Berkeley alumnus Jess Bravin discusses journalism, time as student regent

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Editor’s Note: This article has been edited for space and clarity.

Jess Bravin is a UC Berkeley School of Law alumnus, a former student regent and an award-winning writer and journalist. He authored “The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay,” which explores the American military commissions that were resurrected to prosecute suspects of terrorism.

Bravin sat down with The Daily Californian on Friday for an interview to talk about his experience on campus and his subsequent career as a writer — which includes his current role as the Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, where he previously worked as its United Nations correspondent and editor of California Weekly.

DC: What was your first experience with journalism?

JB: I edited our elementary school paper. … I had a very small, kind of experimental high school I went to in Los Angeles, and so we didn’t really have a regular newspaper but occasionally published things, and I did that. And then when I was in high school, I wrote some op-eds for local papers including one for the Los Angeles Times. So I had, like, you know, experiences with it in different ways.

DC: How do you think your education in law was useful for your career as a journalist afterward?

JB: Well, it’s useful. I mean it has a very kind of — a symbiotic relationship with what I end up covering. … I really have, actually, a great opportunity to use what I learned in law school in what I do as a reporter, and, in fact, in some very unanticipated ways. I mean, obviously you learn how the legal system works and you cover the courts, and I cover the Supreme Court. Of course it’s going to be helpful. It’s not necessary — there’s some great reporters who didn’t attend law school — but for me, it’s very helpful. … But, having studied it here at Berkeley, I at least knew what questions one should ask. And I at least knew who might be equipped to help me find answers. I knew sources, I knew the texts — I knew things like that. So it really turned out to be a great preparation for a horrible period, you know, in history, in a way I had never expected.

DC: What made you decide to be a student regent in the first place?

JB: I had this experience on the school board in Los Angeles as the student member. So I was familiar with how an education board operates. And I, at the time, was very concerned about the way the university functioned, these legal issues, policy issues concerned me for a long time. You know, growing up in California, UC is a incredibly important institution, not just for students or employees, but for everyone in the state. And, to me, it seemed like it was being atrociously managed. And that the, particularly the financing of the university, was unsustainable. That the priorities of the university leadership were misplaced. And that they were slowly throwing away something that had been built up over a century. And so I thought I had something to contribute to try to stop that.

DC: Do you think the role of student regent has evolved significantly over time?

JB: I think it varies — it goes up and down. … Another state senator named John Vasconcellos, who had written proposal that created the student regent in the ’70s, he was very interested in what was going on and he was someone I often spoke with. In fact, one thing we did, we were so concerned — Senator Vasconcellos and I — that another regent may try to eliminate the student regent again, is that we wrote a resolution for the state legislature, commending … the 25th anniversary of the position, and it was adopted unanimously by the senate assembly in Sacramento. All Republicans, all Democrats voted for it. We sort of — Vasconcellos and I — sort of thought this would be kind of like ammunition if someone tries to come after the student regent in the future, they can have this resolution as, like, you know, “lay off” kind of thing.

DC: How do you think your role as student regent — how do you think it set the stage for your subsequent career as a journalist or maybe prepared you for a career in journalism?

JB: It’s been extremely helpful because, you know, being on the inside of a very powerful, wealthy government agency that has very few mechanisms for accountability. And watching how the press covers us from the inside. … I think it definitely helps having to cover other institutions now as a outsider, as a reporter — having had some experience on the other side of the fence, seeing how it looks, how the institutions function, how they view the press and so on. That, I think, has been very, very helpful.

Contact Anna Dell’Amico at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @adellamico_dc.