Balz receives inaugural College of Media Distinguished Alumni Award

Dan Balz
(Photo by Melina Mara, photojournalist at The Washington Post.)

When Dan Balz (BS ’68, MS ’72, journalism) arrived at the University of Illinois, he had no idea that he would choose journalism as his lifelong profession. His older brother, the late Doug Balz, who was also a journalism alumnus, had recommended that he join The Daily Illini. It was there that he fell in love with the craft as well as the camaraderie that he shared with fellow student journalists. 

Balz, chief correspondent at The Washington Post, said his Illinois education and the College of Media have shaped his life and career in all kinds of ways, “from the classroom learning, to the mentoring from faculty members, to working on The Daily Illini, to the friendships that have been maintained. I am incredibly grateful for all of that.” 

He has held a unique vantage point of history in the making, covering national politics since joining The Washington Post in 1978. He is also a regular panelist on PBS’s Washington Week, a frequent guest on other public affairs programs, and the author of several books on politics and elections, including two bestsellers.

Because of his extraordinary career, Balz has been selected as the inaugural recipient of the College of Media Distinguished Alumni Award.

“This new annual award honors an alum whose career accomplishments and engagement with the College of Media are exemplary,” said Dean Tracy Sulkin. “Dan has greatly contributed to the profession of journalism, reporting on our democracy for four decades, and has generously supported the College of Media and our students over the years.”

“I really enjoy political reporting,” Balz said. “You get to go around the country, you learn about the politics in different states—which every state has its own rich political heritage—and it gave me the opportunity to cover presidential campaigns and to see the evolving nature of the person who eventually gets elected as the President of the United States.” 

After working as a Capitol Hill intern during his sophomore year, Balz knew that he wanted to go to Washington, D.C., as a reporter. For most of his career, he has had front-row seats to the presidential candidates before they are bound by the trappings of the Oval Office, and he gets to observe how newly appointed presidents handle high-pressure situations. 

For him, a presidential campaign is like a Rorschach test for the nation. 

“The candidates are important, obviously, but a lot of it has to do with the mood of the country and what voters are looking for, and trying to understand all those forces that come together as a campaign,” Balz said. “To me, that has always been stimulating and that has always been different, so it keeps you fresh.” 

Balz described political reporting as part biography. “You are watching people, and learning about people, and writing about people. But it also gives you a chance to understand the country and its history.” 

Some of his most memorable stories include covering the election of President Barack Obama and the death of Princess Diana. 

“The 2008 election campaign was just infused with history and the competition between [Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton was unlike anything that I have ever covered in a presidential campaign,” Balz said. 

“The death of Princess Diana was also just an incredible story, in part because it was so revealing of the country as a whole, and the outpouring of anger towards the Royal Family and the tabloid media,” he added. 

He said the most rewarding part of his career is to have been at The Washington Post for as long as he has been. He considers it to be a great fortune to have worked under talented editors and to continuously learn from other members of the newsroom for more than 40 years. 

“In a sense, I have had to reinvent myself every few years as faces change and demands change and stories change,” Balz said. “That, for me, journalistically, has been the greatest thing.” 

For journalism students, Balz shared: “As you start out as a journalist, you will see that every great journalist, no matter what they do, there’s intellectual curiosity, desire to read widely, a fundamental energy to chase and get the story, and a self-critical nature of never believing you’ve figured out how to do the job as good as it ought to be done.” 

—Da Yeon Eom, Communications and Marketing Intern