|CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT |
June 13, 1997
A RealAudio version of of this forum is available.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault answered the following questions:
What were the most challenging or rewarding interviews you've done in your career with the NewsHour?
What significant changes have you seen in broadcast journalism since you began your on-air career?
What advice would you give aspiring journalists?
What is the biggest mistake you've ever made and what did you learn from it?
What kinds of Africa projects do you have in the works? How has the coverage of Africa changed during your career?
Any parting thoughts for your viewers and those who wrote into this farewell forum?
A Sampling of Charlayne Hunter-Gault's memorable NewsHour segments.
November 19, 1996:
Newsmaker with President Jimmy Carter, on his book "Living Faith."
December 16, 1996:
Newsmaker interview with Kofi Annan, U.N. Secretary General
October 6, 1994:
Newsmaker interview with South African president, Nelson Mandela
July 30, 1996:
Newsmaker interview with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
July 24, 1996:
Newsmaker interview with South Africa's Deputy President
December 24, 1996
Troubled Heart of Africa: a 3-part series on the historic roots of the multiple crises in Rwanda, Zaire, and Burundi.
October 3 & 4, 1985
Apartheid's People: a special series on the plight of South Africans.
Browse the NewsHour's Africa Index
National Correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault will be leaving The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on June 13, 1997, after a distinguished 20 year career. Charlayne will be moving to South Africa to take on new a journalistic challenge: heading up National Public Radio's Africa bureau in Johannesburg. Charlayne's husband, Ron Gault, transferred to Johannesburg in 1996 to become managing director of the investment banking firm, J. P. Morgan, S. A.
The NewsHour is very sad to see her go, but it does give us a chance to review some of Charlayne's award-winning and ground-breaking journalism. Browse through some of her career highpoints: the 1985 special series, Apartheid's People, and interviews with Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter.
"We are all saddened by Charlayne's decision but we also fully understand the personal considerations driving it," said Jim Lehrer. "She's a valuable and much loved member of The NewsHour family and she always will be."
Charlayne Hunter-Gault joined the then MacNeil/Lehrer Report in 1977. Her assignments have included substitute anchoring and field reporting from various parts of the world. During her association with the broadcast, she has been recognized with numerous awards, including two Emmy Awards as well as a Peabody Award for excellence in broadcast journalism for her work on Apartheid's People, a NewsHour series about life in South Africa.
In addition, she has received the 1986 Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists, the 1990 Sidney Hillman Award, the Good Housekeeping Broadcast Personality of the Year Award, the American Women in Radio and Television Award and two awards from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for excellence in local programming.
Charlayne began her career in journalism in 1963 as a reporter for The New Yorker magazine. In 1967, she joined the investigative news team at WRC-TV, Washington, D.C., where she also anchored the local evening news.
In 1968, Charlayne joined The New York Times as a metropolitan reporter specializing in coverage of the urban black community. Her work was honored with numerous awards during her ten years with The Times, including the National Urban Coalition Award for Distinguished Urban Reporting.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is the author of "In My Place," a personal memoir of her role in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to her work for The New Yorker and The New York Times, Charlayne has published articles in The New York Times Magazine, Saturday Review, The New York Times Book Review, Essence and Vogue.
ONLINE NEWSHOUR: What were the most challenging or rewarding interviews you've done in your career with the NewsHour?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's really hard to single out any one because one way or another they're all challenging because you have to get the most out of any individual that you're interviewing on behalf of the audience. And they probably fall in different categories.
I would say certainly one of the most exciting was interviewing Nelson Mandela just, you know, probably 78 hours after--or certainly not long after that--after he had gotten out of prison. And I guess part of it was who he is, the aura of someone who still believes in something that he was willing to give up, I mean, something that was right.
He was willing to give up 27 years of his life, the fact that the world was riveted by South Africa and him at that moment because even his enemies admired him, or people who didn't necessarily admire him were still fascinated by someone who had this much moral timber. And the challenging part of it was he had been imprisoned for 27 years. And although he wasn't like in solitary confinement--the day before he left he'd been living not totally uncomfortably in a transitional arrangement--here was a man who essentially had been removed from society for 27 years.
So all of that was exciting, and to try and get him to share some of that experience--although I had been warned by the son of one of the men who was in prison for him, Walter Sisulu's son, Zamiaceae Sisulu, that those men belonged to a certain culture, prison culture, and they didn't share much with people outside of their own circle. But we made a breakthrough, and happily, I have had a number of interviews with him subsequently. And each time I see him revealing a little bit more and opening up a little bit more.
I certainly think that one of the interviews that stands out in my mind and also in the minds of many viewers who are writing after all these years was when I was in Somalia, and I interviewed a nurse from the Irish NGO, that's non-governmental organization, called CONCERN, and I was interviewing her in a small, cramped, almost airless shelter, where they had taken in extremely sick children. And we were talking about the chances of survival of some of them, which were very slim.
And I remember just right in the middle of it, we were standing above a young boy, who had already lost one leg and was--was terminal. And he was looking up at us, and we were discussing his case like it was how were we going to buy a bag of sweet potatoes, and I mean, not dispassionately but still there he was, and we were talking about whether he was going to live or die, and probably he was going to die.
And I almost broke up at that moment. And I said, I apologize. I said, "You know, I feel so intrusive. Do you feel that we're intruding?" meaning we, in the media, and she said, "Well, it could get that way, but right now the world needs to know what's happening."
And I think that--like the interview I had with another woman who had been beaten by the state security police in South Africa, a township called Quatama--I'd never come that close to evil in the flesh, or the aftermath. Those were things that are kind of feared in my soul.
The interview with Hafez Al-Assad was a challenge, as well as a coup, because he doesn't give many interviews. But there are other memorable ones, memorable for their poetry. I loved interviewing Shimon Peres because of the way he talks. You know, once I start down this road, that's why I say it's very difficult to say because Madeleine Albright, I mean, another good interview. There are just so many people. You know, journalists go into every interview, I think, or we do--I do--with a great expectation and with a lot of preparation. And your adrenalin starts to flow, even if it's a subject that you couldn't have in your wildest dreams imagined getting excited about.
ONLINE NEWSHOUR: What significant changes have you seen in broadcast journalism since you began your on-air career?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Fortunately, the NewsHour has remained consistent in its commitment to in-depth, balanced reporting. And while it has expanded in its interest and in its reach and in the things that we explore, it's remained committed to serious news--we all joke--even at the risk of being dull.
But, you know, I think we've also managed to liven up a lot of issues that might otherwise be not heard. I cannot say that for the rest of the media. I mean, I think that of course while there are news organizations and individual news gatherers who do superb jobs, there are very few, including the owners--not owners--I haven't talked to that many owners, but certainly the gatekeepers, those who make decisions, who either are not--who are either concerned about the direction away from various substantive news, or who lament it, even as they go in that other direction.
I think that the end of the Cold War has given everybody--has put everybody into an uncertain place. And you see that reflected throughout the society. You see it in government. You see it in every area of society, including even and especially maybe media, because media--not necessarily in a negative way--but media follows or certainly parallels often the government agenda because of the way we cover government and policy.
You know, sometimes it can be critical but certainly when the President speaks, everybody listens and everybody quotes. You know, one might play it one way; and one might play it another way, but--and when new policy is made to a greater or lesser degree, we cover that. Now, as government struggles with its role, elected officials struggle with their roles, the media struggles with its role, civil society struggles with its role, every institution, not just in America but in the world, is questioning its existence, its future, what it's going to do in the future, about the future. But since no one has yet a clear vision of that future, there's all this fuzziness about what we do and how we do it.
So that's the big--and it's a sea change. It's a seismic change. It hasn't gotten to where it's going because it's in a transitional period. So we don't know if it's going to end up news light or, you know, news heavy, or news entertainment, or no news. What is news? That's even a question that the serious journalists are debating today.
Is it news to be used in the sense of a "how to," or is it news to be used in the sense that the NewsHour has always looked at it, in that it is news that individual members of the society can look at to help them make decisions about things that are important in their lives, not, you know, where you buy--where you get the best bargain on Borax or Alka-seltzer or, you know, fax paper, but news that helps you assess and evaluate policies that are going to have an impact on your life.
We don't know where it's going to end, but, you know, I think that fortunately there are still a few journalists around who have the capacity and the power to stay on the serious track. And, you know, the NewsHour's serious doesn't always mean just policy. I mean, we've had a great opportunity this past year to look at the arts in a serious way that, you know, was delightful; to look at archeological discoveries.
One of our favorites is when this young man from the Smithsonian, I think it is, comes in with his skulls and bones. And that's a lot of fun, but it's also serious. And, you know, we've looked at just a wide range of things that--I mean, when people think of us, I think they think if policy people, people who analyze ad nauseam policies. And that's true sometimes. But we've broadened out to include, as I said, the arts and all kinds of things.
ONLINE NEWSHOUR: What advice would you give aspiring young journalists?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It's a hard time because if you tell them they have to pursue a road that's going to--you know--the same road that I pursued and that my colleagues who are of my generation pursued, you might be setting them up for a hard fall because there may not be a place for them.
On the other hand, I think it's our responsibility to try and instill in the younger generation of journalists a sense of what was important about what we thought we did and how we did it and how while it might begin to be seeming passe, it's not necessarily. And the one thing that gives me self-confidence to say that without fear that we're condemning some young person to abbacy--I think that's the right word--or condemning them to, you know, just forever be, you know, like Sythicus, pushing that ball up--the rock up the hill--is that yesterday I was a part of the Livingston Awards for young journalists, or journalists under 35. And we had some extraordinary winners out of some extraordinary competition, which is to say--and most of the--the strongest entries were print.
And everybody thinks that print is passe, but these young people, who are doing this work, serious work on the disappearance of, you know, fisheries on the East Coast and the impact of that on the economy of these East Coast towns, and which has a ripple effect throughout society, regardless of the demographics, or how the United States--since it is now the only superpower--has become the largest arms dealer in the world, and that the profits are not going to help the people but to help the corporations--these are young--one was on pawnshops and, you know, how pawnshops in Florida--at least this particular area--were actually encouraging thievery, in a sense, because they were--you know, they don't--as a rule, they don't question where people get these, even if they come in four or five times a day with a stereo that they can't identify where they got it from.
So, I mean, I'm encouraged that there are serious journalists my age who are trying to go against the tide. There are young people who are committed to serious journalism. What we just have to hope is that there are places for the work that they do, and that they will have the guts, the grit, the determination, the will, whatever, to pursue it.
Now, just on a practical matter, I mean, I think that it's fundamental that they understand the history of the world, and so that they can begin to put things in context, because the younger generation, if there's any shortcoming I see in far too many of them, is that they don't understand or know about anything that happened over--actually the time span is getting shorter--five years ago--try five--I started with ten. Got to go into history; got to understand economics because we're now--despite the isolationist tendencies in the--that run through the strain of American identity--we're a global world.
And they've got to understand the impact of that on global economies, national economies, and on their own pocketbook. They've got to be able--given the amalgamation of cultures now here and everywhere else, because of this--in the United States it's not just communication; it's the fact that they're here from all over the world living in communities, having businesses, doing business, creating schools, contributing to the culture.
But also, because of this new communication--although the lingua franca of the global world might be--and in all probability will be English--you're still going to have societies where to fully understand what is going on, interpret what is going on now. You're going to have to go there, and it always helps to know the language. I think Americans are among the most parochial in the world when it comes to language study and study of other cultures, and eating other cuisines.
I mean, Americans go to Paris and try to find, you know, Kentucky Fried chicken, let alone some more exotic place. But we have to open up as a world--the country to the world--which means being able to appreciate difference to a greater degree than we have, given even our own polyglot. It's getting bigger.
So that young people, who I think are open more to these diverse cultures, need to prepare by learning one. And, you know, if they start early enough, you have a facility with language early. It's not like me. I'm just learning French, and I have a minimum facility. I probably would be so much better if I had started earlier. It'd be like breathing, you know. And while I'm not self-conscious, I think that's what gets in the way of adults learning a language. They are too self-conscious to try to pronounce it correctly, you know.
So, you know, that's--and get as much experience as possible while they're preparing. I'm still not a great promoter of schools of communication as the first level of training. I still am in favor of a good, strong liberal arts background because I think that's where you get the history, the economics, the language, the culture, and then begin to--certainly if you're going to enter a school of communication, you certainly want to make sure that your liberal arts pallet is ample before you go into some of these other courses, many of which I think they're getting more and more sophisticated, but I think that a lot of what you learn in journalism school or schools of communication you can get in the summer on the job.
What you should use those for are--like at Columbia's graduate school of journalism, you know, concentrates more on the technical aspects, giving them practical experience. But you can't be the practical experience; if you get internships or you get to be a desk assistance or intern or something like that early on, that's very useful; try a variety of mediums, you know.
ONLINE NEWSHOUR: What's the biggest mistake you've ever made, and what did you learn from it?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I don't know. I can't--you know, I'm sure that I've made some I think I dwell too long on the bad question I ask, or the question I didn't ask, but to say what the biggest mistake I ever made--I can't--far from perfect, I truly am, but maybe there were just so many that I can't--I can't think of them.
I'll think about that a little bit more and return to it if something really glaring stands out. But if you work in this business, you're going to make mistakes. And the thing to do is to try to learn from them and to try and be able to assess what is--I think that's the biggest thing, to try to learn from the mistakes, and have somebody that you can talk with that you trust, that you feel confident about, because sometimes you can be really hard on yourself, and too hard on yourself, and that's counterproductive.
So it's always good to have a colleague or a mentor that you can go to and say I did X, Y, and Z, and you don't know how relieved you can be to hear your mentor say, been there, done that, don't worry about it, you'll get over it.
ONLINE NEWSHOUR: What kind of Africa projects do you have in the works, and do you have any parting thoughts for your viewers and those who wrote into our Farewell Forum?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You know, Africa is a very large continent. And while I will be based in South Africa, I hope to be going around the continent at various special times, looking at other parts of it. I mean, my major concentration will probably be South Africa and the region. But there are other parts of Africa where I think trying to put the country--countries into some kind of perspective, both in the context of Africa, itself, but also for Americans--since my audience will be primarily American--to try to cover stories in a way to help them relate to what's going on--if not relate in terms of, oh, yeah, I've been there, at least to relate to the situation in its--in a contextual way. It's sort of like the things I've been doing for the NewsHour, for example, when we did the three-part series on Central Africa.
I mean, I know from my travels and what people ask me and how they respond to coverage of all kinds, but Africa, since you asked the question about Africa, is--there is a basic lack of information about the continent and, therefore, ignorance. And so when we do something at the NewsHour, we always try--and this doesn't go just for Africa but for Singapore or Brazil or any other place that we don't cover like we cover the Hill--we try to give a little historical background about the place.
And so that's partly what I want to do--what I did with the three-part series on Central Africa--Zaire--now Congo--Rwanda, and Burundi--how they got to where they are and the forces that contributed to that and the forces that could be helpful in getting them out of that, but also to--to try and, you know, counter some of the Afro pessimism, to cover Africa in a little more realistic context, because there are many countries in Africa now that are doing very well with democracy: Botswana, Mali Malawi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana. I mean, they still have their problems to be sure, but so does America after 200 years of an experiment.
So to try and--just as you describe a country like Sierra Leone and say it's about the size of South Carolina--to be aware that your audience is primarily American, primarily knows little about the place, and so they have some markers, some references that might help them understand a little bit better, and then, you know, there are a lot of Americans now going to Africa to be able to look and see what they're doing and why they're doing it. I think that's another way of doing it.
I was talking to someone earlier today about my own approach to journalism, and it has been informed by all of my experiences, which I think is one of the great arguments for diversity in the media.
Everybody has a different kind of experience that they bring to the table and sees things--everybody sees things through the prism of their own experience, even if they attempt to be objective and fair and balanced. And the prism of my experience is out of the American South, as a black person who grew up under a certain kind of system; lived through and was involved in the change of that system to reflect a more dignified approach to humanity, and certainly a more egalitarian one. So that my instincts are always in the direction of those sort of eternal values like justice and freedom and human dignity and human rights. And I am informed by that, about that by who I am and where I come from.
And so I will be looking for--when I wrote my book--I mean, when I go out on the road to talk about my book, whether it's the black audiences, or white audiences, or mixed audiences, when I talk about the values of my own childhood that were those things I just mentioned that were--that I think are transcendent of generations, of ages, of classes, of colors, and they are timeless, and they are--they are inclusive of all kinds of people--I think about Africa, which was covered many years ago the same way Harlem was covered.
And I went--you know--as some kind of aberrational or exotic place. And I went there from the New York Times as its--the chief of its Harlem bureau. I began to cover Harlem like every other community was covered, not through rose-colored glasses, but certainly not just in terms of its aberrant or exotic behavior. And to look at that--through the prism of that, sometimes you'll have to--you'll come up with stories that don't reflect well, or that are, you know, by some estimates negative.
But you will also come away with those stories of struggle to make a better society, the struggle of new leadership to try and deal in a different way. But you're also challenged by the cultural thing which sometimes people see it differently. People see things through the prism of their own culture, like democracy.
Is it going to mean ipso facto the same thing that it means in the West, and how should the West respond, when an African leader says, yes, we believe in the sanctity of the human--of every individual, and this is how we're going to do it differently from you, is the West going to be open to that, and the same thing--the same way is if they continue, some of those societies, to be repressive and authoritarian, how is the West going to deal with that, because we don't have the same kind of leverage that we've had in the past, which was leverage based on a phony--on a--well, I wouldn't say phony because it was real, but it was not a valuable factor. It was, you know, Cold War politics, pure and simple.
So now, you know, we don't quite know--I mean, we talk about democracy being the common denominator, but--and human rights--but is it really? So, you know, I go with a great deal of optimism that my past work will inform my future work.
And I hope that the viewers of the NewsHour will follow whether I'm appearing on the NewsHour or some other place, and I also would like to take this as an opportunity to thank the viewers of the NewsHour for all of their support over the years.
I'm going to do this also on Friday. But they have been crucial to whatever performance I've turned in at the NewsHour because they've been engaged; they've been constructively critical; they've been just a real inspiration when they have responded. You know, it takes time to sit down and write a letter or E-mail, you know, to make a phone call, and over the years, I can always count on our audience to respond to something that they feel strongly about.
And for the most part, they've been wonderful in the way--even that they criticize. And so--but I don't feel that I'm leaving them. I feel that I'm just moving to another place that they will go with me to.
A SELECTION OF
A letter from Ralph Miller of Medford Lakes, NJ:
Charlayne has been a standout interviewer and reporter for the NewsHour. I particularly have appreciated her direct and forthright approach in the face of evasive and political persons she interviews. More than just a "role model," Mrs. Hunter-Gault is an inspiration to all of us in these confusing and turbulent times.
A letter from Carol Schmidt of Bethesda, MD:
You are a credit to the profession of journalism. We have always enjoyed your segments as those of a caring professional. You are good at what you do, yet you seem always to care about the people with whom you hold your discussions.
Good luck in South Africa, a most remarkable country that will benefit from your presence. We hope you learn as much from the people there as you educate them.
We look forward to seeing your work periodically. Don't be a stranger.
A letter from Blanche Brick of College Station, TX:
Thanks for the good, balanced reports you have done on so many sensitive subjects, especially on racial issues. I have always appreciated the fact that you did not back away from difficult questions and obvious dilemmas. I hope you will do some reports on racial issues in South Africa, perhaps comparing it with the 1950s in the U.S. and the end of segregation here.
A letter from Charles E. Cockelreas of Salem, OR:
A few words here are inadequate to express my thanks for all the years of insightful and thoughtful news coverage you have given us. From the very beginning, I've had this sense of total trust in your integrity. I think the people you've interviewed must have felt it too because they've been consistently open and illuminating in what they've had to say in response to your questions.
Thank you so much for all the dedication you've given to the art and craft of journalism. It's what we've come to expect from the NewsHour. You'll be missed-- and remembered. Best of luck in your new life.
A letter from Peter Copeland of Penn Valley, CA:
Thanks for the great job on TV. It's nice to watch a professional reporter each night and not a reader. I'm sure The Capitol is heaving a collective sigh of relief that you will not be hitting them with those tough questions!
Along with your new hair-do, you're a 10.
A letter from Rayner Colton of Brooklyn, NY:
You are a very fine interviewer, and I am sad to see you leaving the NewsHour. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and I hope there is a lot of news from South Africa so there may be many reports from you.
We met for a moment when you gave a lecture at St. Ann's Church on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights some time ago. For me it was a memorable moment.
A letter from Su Wilson of Rohnert Park, CA:
I have enjoyed Charlayne's NewsHour presence for a long time and found the book about her experiences growing up in the Civil Rights Movement incredibly impressive and moving. An unforgettable interview was the first with Nelson Mandela. It reflected one of my favorite things about Charlayne: her ability to maintain journalistic fairness and objectivity while at the same time revealing just enough spontaneous feeling that you can share in her obvious enthusiasm. It's a rare combination.
My hope is that NewsHour will take advantage of her presence in this vibrant part of the world by establishing an on-going connection. The opportunity to observe that continent from a new perspective through eyes we already know and trust is not to be missed!
A letter from Michael Loecherbach of Elmhurst, IL:
Best of luck for Charlayne Hunter-Gault. I always enjoyed her interviews and her competent comments on all kinds of international issues.
As a German living in the U.S., I searched for a good news show and found it in the NewsHour.
A letter from Sonnie G. Cuffey of Suffolk, VA :
You added a special touch to PBS news, especially those issues that touched upon African-American issues.
Good luck in SA.
A letter from Doug Robertson of Vancouver, BC:
I always enjoyed your interviews which gave both sides of the coin. Will miss you and my prayers are with you.
A letter from Maida Bartels of Los Angeles, CA:
Many of us remember you from your brave actions in integration, and have followed with marvel and adoration your outstanding career in journalism.
You will surely be remembered as a pioneer, both as a role model for women and for blacks.
We anticipate many more contributions from your new home in Africa.
A letter from Chris Norris of Muscat, Sultanate of Oman:
I graduated from college in 1977, the year Charlayne joined PBS. I never thought of her as a civil rights leader, or even a black woman. She is just a great TV journalist.
Best wishes in South Africa!