Eric Cortellessa, Washington correspondent for The Times of Israel, visits UB
UB alum '13 discusses his career and life experiences
Eric Cortellessa is optimistic about the future of journalism.
“I’d rather have newspapers and no government than government and no newspapers,” he said quoting Thomas Jefferson.
Cortellessa, Washington correspondent for The Times of Israel, and UB and Spectrum alum, led a discussion in Clemens Hall on Friday afternoon entitled “A front row seat to history” as part of the English Department’s lecture series: “What Can You Do with an English Major?” He discussed his experiences working as a full-time correspondent, his time at UB and the future of journalism. Professor Barbara Bono organized the event and Professor Robert Daly moderated.
Cortellessa coordinated The Times of Israel’s coverage of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East as part of the White House press corps. He was in charge of the paper’s coverage on the 2016 presidential election and its reporting on both the Republican and Democratic conventions last summer.
He said it’s important to shed light on what the government is doing and it’s the journalist’s job to question everything.
“We all deserve to know these answers,” Cortellessa said. “The First Amendment is placed first for a reason because without it, none of the others really matter. If you don’t have free speech, then how can you even call attention to things that our democratic institutions are supposed to address.”
Cortellessa didn’t always see himself becoming a journalist.
He grew up with a Jewish mother and an Italian father just outside of Washington D.C. and said he wasn’t religious. But living so close to the capital made him interested in politics, which later translated into his passion for journalism.
It wasn’t until he came to Buffalo that he became serious about his future and found his identity, he said.
He joined The Spectrum as the editorial editor his senior year at UB, which he described as a “pivotal” moment for him.
He emphasized taking advantage of opportunities and finding a community in college where people are “like-minded.” He wishes he got involved as a UB student sooner.
“You’re the agent of your life. You’re the agent of your education," he said. "You have to recognize that you can fully seize this part of your life.”
Cortellessa interned for Senator Ted Kennedy in 2008 while Kennedy was fatally sick. He said he admired Kennedy’s resilience from personal failures and his problem-solving skills.
Cortellessa also served as deputy press secretary on the Maryland attorney general's campaign in 2014. Because of his lack of experience on a press team, he worked in opposition research before being asked to help manage press operations.
“Whenever you’re given an opportunity, seize it,” Cortellessa said. “If it’s not exactly what you want to be doing, if you excel and do really well, you’ll be given other opportunities. The best way to get opportunities is to be taking advantage of the ones you have in front of you.”
He later landed his first job in journalism when he received a grant to intern for The Times of Israel in Jerusalem for four months.
While he was in Israel, a Palestinian family was fire-bombed by “unknown extremists” in the West Bank. One of the children, younger than a year old, died in the attack. The family was in a hospital in Tel Aviv and he went to interview the grandfather.
“You know, you’re humbled by how little you know, which enables you to develop the right kind of attitude to learn as much as you can,” Cortellessa said.
Cortellessa was once face to face with Hamas military units, which could sometimes be “scary.”
He was also a reporter in Pakistan for a week while he was a student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism for his master’s.
“If you prove yourself, you’ll be given more opportunities,” Cortellessa said. “The more you do, the more that opens up to you.”
Cortellessa said he was shy when he first got into journalism and realized he needed persistence. He said a lot of the stories he reported on fell onto his lap when he least expected it.
He is currently an adjunct English Composition professor at Montgomery College on the side. His media diet consists of: The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Esquire, to name a few.
He said it can be challenging dealing with the new cycle in the media environment, but he thinks news institutions will get adjusted and are already doing a good job.
“I do believe in the nobility of politics,” Cortellessa said. “I believe that politics is supposed to solve problems that government is supposed to make people’s lives better. If you don’t have a free and independent press holding people who make these decisions accountable, who else will?”
Cortellessa tries to visit the place where his journalism career started: Buffalo.
“This is the place where I became who I was going to be,” Cortellessa said. “It sort of determined my set of values and my ideas of what would entail a meaningful life. Whenever I come back here, it not only reminds me of that, but reaffirms that to me.”
Hannah Stein is a senior news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org