By Kris Kitto - 01/20/10 12:37 AM EST
First, how is your last name pronounced?
Byer-ga [with a hard “G”]. It’s the Bjorn or Björk principle — Scandinavian.
Do people mispronounce it a lot?
Constantly. I would say the proper pronunciation is the third most popular. The most common is Bjerga with the “J” being said. Or a lot of people will get past the “J” but will get tripped up on the “G.” They’ll say Byer-zha.
I’ve been told you’re funny.
Keep going with the interview — you can decide.
What are your plans for your term as National Press Club president?
A big thing we need to do is continually ramp up our professional training and services to journalists who are facing career transitions. As the profession changes, we need to adapt to it and continue to serve both our members and the wider journalism community.
Why did you decide to run?
I’ve been active in the National Press Club since I came to Washington in 2001, and I’ve been involved in [NPC] governance since 2005. I’ve been impressed both with the members of the organization and the organization itself. ... There are very few places where the members of the media get to gather together, especially with the name and national recognition of the Press Club. It’s in incredible organization.
After having covered elected officials, you’ll now experience what it’s like to be in the hot seat.
It certainly is a challenge. It’s a welcome challenge. It’s not the first time I’ve been on the hot seat. I was on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2005, with Meredith Vieira, and I won 50 grand. We talked about the state of journalism during the commercial breaks.
I hear you were on “Jeopardy!” too. Please explain.
To go way back, my best friend in high school was on the Teen Tournament [of “Jeopardy!”]. And I tried out and didn’t get on … I was then a phone-a-friend for a friend who was on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in 2002. After assisting all these friends with their fame and fortune, I decided to try it on my own.
I tried out for “Jeopardy!” in D.C. and made it. I was tied for the lead after the first round — based on my knowledge of Sioux Indians and baseball nicknames. I fell behind in the second round, and one answer [I lost on] was “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” and I said “Center.” It cost me $17,000. And I was the only one who knew “Pirates of Penzance” for the Final Jeopardy! question.
It is a humbling experience to lose in painful fashion in front of an audience of 10 million people. But after telling the story for two years, it was funny again, so I made another attempt.
And that’s when you decided to do “Millionaire”?
I went to New York, tried out for “Millionaire,” got on in September 2005. My goal was to leave with dignity. And I achieved that. I was the only person for a full episode. I made it to $100,000. I was out of lifelines, I wasn’t certain of the answer, so I walked away with $50,000.
It still airs on the Game Show Network. I’ll get e-mails after people see me on the show. People find you when they see you’ve won money.
Really? For what?
Oh yeah, business offers, date requests. I didn’t return those calls — people with great investment ideas calling me from Ohio. And one guy who said he could talk to porpoises.
I’d imagine that it’s an odd time to be the leader of a journalism organization, considering the state of the industry.
First of all, it’s certainly a challenging time, and I think one of the greatest accomplishments for the National Press Club in the last two years is that it’s kept its membership stable.
How do you consume your news these days?
Predominantly online. I, of course, read Bloomberg religiously. And other than that, a lot of the television news, or the blog news that I may be reading tends to be filtered through other sources. I’m sort of a magpie in my media approach.
What brought you to Washington?
I could recite all of the presidents of the United States in order when I was 5. I’ve always been fascinated by the political process. I’ve always believed that people should make a contribution to this world, and I believe the journalism and the accountability it provides is a contribution.
What are a couple of the most memorable Washington-related stories you’ve covered?
9/11. My first week on the job. WMD investigation. And the third was a feature project I did last year, where I took a look at U.S. Food Aid policy. I traveled to a village in Ethiopia that was receiving food assistance, and tracked some of the food that was in that village from a farm in North Dakota and traced it all the way to the village. That was probably the highlight of my journalistic career.
What do you think will be the big stories on your beat this year?
Food safety; whether commodity prices rebound enough to create another hunger crisis; climate change and how farmers adapt to that; as well as alternative energy and economic development in rural communities. And I grew up on a farm outside a town of 400 people. This is stuff I grew up with.
Try growing up in a town called Motley in the 1980s. You’re in the marching band, and everyone wants you to play [Mötley Crüe’s] “Kickstart My Heart.”
What kind of farm are we talking about?
It was only 80 acres. We had cattle for a while and then we raised sheep. It was in northern Minnesota. We had some corn, big gardens. My dad was also a Minnesota state trooper, so we weren’t farming full time.
What were your chores?
I got out of a lot of chores, because I have allergies. There was hay to bale and sheep to feed, but I very quickly became a band geek. It kept me in town after school.
What instrument did you play?
Mainly trumpet. I also played some French horn, some baritone, some drums, some piano. Pretty much anything brass. Trumpet’s the only one I have any proficiency in.
Do you have any interesting guests lined up for Press Club events this year?
For my inaugural, Bob Schieffer’s band is playing. Mitt Romney is coming in March. We have the actor Dennis Quaid in April … Who we’d really love to have is President Obama. We’ve had every sitting president speak at the National Press Club except George W. Bush.
When did you decide you wanted to be a journalist?
I always thought from a very young age that it’d be great to write for a living, and when I was in college, I was a history and English major with no plans to teach, so I thought journalism would be a practical way to write for a living. As with many journalists, you go into it thinking you’re a writer, but you fall in love with the reporting.
To recommend a political personality for 20 Questions, call Kris Kitto at (202)628-8539 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.