Chinese folk legend holds that in the seventh month of the Lunar Calendar, the gates of hell open up and the ghosts come out to torment the living. There are all kinds of rituals you can perform to try and keep the darkness at bay, or preventative measures like not letting your kids go out at night and being very careful. I didn’t even realize there was such a thing until my mom and dad, who were in town this summer, said, “Of course you’re having a run of bad luck, it’s ghost month!”
August actually started triumphantly, with an affirming trip to Atlanta where I saw old friends from AAJA and got to talk a little about my dad. Since then, my producers were laid off while we were in the middle of a field shoot, the minivan’s door was ripped off by a Santa Monica Big Blue bus and my spouse narrowly escaped injury and last week I learned a skunk has made a home in the crawlspace under my house! Dealing with him is very tricky since you don’t want him to spray under your house and leave a stink there … FOREVER.
The good news is, we’re almost at the end of the month, and things are supposed to improve once the ghosts go back to their lair. Here’s hoping.
When I look back on 2019, I hope that things never get as chaotic as May, when everything I agreed to do back in, I dunno, the fall, converged in one month. We launched Future You with Elise Hu, my new video series for NPR, which was supposed to be ready earlier but as with many of these creative projects, a lot of twists and turns happen along the way.
Plus there’s Mother’s Day, my two wedding anniversaries (legal and observed), end-of-school obligations, my brother’s birthday and my spouse’s birthday, which we had to skip over last weekend because, well, I couldn’t be around. Eventually we are going to have to find a day to celebrate “Matty’s Birthday, Observed” because there’s so much to do, there’s never enough tiiiiime … I sound like Jessie Spano in one of the most unforgettable episodes of Saved by the Bell, but it’s true.
Just after we started rolling out the first episode, I flew to New York where we do our annual meeting for the non-profit news org, Grist, where I’ve been a board member for many years. New York is so fun this time of year; it pulses with a kinetic energy, it smells of all the smells, there’s a sense that anything in the range of human experience can happen RIGHT NOW, on the very street corner on which you’re standing. It’s like being in Shanghai, where really, anything and everything could just pop off, right then.
One of my closest girlfriends in the whole world, Mari from Tokyo, happened to be in New York this month so we had a date night on Thursday featuring a lot of eating and drinking and meandering from one West Village place to another. This was the first time we’ve hung out OUTSIDE of Japan and just one of the best gal pal get togethers … she’s an actress and writer for whom all sorts of new projects are coming her way and I’m so proud. I love how New York is just full of possibility; it makes it magical.
I stuck around for more magic. And more reunion dates, and an Adam Driver/Keri Russell play and most importantly, for Friend Alex’s wedding. Friend Alex is my partner-in-jet-lag. Both of us were Asia correspondents at the same time (she for CNN, I for NPR) and so one of us was always up at some strange hour for rapid fire text banter. She taught me not to wash my hair for days, which ends up building great volume (you just have to use good dry shampoo to keep it from getting gross). And she’s the classiest, New Yorkiest of my girlfriends, so she threw the classiest, New Yorkiest of weddings overlooking Central Park, from one of those exclusive Upper East Side clubs that didn’t let women become members for most of its history. The affair was black tie and beautiful, and she wouldn’t have done it any other way.
I’ve been all over California this month — work trips to San Francisco and San Diego, shooting the video series and hosting It’s Been a Minute episodes from both places, and made it to Palm Springs for the first time for spring break with the family.
The new series has a name, Future You with Elise Hu, and we’ve been heads down on getting the first two episodes ready for an early May release. We also need to get ahead of ourselves in filming them, so this week a crew from DC came out to work with me on Venice Beach, and then we all went to San Francisco together for a harried schedule of more interviewing and filming.
Lots of bright sides: The DC ladies got to thaw out (because apparently it’s still cold out East), and I got to have my collaborators with me in person, instead of over the video chats we do all the time.
What else do I have to say about April? I potty trained Luna using the Potty Training Boot Camp method (two days, it’s amazing). She turned two years old, so I REALLY have no more babies.
I went to San Diego for a few days to speak at a member station gala and do other assorted speaking activities.
For the older girls’ spring break, we took everyone to the desert (everything went smoothly until one of Eva’s friend’s, Brandon, accidentally ate walnuts to which he is allergic and wound up in the hospital).
Also I’m spending an inordinate amount of time training on vertical jump, so I’m ready for the NFL combine. Hehe. Actually it’s for episode three. It will all make sense later.
Earlier this month I traveled to Boston to guest-host our WBUR/NPR co-produced program, Here & Now, and also filled-in on two episodes of my friend Sam’s podcast, It’s Been a Minute. Some highlights, ICYMI:
American Motherhood is Messed Up, a conversation with author Amy Westervelt (who I met at JAWS in Oregon in October) about how capitalism and America’s Puritan roots shaped a motherhood culture that’s bad for our society’s men, women and children.
Steven Yeun on identity (and so much more). Actor Steven Yeun is a big deal in America for his stint on the Walking Dead, but he actually found that experience confining and explained why. He also opened up about the journey he’s taken regarding his identity as an Asian-American and how he learned to feel comfortable in his own skin. I learned a lot!
The Weekly Wrap. Every Friday on Sam’s show, a panel of guests comes in to riff on the week that was. My daughter Eva introduced the show (which was so awesome) and our guests — Peter Hamby of Snapchat and Soumya Karlamangla of the LA Times. We had so much fun and covered a lot of ground, from sausages to tough electoral fights to k-pop.
This year I was invited to Mount Hood, Oregon to speak at JAWS CAMP (acronyms, which explains the all caps) about “journalism and your career,” with no other parameters. What follows are the remarks “as prepared for delivery,” as speech texts say when we get them from politicians — but not as they were actually delivered since I don’t follow a script and instead go off on random tangents.
JAWS is the Journalism and Women Symposium, founded in the mid-eighties by glass ceiling-breaking women in the industry and a group that continues today by training, supporting and convening lady journalists. Each year JAWS picks a place in the woods and holds CAMP (which now stands for Career and Mentoring Project) but really it’s a lot like adult girl scouts camp (but with actual hotel or resort rooms to sleep in at night).
Big thanks to my Friend Reeve (an actual professional speechwriter), who workshopped a lot of these ideas with me in the car last weekend in the Catskills, and gave my draft a real edit. I’m putting the full text here for posterity but um, I was asked to talk for 30 minutes so it’s a lot of words.
I’m just repatriating, or in the process of repatriating, from my three-year foreign correspondent stint in East Asia. It was a pretty crazy time to be there, with the whole fire and fury nuclear standoff and the hundreds of thousands in the streets who protested for the ouster of South Korea’s president. During this stint my family expanded from one kid to three, which played into an experience last summer when Kim Jong Un threatened Guam.
At the time, I had a four-month old who was nursing, aka on my boob every three hours, so I had to bring her to cover that breaking story. But since I had to bring her, I also had to bring my husband to take care of her while I was working, and if he was coming, then the other two girls had to come, and we woke them up in the middle of the night and whispered, “Sorry girls no camp today we have to go on an airplane to a beach, we’re going on a beach holiday!”
Missile launches and nuclear crises included, foreign correspondenting was pretty awesome – a dream come true. And because journalism as a business has been contracting my entire adult life, it was dream I had given up on. So what a surprise bonus to do it!
I want to share stories and lessons-learned from my time overseas, but first I want to tell you the story of how I ended up there as a one-woman bureau for NPR. Which brings me to a title I considered for this speech: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post.
I know I just said my dream was being a foreign correspondent, but there is irrefutable evidence that an even earlier dream was covering politics for a place like The Post.
My old elementary school friend, Casie Blount, made a funny discovery last month while cleaning. She found our class memory book from fifth grade. In it, we were required to write something looking back on our elementary school experience as we prepared to graduate.
Here is what I wrote:
“Hi! My name is Elise Hu, and attending Babler [my elementary school] for the last three years was a lot of fun and they’re going to be memorable.
I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I enjoyed them all greatly.
I made many friends and I also lost some friends because they had to move. They will always have a place in my heart no matter if I despised them or they were my good friends.
My personal goals for the future are to graduate from Princeton and become a famous writer or write for the press or broadcast the news. My main goal though, is to bother politicians — especially Democrats — as a press member.
In conclusion, attending Babler Elementary will always have a place in my heart, and I will personally make sure I will make at least 5 politicians really mad.”
WOW RIGHT!? I was sort of an insane fifth grader! I did end up making more than five politicians mad. They were not uniformly Democrats. I cannot explain the fifth grade Republicanism thing. Who knows. Instead of Princeton, I went to Mizzou for journalism school, which is the only place I applied, because it’s not captured in a memory book but by 8th grade I settled on a university and stayed with it. I didn’t have it all worked out in elementary school, okay?!
Still, 25 years after writing that down, I’m doing more or less what I set out to do at age 11. But my path has not been as focused as that fact might suggest. I would describe my overall career arc as “a series of the next most interesting things to do that would make sense for my family.” And one place it has failed to take me is The Washington Post.
Alternate Title: All The Times I Failed To Work At The Washington Post
I’ve never talked about this before publicly, but I am now a three time failure at working at the Post. Obviously, fifth-grade Elise would probably jump at any opportunity to write for and be a part of that venerable institution. The POST! The Post of legend, the Post of lore, The Post of Ben Bradlee, and now of Marty Baron, who Liev Schreiber totally nailed in his depiction in the movie, Spotlight. But three times now, I had an opportunity and failed to wind up there.
I think the reasons why speak to an important lesson I have learned in my career, which is that the journey itself is far more fulfilling than any particular stop or destination in your careers. It also speaks to the considerations that women must often make in this industry.
The First Time
The first time I got approached to go to the Washington Post was in the spring of 2012. What was happening? I think Bon Iver was still super cool back then. The Republican primaries were going on and Ron Paul was making another big run for it. And I found out I was pregnant with my first child.
It was just weeks after I learned this that I was recruited for a pretty high profile job for the Post. I wasn’t comfortable disclosing my pregnancy status when I was only four months pregnant. During the interview process, I was scared I wouldn’t get the job offer if I said something. So I didn’t.
I DID get the offer but ended up turning it down, after all the handwringing I went through. I think I just put my own comfort first. I did tell my boss and mentor at NPR, Kinsey, and he was persuasive in getting me to stay. But mainly what happened there was for the first time, I faced a job versus family choice. I prioritized my fledgling family over the potential prestige of a new gig.
When that baby was born, I was in the comfort of an organization where I felt I had less to prove, with bosses who already knew and trusted me. I was able to ease back into my work without the pressure of being at a new place, having to prove myself, and start something new for them. I sometimes have FOMO about that decision and wonder whether it was the right thing. But it all fit, you know? And it was great for Baby Eva.
These are valuable experiences to collect along your journey.
And with these courtships with potential employers, something of value also comes out of the meetings alone. Because I interviewed there, I got to meet Marcus Brauchli, the editor at the time. We joked about karaoke, since he was a longtime Asia correspondent. He said his go to karaoke repertoire featured a lot of John Denver. We hit it off so well that we became good friends despite my not taking the job … and years later, when I was facing the choice about whether to move abroad, it was he who said, GO GO GO!
To this day, we have hung out on both sides of the Pacific Ocean — he and his wife even hosted a dinner for me and my friends when I was briefly back in Washington last year — and we always get together for drinks when we’re in each other’s towns. Embrace the journey, and you’ll collect not just new experiences, but new friends along the way.
The Second Time
The second time the Post came around, I was back at work after having the baby and ready for my next move. That time, the Post didn’t choose me! The lesson that time came in just accepting you’re not always the first pick, and to accept that gracefully.
The Latest Time
Then I moved abroad and spent my three years gallivanting around Asia, trying out new experiences and reporting on this whole nuclear crisis thing.
Just as I’m finalizing my arrangements with NPR to move me back to California, where I long felt I belonged, the Washington Post called again! And this time around, the job felt perfect for me, the freedom was wide, the creative opportunities vast. It was a job that perfectly married my work experience and skill set with what they needed. We had a love-in when I visited the Post. I wanted to do that job more than I’ve wanted to do any job since first leaving Texas to work at NPR.
And I didn’t do it. I backed out of that potential job because of my husband. Modern day philosopher Chris Rock recently did a standup special called Tamborine (tambourine purposely misspelled), in which part of it is just him working through his recent divorce. And he talks about how when you’re in a marriage you’re in a band, and sometimes it’s your turn being backup player in the band. So if you’re gonna play the tambourine, you have to really PLAY it, he said. “Play it like Tina Turner!”
It’s my turn to play the tambourine. You see, when we went to Korea, my husband Matty, who is also a journalist, had to quit his job at the Wall Street Journal. He became lead parent for three years. It was not an equitable sharing of responsibilities. He shuttled the girls to music class and doctor’s appointments and showed up at all the assemblies. He packed lunches every day and made sure they had the costumes they needed for various performances. He did the bath and bedtime routine every night during the 35 work trips I made to Japan, and all the other trips to the US and China and Laos and Malaysia and wherever else.
He showed up at his first PTA meeting for Eva’s school and the other mom’s — it’s all mom’s in the PTA there because Korea is pretty gendered — they learned he was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal in his previous life. “Oh you must take good notes, then,” the president said. And the board voted him in as secretary.
So when we moved to LA, where he could slide most easily into a job at the LA Times, he said, “I’m not moving again, especially not just after we landed. It’s kind of my TURN.” And that was that. I was for the THIRD time, an almost-employee at the Washington Post.
Toward the Future
But the truth is, I would not trade the career I’ve had or my family for anything. It all worked out. I didn’t end up at the Post, but I did end up in South Korea and I promised I’d share some of that experience with you.
While in Korea, I learned all kinds of things besides the actual Korean language, because the Korean language is friggin’ hard! Someone ran into my Korean teacher and asked about how I was coming along with the language and my teacher said, “Elise has a great family.”
Things I learned: I learned about the beauty of slurping noodles loudly — you think it’s rude here in America but it’s really part of the enjoyment of eating noodles in Korea and Japan. True story: Cup Noodle, the ramen noodle maker, actually makes shorter noodles for the US because people here in the states don’t like to slurp, and shorter noodles prevent slurping.
I learned how to loudly wake up cab drivers who FALL ASLEEP at the wheel. I learned a lot about skincare. Koreans have that gorgeous, dewy alabaster skin and it comes at a price! They are serious about their direct sun avoidance. This past summer, the municipal districts in Seoul spent taxpayer money putting up giant umbrellas at street corners to help citizens avoid direct sunlight while out and about. It’s not just about those famous 12-step skincare routines, it’s about strict sun avoidance.
I learned some things I wish I hadn’t, like, about living in a place that’s arguably much harder for women than even the US these days. South Korea’s women are codified in the constitution as equal to men, but they’re cast by society as feminine mother characters with very strict norms about appearance and behavior. For example, in South Korea, even if it’s 100 degrees out, it’s a big social no-no to bear your arms or shoulders. I always felt like such a subversive if I wore a tank top outside.
There are many things about my time abroad that I will miss, but I am glad to be back — and to tackle a new challenge.
I think a lot about the future naturally, so when I repatriated with NPR I made up a new beat for myself. I am now covering the future. Correspondent, THE FUTURE.
I’m just getting started, but one through line in my reporting so far is that while people can imagine really interesting and optimistic futures, they cannot see how we get from the bleakness of now or the near present … to the brighter futures they imagine. And things FEEL bleak as we get our torrent of news alerts each day.
A few things I do to combat the bleakness, even though believe me, it’s rough. I ate three packs of those frozen White Castle sliders on Monday. That’s not a tip, it’s just something I did. Anyway so to counter it. I look to heroes who can’t afford to go numb — mothers fighting to find their kids and be reunited at the border. The sexual assault victims who keep using their voices in spite of everything. The Parkland teens. Women journalists like you, who demand a voice at the table in your newsrooms but also in the larger national dialogue. Continue to be inspired by and supported by one another.
The poet Maggie Smith put it brilliantly: “The world is at least fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative estimate, though I keep this from my children.”
Children also offer me some semblance of hope and motivation these days. They don’t have to be your own … I keep looking to the newer generations, writ large, to save us from ourselves. My three year old daughter, Isa, was about to climb a ladder of a playground jungle gym thing a few Sundays ago. And a little boy her height came up and asked for his dad to help him. And she said to him, “I climbed it all by myself. Because I’m a girl and girls have strong muscles.” Let a commitment to the future shove you out the door in the morning.
Hey it’s working! All the “girls are strong” indoctrination works on the next generation! And it’s helped by the fact that it’s true.
And the stats on the next generations are more hopeful. People aged 18-34 overwhelmingly favor rights for LGBT and people of color, people born in America today ARE made up of a majority people of color. These generations want guaranteed health care, push for more income equality, care about climate change, and the list goes on. If we’re not going to affect change as journalists for these 75 year old white men who are still in charge of everything, or, in charge of everything again, we should bear in mind the millions who might be seeing and watching quietly but without power — the next generations.
Before I know it my daughters will be eleven, my age when I wrote about my dreams of being a journalist on dot matrix printer paper. The lesson now that I’m in my mid-thirties and have had many iterations of a career is this:
You’ll never work at the Washington Post.
It’s that you can have a general idea of where you’re going and still never have any idea what your next immediate step is, and that’s awesome. My career has wound up being semi-informed winging-it, the whole way through. I wanted to make at least five politicians mad, but was never specific or directed about where I would work or even what platform of media I’d be working in. I never set foot in Korea before I agreed to move there.
Instead, what I think is useful is to be guided by principles. My tests are: Will this opportunity help me learn and grow in the ways I want? What is the team like — will I be surrounded by people who will teach me? And is this next thing meaningful in some way, and do I have some efficacy over it?
Those are my principles, and you should make YOURS clear and use that as a framework for decisions going forward. It makes decision points easier, I think. Be guided by principles and you can’t take a wrong step, you’ll do what’s right for you and your own journey.
Finally, I’ll say this. I will always remember the teachers, the field trips, snow days, the hilarious lunch periods and the 1992 election. I am making many new friends here at JAWS Camp; it’s a tremendous honor to be among you. You will always have a place in my heart, no matter if I despised you or you were my good friend.
“We’re just trying to get it done. You’re exhausted all the time. When people are like, ‘Are you going to be so sad when it’s over?,’ You’re like, ‘All I can concentrate on right now is the glass of wine that’s going to happen in about eight hours.’” –Matthew Rhys
What is it like in the maelstrom of the most unpredictable and chaotic global stories as it intersects with the most unpredictable and chaotic American presidencies? It’s what you expect: Sometimes thrilling, frequently exhausting, feels important. Last month, throngs of us covered history — the first summit between the US and North Korean leaders — and President Trump subsequently declared world peace. So I think my work out here is done.
Okay, so North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is the same as it was before, and maybe even expanding. But after three-plus years on the peninsula, it IS time to go home — we repatriate to the US this weekend.
After flying west to wind up in East Asia, which became the titular blog and sendoff song (song still holds up), now I’ll fly east to the West coast, specifically Los Angeles — a place full of Asians! LA boasts the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, so this soft re-entry point means my next pore-vacuuming facial will only be a short drive away.
Broadly the plan is to develop a new beat, continue to host my video adventures and fill-in host our radio programs from DC or Culver City (we have some deal to say Culver City and not LA). Ideally I want to guinea pig expressions of NPR on non-radio platforms — live events, smart speakers, you know, whatever we can experiment with, without breaking.
And A Partridge In A Pear Tree
Not twelve hours after I landed in Seoul to open NPR’s first ever Korea/Japan bureau in 2015, the US Ambassador to South Korea was knifed in the face by a North Korean sympathizer. My internet wasn’t even set up, so I started by filing spots by phone.
The pace never slowed down. Over these past three years, I birthed the bureau, two humans and our video series Elise Tries, a labor of love and experimentation. All the while, North Korea news was relentless.
Outside the Koreas, I shuttled back-and-forth to Japan 35 times, filed from nine Asian countries, one US territory and twice from Hawaii. Covered three presidential trips to Asia, the G7, the aforementioned Olympics, a few ASEANs, the now-defunct S&ED in Beijing, followed the 17-week candlelight revolution which brought down the South Korean president, the changeover to a liberal Korean leader, the ups-and-downs of Japan’s Prime Minister and peeled back a host of social issues and curiosities. The curiouser of the curiosities became grist for our bootstrapped Elise Tries vids, which somehow got seven million Facebook views in its first season and just won a Gracie Award.
The youngest, Luna, is walking and talking now, but her infanthood’s memorialized forever. Isa came here in my belly and now stands on street corners hailing her own cabs. Our oldest, Eva, arrived here as a goofy two-year-old and will leave a month shy of her sixth birthday — literate, and missing her bottom front teeth.
Eva somehow got into a badass Mandarin immersion kindergarten in Venice, and being fluent in a second language is something I’ve wanted to give her since she was born.
With Special Thanks…
Expat life is the kind of free-form existence that suits my Aquarian tendencies. And it’s a rare privilege these days to get to work overseas with the support of a large, well-funded news organization. But in addition to being a itinerant foreign correspondent, I’m also a partner and mom, and my spouse is ready to move on. A fairly woke feminist, he left his full time journalism job to join me on this adventure abroad. Women do this for men all the time, so neither he nor I think he deserves applause, but in the context of East Asia’s highly-gendered societies, Matty becoming a trailing spouse and the lead parent was radical. He — and our all around helper/housekeeper/nanny Yani — are the heroes of this Asia stint.
At Matty’s first PTA meeting at Eva’s international preschool, the PTA president learned he’d just left his job as a Wall Street Journal reporter.
“She said, oh, you’re a reporter, you can probably take good notes,” he recalled. And that is how he became PTA secretary for the 2016-2017 school year. He downgraded to room parent the next year, because while still lead-parenting, he filed prolifically for the Los Angeles Times.
We both covered the summit spectacle to end all summit spectacles, in Singapore. The whole fam had to go because news rules our lives. We came full circle from last August, when the Party of Five went to Guam because Kim Jong Un threatened the territory and Trump responded with threats of “fire and fury.”
Now “there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea,” if the President of the United States can be believed [clears throat].
Peace in the Far East. What better way to leave this beat?
Let’s face it, I am not really getting much better at speaking Korean, except when I’m drunk, when something magical happens and I just start full-on speaking Korean. Friend Alex witnessed this once and said it was rather disconcerting because before that, she had never once heard me utter a single phrase in Korean.
Despite my lack of progress, I still spend every Thursday afternoon with Lee Unkyung, the trusted private teacher to British, Australian and New Zealand diplomats, as well as a raft of foreign correspondents who have come through Seoul. I love Unkyung and count her among one of my closest Korean friends. She is the oldest of four daughters, so she knows what it’s like to deal with the sister dynamics she witnesses among my children each week. As my Korean has haltingly improved, our conversations about birth order and sister relationships have gotten (slightly) more nuanced.
She’s also a font of story ideas! Because we start each lesson with conversation practice, she ends up sharing interesting headlines or debates that are going on in Korean society that I often don’t know about yet. So helpful.
Today we talked about the standard Korean phrases that translate awkwardly into English, and vice versa. I often hear, “Have a good rest,” for example. Which seems odd as an English phrase. But she explained that 푹 쉬세요 (pook she-seh-yo) is something Koreans say to one another all the time.
This happens in the reverse when you translate the English phrase “What do you think” into Korean, because in Korean, you don’t say “WHAT do you think” but instead “HOW do you think?” So she says it’s a dead giveaway that you’re translating an original English question from your mind when a speaker says “WHAT do you think” in Korean.
My favorite common Korean phrase is 마음에 들어요 (ma-oom-eh duhlauyo), which is understood to mean “it pleases me.” But if you want to be real literal about it, the phrase can translate as “It fits my heart exactly.” And what could be more lovely than that?
I slept about three hours a night for a few nights so the recovery feels like a really bad hangover. Matty is in such poor shape that (egad!) I had to take care of ALL THREE GIRLS AT THE SAME TIME yesterday. But gosh, I loved Singapore. The food, the expertly planned out thoroughfares, the rooftops, the polyglots, the sunshine, the pools available everywhere … if I were a super-rich expat I would totally live there! I mean, are you kidding? The place is so great that it seems fake. That is, if you like having malls at every corner to get whatever you need and no hassles whatsoever, and you’re okay with trading your civil liberties for it.
I did get lost in one of Singapore’s ubiquitous underground malls one time and I feared I would never be above ground again, and the irony was I went to the mall to buy sunscreen.
While Trump’s big accomplishment at the summit was the reset of the US-North Korea relationship (and world peace, of course), I completed the US cable news network hat trick (CNN-Fox-MSNBC) inside of about 12 hours! Anderson Cooper was probably the biggest star I got to appear with, something I was reminded of when we were in commercial break waiting to go live from a second floor hotel balcony when passersby on the sidewalk yelled, “ANDERSON COOPER!” He says they don’t usually have any material besides that. On the day of the summit, my friend Josh Lederman and I coincidentally got booked on Bret Baier’s show together, but the greatest coincidence was that for my last booking of the day, an hour with MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson, Josh was ALSO my studio buddy. Josh and I became friends in Laos and then reunited in Hawaii. This time around we got to hang in Singapore on rival cable networks. Journalism breeds some random and memorable friendships.
Because both spouse and I had to cover the bejeezus out of the summit, and my parents are off on some Canadian adventure, we brought the children and helper Yani with us to Singapore. Eva’s bestie Jonah of the Wan-Yau’s lives in Singapore so the Wan-Yau’s helped entertain the girls the whole time. Almost positive we will never be able to repay them for their friendship.
Because I lack discipline and any real “life structure,” my email habits are rather capricious. I either respond RIGHT AWAY or I phantom respond. That is, I will BELIEVE I responded but what really happened was I wrote a response in my head but never actually committed it to something anyone could receive. BTW does everyone talk to themselves a lot? I feel like I talk to myself as much as John Nash as depicted by Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind, like when he was becoming full-on schizophrenic.
This morning a self-described tech industry exec wrote to say he mentioned me in his blog post, and was that okay? It turns out we had an email exchange back in 2014 when I was covering the tech and culture beat. The topic was the lack of diversity and women in computer engineering. (I had been writing a lot back then about the alarming gender and racial disparities in tech.) He had emailed me to say that the engineering team at his company was overwhelmingly white male but the problem was “nearly impossible” to change. I don’t remember what I wrote back but he did.
I know this because of the SHOCKINGLY FLATTERING post he wrote about it. I mean, seriously, I could not have made this up because if I were to make up a situation in which I helped someone out, I wouldn’t make is sound this nice because it wouldn’t be believable.
“I have not always been the greatest advocate for women, but I am learning. In 2014 a reporter from NPR, Elise Hu, had written a series about a lack of diversity in tech. At the same time I was actively hiring and trying to fill the role with women. That said, I had gotten resumes from something like 50 candidates and roughly 47 of them were white men. What was I supposed to do? How could this be my fault? How could I be accountable? I reached out to Elise and pointed this out to her, thinking it was definitive proof that myself and people like me were off the hook.
She wrote back in a little over an hour. She said many smart things, but asked me simply who had taught me to program? The answer was my uncle. She then carefully explained to me that white men were often teaching other white men to program and there in lies the problem. They were sparking interest in computers in young white men, and doing nothing to spark an interest in more diverse populations. The cause of the pipeline problem was outside of academics.
This resonated with me because it is my belief that while you can learn a lot about technology in academics, applying that knowledge successfully often requires direct one on one mentorship. The pipeline is our responsibility because we have the knowledge and even though we might not be academics we can still spend our time mentoring and sparking the interest in more diverse populations. The problem is not caused intentionally, but simply based on normative behavior and pre-existing relationships.
We are accountable. Until that moment, I thought the best thing I could do was simply stand out of the way and avoid being biased as much as possible. Essentially be passive. It was again a strong and intelligent woman who changed my thinking, and taught me that it is everyone’s responsibility to play an active role in change.”
First, GO STEPHEN!
Second, the lesson of this is that sometimes the exchanges with strangers who write you can seem really mundane and perfunctory. But if you can offer your time or thoughts, they could potentially make an impact or have quite a ripple effect.
“Nothing says ‘we value independent media’ like dozens of reporters forced to repeat the same message over and over again like members of a brainwashed cult.” -John Oliver
I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would not still be in journalism today had it not been for the mentors I met along the way. One of the most important was Marty Haag. He warned me about Sinclair 15 years ago.
Marty was a legend by the time I first heard his name, which was sometime in 2000 when I went to intern at WFAA, the ABC affiliate which Marty led as news director for more than a decade. He turned down numerous job offers to lead TV networks because he was committed to the Dallas-Fort Worth community, a fact we all only learned of after his death. He was an executive at the station’s parent company, Belo, when I was at WFAA. But because of his focus and exacting leadership, that station was known across the country as a powerhouse and representative of the highest values in journalism. Marty had clear vision, creativity, encouraged risk-taking and empowered his reporters. He is the kind of boss that all his employees wanted to make proud. It’s rare — I have been in the business for a long time now and I have only come across people like that two times since.
I came to know Marty only by chance. I was interning that summer of 2000 and his son, Andrew, decided to intern, too. Andrew and I became friends and together, we went with the WFAA team to the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia to do tasks such as picking up lunch and cutting tape and running scripts. I was headed off to college that fall (incidentally also Marty’s alma mater). During my senior year a few years later I asked Andrew if, when I came home for the holidays, whether I could meet Marty. He connected us and we all went to eat at their country club because that’s where people from Dallas eat lunch. (True story: When I was on the golf team in high school we were expected to just practice at our own country clubs because it was assumed that everyone had one to go to.)
From then on, Marty and I began one of the great email correspondences of my life. He was quick with the wisecracks and always generous with his advice and wisdom. We met up IRL around graduation to talk about my job hunt. He was retired by then, and teaching at SMU. I had harebrained ideas about maybe just packing up and moving to Nepal to make a documentary. He never seemed to shoot down ideas like that, always willing to imagine what was possible instead of what was not. My more “traditional” notion was to find a job in television news. This is the part of the conversation I remember vividly, and it shaped my trajectory.
Me: Should I just send resume tapes* everywhere throw everything up against a wall and see what sticks?
Him: No. Be targeted in your job hunt. Work for newsrooms with integrity because they will make you better. Don’t work at companies that don’t value journalism. I wouldn’t work at any Sinclair stations, because they only care about the bottom line.**
Marty then proceeded to write down on a Post-it, in pencil, the specific call letters of stations I should work at for my first job and their respective cities. One of them was KWTX-TV in Waco, where I wound up. When I wrote him telling him of my troubles at work (the kind of pedestrian problems the likes of a senior reporter being mean to me), he wrote, “Just keep your head down and work hard and let the work speak for itself.”
I still hear Marty’s voice as clear as day, in my head. It’s powerful how people’s voices really stick with you.
Epilogue, aka, this is no longer about Sinclair
Not more than three months after I started that job in Waco, Marty died suddenly of a stroke over Christmas/New Year’s break. I spent several days afterward at the Haag house with his sons and his beloved golden retrievers and a steady stream of loved ones who flowed in and out of that place. Marty is the first (and only) mentor I’ve had who died and while it cannot compare to what his sons and wife must have gone through, this loss hit me hard.
What I remember about those days at the Haag house was his younger son, Matthew, playing a lot of chess. And at some point when his brother was taking a long time to consider a move, Matthew, then just a teenager, recalled what his father often said to him. “Just make a decision and move forward,” Matthew said, recalling his dad’s advice. He was talking about chess but also about everything.
So many journalists-who-you-know were nurtured, shaped and guided by Marty: Scott Pelley, Russ Mitchell, Andrea Joyce, Leeza Gibbons, Paula Zahn, Verne Lundquist, Dale Hansen (who still talks about him in interviews), hundreds more. A few years after Marty’s death when I ran into Matthew at a bar, he introduced me to his girlfriend and told her, “This is my dad’s last protegé.” There was no one behind me, as Marty died when his son Andrew and I were both only 21.
Today Matthew is a reporter at The New York Times, Andrew is a producer at CNN, and two weeks ago I got to see Andrew in person when I was in New York. I’m sure Marty is so, so proud of them.
Most of the time I find it a huge privilege to do what we do but over the years I have often gotten down in the dumps and unmotivated and plainly just want to do something else. But I often think, what would Marty say, and I either keep my head down and work hard or just make a decision and move forward.
I have never worked at a Sinclair station.
*These were actual VHS tapes, kids
**Now we know Sinclair cares about not just the bottom line but also conservative orthodoxy. Trivia: Marty fired Bill O’Reilly for breaches in journalism ethics back when O’Reilly worked for him in the 1970s.