woman of color. I know how she feels. Is she more careful than any other politician? I wouldn’t say so. But she does have to be careful.
Q. Janet, tell us more about being a trailblazer covering the State House in the 1970s.
Wu: It was tough. I’m not going to mince any words. It was hard to develop sources because a lot of the guys, when they finished filing their stories, would go over to the Golden Dome, which was across the street, and they would hang out and run into the elected officials. They would run into the staffers, they would run into the consultants, they would run into folks who really knew what was going on. That’s how they developed their sources.
I didn’t feel comfortable doing that for many reasons. I was young. I was single. It was a bar. I felt vulnerable. As a result, developing sources for me literally took a decade, if not more, before people would know who I was.
Q. TV news is pretty competitive. Did you see yourselves as rivals or peers, or sometimes both?
King: Definitely not a peer.
Wu: Oh, stop.
King: When I first came to Boston in the mid-’90s, it was more me being intimidated, and for good reason. I didn’t have the institutional background, memory, knowledge. I was thrown to the wolves, and Boston truly is a blood sport when it came to politics, particularly in that era. I wanted to be like Janet Wu. I listened to her questions. I’d go home at night and watch what she put on the air. That’s how you get better.
Wu: I know I have a reputation as being a tough old broad, but you had to be back then. And I say this with a smile on my face. But you had to put on this armor and just sort of plow through. Otherwise, you’d never be heard. You’d never be seen. And no one would pay attention to you.
Q. Janet, from one Asian American journalist to another, I have to ask about your parents. Not a lot of Asian Americans become journalists. Your parents thought you would become a doctor, an engineer, or a teacher. Did they ever come around to accept you as a journalist?
Wu: My mother passed away a few years ago at the age of 101. She knew I was on TV. But I’m not sure she really thought that this was a real job. She was proud of the fact that I had survived in this business. But was it the same thing as being a college professor, a doctor, or an engineer who built nuclear power plants like my father did? No, not the same thing.
Politics and journalism were a big part of my life growing up. My father worked in New York City, and we lived in New Jersey. Every night he would bring home five newspapers. My parents left China at a time when it was in complete political turmoil. They kept up with the news, and we talked about it every night. We watched the news. So they weren’t exactly shocked that this is where I ended up.
Q. Let’s talk about favorite politicians you’ve covered. Janet, I know you were fond of the late Governor Paul Cellucci. Why?
Wu: When he was a state rep, he stopped to talk to me. When he was a state senator, he stopped to talk to me. The man that was the state rep all the way to being ambassador to Canada from the United States was the same guy. And he never ― this is very rare ― avoided answering a question.
King: Probably Deval Patrick. I did the very first interview with him the two years before he ran, when he needed to go out and test the waters. It was a tenure I covered from soup to nuts. I even did a documentary with him on his first 100 days in office. I had special access with the administration and got an insight into what it was like to be the governor of Massachusetts — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
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Q. When you first met Patrick, did you think this guy could be governor?
King: After that first interview, I thought, wow, super smart and interesting and thoughtful guy, but hell no, because he was running against Tom Reilly, the attorney general at the time who was the heir apparent.
Wu: I remember thinking that, but I have a really bad track record. Back in the ‘70s, Andy Card was walking on the fourth floor of the State House heading to the coffee shop with this man who was going to run for president.
Andy had just been elected. He was a state rep. He goes, ‘Janet, I want you to meet George Bush.’ He chatted with me for a while, and I walked away thinking ‘Oh yeah, like he’s going to be President of the United States.’ My ability to predict the future of any politician is not good.
Q. I know a lot about the newspaper business, but what’s happening with local TV news?
Wu: There’s a lot of emphasis on weather because everybody still tunes into local television to get the weather, but politics is not in the A-block that often anymore unless something outrageous has happened, or as I used to say, a Trump-like story. A fire, a car accident, or hostage taking, those will get more eyeballs. I can’t really fault the station for doing it because it is a business. They’re trying to make money.
At the beginning of my career, and probably into the ‘90s. I was always in the A-block [before the first commercial break] two to three times a week. By the time we got to 2010 and forward, maybe once or twice a week.
King: The day-to-day is just different. The stories are shorter overall. Reporters now sometimes have to go out and do two stories a day. Sometimes that works, sometimes you’re giving short shrift to each story. It’s just a whole different job in some respects than it was 25 years ago.
I hope that news outlets can hang in there. We’re entering just a whole new world with social media. The way news is delivered is in the process of radical change. I don’t know where it will be 10 years from now, but I think TV stations and everything will not look at all like what they look like now.
Q. Alison, you’re not retiring and still figuring out your next chapter. Janet, you are retired. What will you miss the most about being a journalist?
Wu: Interrogating people.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.