Interview with Eileen O’Connor
Washington, D.C. 2006
Luke Sanders-Self: What inspired you to become a reporter?
Eileen O’Connor: What inspired me to become a reporter? You know, what inspired me to become a reporter really is my uncle Neil, who was wounded in D Day. D Day +4. He was on the beaches in Normandy, and he was a machine gunner. He was 18, you know, your age, I guess. In fact, they graduated him early from high school in order for a group of young men to get ready for D Day, so they graduated them like six months earlier, put them through basic training and shipped them right out. So all of the people in his company, he was sort of down the totem pole being so young, so he was supposed to be just feeding the bullets, and he ended up – as each of his colleagues was killed – he ended up going up the chain and eventually he had the gun and he was shot too, and so he was paralyzed originally from the neck down, but then from the waist down.
And still he came home and the army sort of came to him in the hospital and said, “So what would you like to do for the rest of your life? You have a choice: shoe repair or flower arranging? We’re going to teach you,” because he was now handicapped. What was he going to do? Nobody assumed that he could go to college, because there wasn’t any disabilities act so it was going to be pretty hard for him to get around and things. So he said, “You know, I think flowers smell a lot better than shoes, so I’m going to go for that.”
And he actually really did put his mind to it and he became the most successful florist in Cleveland where I grew up, but when I would go and visit him – he ended up having an apartment in my grandparent’s house – he’s still alive. He may be the oldest living paraplegic from World War II, because there are a lot of medical conditions when you’re sitting for all these years. He goes through a lot every single day, but he still tries to get up and get out and drive himself around, and he still reads voraciously. And that’s what inspired me.
He, in Cleveland, would get the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and all these newspapers that in Cleveland – and there were two papers in Cleveland, the Plain Dealer and the Cleveland Press – and he would just always read them and he was always up on current affairs. He worked; he had his own business, so he worked very hard too. But yet he would always be talking about current affairs. And my father too, and my father and my parents also insisted that we watch the news every single night after dinner. That was a ritual in our house; Walter Cronkite. And this was a ritual in a lot of people’s houses actually in those days. There wasn’t an internet and people really read the newspaper; that’s where you got information.
So just listening constantly to people debating ideas and things, and then when Watergate occurred I was about… I guess 12, 13… and my uncle gave me a book, a transcript of the tapes, and Dean’s book about Watergate, and I just read them voraciously, even though I was 12 I was reading the Watergate tapes. But it just inspired me. And my uncle, when we came back from the war was when Joseph McCarthy was railing against communists, and this was a person who fought – you know, my uncle got wounded fighting fascism, you would think he might be supportive of McCarthy. But in fact he said “I didn’t fight for the freedom of this country to have someone come along and abridge people’s right to free speech like Senator McCarthy.” So he was very anti the whole communist scare in the 50’s, where a lot of people were afraid to speak out their own political beliefs. So he was always a big proponent of freedom of speech.
So he was the person I think – and Watergate as well – you know, Woodward and Bernstein and the whole idea that reporters could uncover something that was really a danger to our democracy really, in a way our freedoms. I think that’s what inspired me.
John-Nuri Vissell: Hi, I’m John. We’ve been reading about you’re already extraordinary career as a journalist, and I was just wondering what motivated you to leave such an area of study and go to law school?
Eileen O’Connor: This is the question that everybody, all the lawyers here actually are saying, “You did what? You quit my dream job to come here?” But it’s really funny. I ended up covering the fall of Communism and covering some amazing stories; covered the White House. But I also saw a lot of changes in the news business and there was one thing… There’s two different reasons I think I did this; number one was that I was feeling a little disillusioned with the way that the news business is going. A lot of big huge corporations are taking over. When I started at ABC, the news part of the ABC was, as Roone Arledge used to say, “The jewel in the crown.” It was a public service; it was something that informed people; it was part of the political debate; it was the fourth estate; it was that arm of the people that’s a check and balance on the power of government. It informs you as a voter.
But when a lot of corporations started taking over, the public interest aspect of journalism, that profession as journalism, it became more of a business and people started to realize they could make money with news. In fact actually, they realized it was CNN. Because Ted Turner was able to cut costs; they had talking heads, just these talk shows, and it was cheap to produce. Although Ted Turner did in fact cover more of the world than the networks had, but the networks were getting squeezed. These bureaus cost money, there was more cable outlets, people were tuning out, advertisers weren’t getting as much advertising dollars, and in addition, they were being taken over by these big corporate interests who were looking more at the bottom line, and not at the public service aspect of news. And they were thinking, “Gee, we could make money on this.”
So I think the problem is – for me – then it started to be that there was less… I would see, for instance during Monica Lewinski, tobacco legislation died in this country. I mean, you have the results of the tobacco lawsuits, but there was really going to be legislation regulating the sale of tobacco and that was going to have impact on other sort of potentially dangerous products down the road. And unfortunately, special interests on both sides of that legislation really killed it. And as a reporter, I’d done a lot of digging and had some really good information, and I went to my editors and they said, “No, no, no, you have to do Monica Lewinski. Just keep following.”
We had eight stories on Monica Lewinski that day, and it just felt like… I said, “We can’t in 24 hours of news find two minutes to cover what is one of the most seminal pieces of legislation to come down the pike in decades?” No, because the people want to see Monica Lewinski. So that sort of stuff started disillusioning me about the profession as a profession as part of the political day, and I think that journalists serve a very important role. And I think in fact you’ve seen – to the country’s detriment – political debate decline in the last few years, and potentially we might have gone… People were not informed perhaps – and journalists feel guilty about this – about the real reasons we went to war in Iraq. And there’s still a lot of journalists who really – From the New York Times…
I just had a lunch with the editor of the International Herald Tribune in London about a week and a half ago, and she spent the entire lunch telling me how guilty they feel about not adequately covering. How people got snowed. And we started thinking about how did that happen? Because I was still covering post 9/11 things and I remember people that were close to the president talking about the connections to Iraq, and I was saying, “You’re not going to go into Iraq, are you?” And now I’m thinking what should I have done? How should I have dug here? How should I have dug there?
So I think that was part of the reason that I left, and then the other part was the reason that inspired me to go to law school, was that having covered Communism and having covered places where human rights were abrogated like in Chechnya and covered places where the rule of law does not exist, I realized how really critically important the rule of law is to guarantee people’s freedoms. So it just fascinated me to the extent that I really wanted to study the law and to study our constitution and to study how we, as a society, are so good about having… how the rule of law has protected people throughout our history. And when you think about desegregation, there’s a lot of people who argue that if it wasn’t for the courts and Brown vs. the Board of Education, you wouldn’t have desegregation. There’s other people who argue actually that it was the courts who in fact were just echoing the sentiment of the public. In fact, I saw an article the other day talking about Roe v Wade. You know, what’s going to happen with Roe v. Wade, and people were saying ultimately the courts generally end up kind of reflecting more accurately public opinion, and so there might be some middle row what will happen; it won’t be completely overturned, but it could be for late-term abortions and they’ll be somehow regulated and early, but in the middle there will be a bar – there will be a bar on later term abortions, but the earlier ones will be regulated in some way, which as actually kind of an original interpretation of Roe.
So it’s kind of interesting when you look at the rule of law and you look at the role of the courts and the legal system in the United States. So I guess that’s why. And I also really wanted to study international human rights law, because in my job as a journalist, I covered a lot of war zones and I literally stood at the edge of mass graves, and I really saw what people can do to other people. And so it really interested me as a way of how could the law protect people’s human rights, so I took a lot of international human rights law as well.
John-Nuri Vissell: Thank you.
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah. In fact, I’m actually representing two… I’m going to be on a team – I am on a team, I just started on this case – two detainees at Guantanamo from Yemen. So it’s not so exciting because you don’t get so much face time on TV, but in some ways, I bet that the spirit of why I became a journalist sort of… kind of being… it sounds very, sort of immodest, but… Being a part of a profession that was a check and balance on government power and a way to guarantee our freedoms and our democracy. When I kind of felt like we weren’t doing that anymore as a journalist, I tried to go to a profession – jokes about lawyers aside – that I felt would accomplish that.
Jonji Barber: Well, you did talk about this a little bit, and you just… Is there anything that you’re doing now as a lawyer that you relate to your work as a journalist?
Sadanand Mailliard: And don’t forget the Vital Voices part.
Jonji Barber: Oh. And your interest in the work of Vital Voices?
Eileen O’Connor: Well, I’m interested in Vital Voices because I’ve always been. I think that Vital Voices and non-governmental organizations like – I mean, I just actually left as the president of another NGO, called the International Center for Journalists, where ICFJ trains journalists in emerging democracies about the importance of a free press; how to develop a free press, how to sell ads, how to not be dependent on a rich businessman who might censor you because of their business interests, or for a government who is going to censor you politically, and they can sell their own ads and be responsible to the people, which is where they should be. And I think it’s the same thing with Vital Voices, is its very satisfying to help people in other countries overcome the obstacles that they have in forming a really great civil society, which is so important to have a democracy. You have to be able to involve all of the electorate – and women, particularly – and so to enable these women to network, form groups, merge together so that they’re not just a bunch of single voices but they’re sort of a very powerful force in their countries and can really have a voice in governing or a voice in pushing forward issues like domestic violence or education. Helping them develop strategic organizational visions.
So all the things that they need to do in order to get their voices heard I think is just really important to me because I feel like it’s almost the same thing; journalism as a profession is an important part of civil society, keeping the electorate informed and NGOs and the work that these woman ministers do are important to, and part of civil society and establishing – in most of these places just establishing a democracy or a self-governing society; it doesn’t have to be a democracy, it can be a different kind of government. But that’s why I’m really interested in those things.
And it’s funny, because Vital Voices also speaks to me for a different reason, and that is because when I was in all these war zones, the people who get really left behind to deal with the shit are the women. And they are the ones that really keep society going in these places. They’re the ones who end up when it’s too bad to stay, shifting their entire populations to refugee camps and making it work and getting their kids an education, even if they have to school them in these little tents in a refugee camp. And I’ve watched them do it; trudging miles for water that they’re carrying on bars with buckets across their back. When I’m sitting in a traffic jam and people are screaming at each other, I’m thinking – in an air-conditioned car, yelling because they’re five minutes late for their massage appointment – I just have no sympathy, because I just think about these people who really are so courageous and so amazing that every day they get up and just work so hard for their family, and a lot of them are women. And they’re really, really inspiring. I think that’s the reason I’m interested in vital voices.
But there was some other part of your question…
Jonji Barber: It was just about being a lawyer now.
Eileen O’Connor: Oh, cases now.
Guantanamo is one – ironically actually, the first case. One of the epiphany moments for me in sort of deciding I really needed to maybe get out of journalism was – I was also with those kinds of things, the tobacco legislation – but I was also during the summer before I applied to law school, I guess it was summer 2001. And it was an important story, it was a missing person and everything, but we were doing it ad nauseum. Chandra Levy, there was a missing intern?
So I was down in Rock Creek Park in the woods, live on TV, looking through the bushes with the police and saying, “We haven’t found her.” I mean, they did actually tragically find her body down there, but it was just kind of… we weren’t doing any other news for people. We were 24/7 on one story, and I think that was also part of the – for me – it was kind of like, “I can’t really just keep doing this. It’s just the same thing again and again, and it’s ethically bothering me.”
So ironically though, when I first started after I got my law degree I was working at Patton Boggs law firm as a non-lawyer, but when I started working here at Orrick as a lawyer, ironically one of my first cases was defending Royal Caribbean in a missing person’s case. So I felt like, “Oh, I’ve come full circle.” And actually I was on television doing it as the defense attorney, but it was a story that had captured the imagination of people…
Sadanand Mailliard: Do you guys know the story?
Sadanand Mailliard: The missing husband/groom? All over the media.
Eileen O’Connor: There was on all these shows like Rita Cosby, all these cable shows, talk shows, Nancy Grace, they were doing the story a lot. It was a husband and wife went on a honeymoon; ended up drinking with some other people. Don’t know what happened. His wife was sick outside in another corridor, she got kind of lost, and no one really knows; there’s a half an hour of time where he was… apparently we don’t know; could have been alone, could have been with somebody, don’t know. But it looks like he went over the balcony, so we don’t know, but he’s missing, so he’s presumed dead.
So it’s very tragic, but there was people accusing the cruise line of not investigating properly when in fact they had called the police, they had done everything. In fact, they had gone above and beyond what their usual procedures were. So that’s what we were getting those facts out in defending them, because there were some attorneys saying they were going to sue the cruise line for cover-up. Criminal cover-up. So it was a complicated case.
But I think really in answer to your question, I think I like being an attorney. I’m working on some cases in Moscow, and I like being able to argue that the law matters. Actually, I have some reporters in Moscow who keep saying to me, “Okay, everybody knows that Russian businessmen steal, or they’re corrupt,” or they’re this or they’re that, and I said, “yeah, but this is a company that’s listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Shouldn’t your grandmother know? Should the Wall Street Journal? You still have a duty to report.” Just because you think that “oh, everybody knows it,” or “oh, who cares,” it’s somebody’s money that they’re stealing. And it’s against the law! And that should be important enough to matter. It’s against the law – it’s again Russian law, too. It doesn’t necessarily get enforced… but anyway.
But you know, actually, the Russian legal system is getting better and better. And actually, what a lot of people are saying: “why are you even in court in Russia? Why are you even bothering?” And we’re saying, “You know what? Unless you bother, it’s never going to get to be good.” We have to have faith in the system. Somebody has got to start having faith in these courts, or they’re never going to be any good. So that kind of makes me happy to be an attorney. Especially at a place like Moscow where it’s still an emerging judicial system; it makes it really interesting.
Andrea Schmitt: I’m Andrea.
Eileen O’Connor: Nice to meet you.
Andrea Schmitt: Nice to meet you. I was wondering, when you are teaching journalists, how does your training vary between different countries?
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah. Now that’s a good question. I think that you have to understand… You try not to tell people to pull their punches, really. But ultimately, in order for them to publish, there is going to be – in some places where they don’t have the protection of the law; like they have what’s called criminal libel laws, which make it a crime for you as a reporter even to say, accuse me as an official, even if you have the facts on your side of wrongdoing. I can sue you for criminal libel. Now, that’s very unfair and it’s a way to stifle the press, but that is a reality in many, many, many countries.
So I think what we try to do is look at the laws in each country as well. What rights do those journalists have? And many times, we actually bring them together with lawyers and they have them explain the laws and what they can do to try to be able to fully report – or as fully as possible – still somewhat stay within the law. But if they are violating the law because they feel that they really have to and it’s a bad law, to try to fight it and to fight it in court, but to use the law to their advantage. So the training actually changes according to the laws of the country; it also changes culturally, because I think there’s different levels of what people, what their own societies will tolerate about what they are going to say or how they’re going to say it. Some find no problem in making very allegations about somebody, and another society would have huge problems with it, or even tempered allegations. It would be considered impolite to criticize the president.
So there’s cultural things too. For instance, in Africa, the whole AIDS issue is very, very sensitive. How you cover AIDS can differ from country to country, so I think that there’s a little bit of difference. But on the whole, our basic training doesn’t change, and that is that you have to have multiple sources, you have to have the facts, and you have to get verifiable facts – not just because somebody told you something. What’s really interesting when you go and do these trainings in these countries is that most of the places have not had a tradition of a free press, so they’ve had a government-controlled press in most cases. So who are they responsible to? They’re responsible to the government. They’ve always just basically said what the government wants them to say in the newspaper. They see themselves as sort of a conduit of information from the government officials.
For instance, in Egypt, we taught these journalists how to cover the elections, and you can go actually to ICFJ’s website, its www.icfj.org, or also go to www.ijnet.org, and look on I think it was “Egyptian Election Program.” And you’ll actually see – you’ll see streaming video, it’s in English and Arabic – but you can also see reports that our trainees actually did. And what was really interesting was – you know, they’re government controlled press in Egypt, so they’re used to covering an election; when they go to the candidates and they say, “So, what do you think about X, Y, Z?” They say to the candidate, “What’s the most important issues facing Egypt today?” And they’ll say, “Well, I think it’s this, and this, and this, and this.” They say, “Okay, what do you think you’re going to do?” “Oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that,” and they just write it in the newspaper.
So the problem is… And you know, his opponent says, or her opponent… Most likely his opponent… says just the same kind of thing. They don’t fact-check that you just promised that you’re going to get eight million jobs, how realistic is that? They don’t question it, they just print it! So what we said is, “Look. Just because you candidates say that the most important issues are foreign policy or water rights or something else, I might say as a mother, education is more important. My kids aren’t getting an education. You might want to avoid that issue, because you have no ideas on that.”
So what we taught these journalists to do was to be responsible to the people they’re supposed to be responsible for in a democracy, and that’s the people. So the people they should be asking questions to were actually not the candidates, they needed to ask the people first: “What are the main issues that you want to see solved? What are the key things that you feel are facing Egypt today?” And they ended up with a list – we taught them how to survey, how to poll, how to do a Gallup kind of poll – and so they went in and they surveyed all these people and then they did a list and they figured out, tallied up what are the six top issues? Then they went to the candidates and they said, “Okay, what are you going to do with these issues?” And they had them answer specific questions about those issues, and then they went and they fact-checked the viability of the answers, and then they did a whole score card about each candidate.
What was really satisfying is when we finished this, we printed – you know, we had limited funding – so we printed as many as we could and we had them distributed in certain newspapers as a supplement. And some newspapers, we put it up on the web so newspapers could just download it and put it in their papers around Egypt and around the whole region, actually. And they also did television versions of this, and radio. But what was really satisfying was we got this phone call from this professor at American University in Cairo, who was Egyptian, and he said, “Here is a measure of your success in this project.” He said “I was at a stop light and I was next to a truck, and the person in the truck – the truck driver – had his window open and he had these Xeroxed sheets of your voter’s guide, and he said: here, you’ve got to read this.”
So that was real citizen journalism, in a way. He was distributing it himself, because he said “this will really tell you the true story about what’s important in these elections.” And there’s a lot of good newspapers in Egypt, and so it was telling that this truck driver thought that this little sheet was… So that’s sort of satisfying, but it also shows you why we try to – what we try to train. That the people are… those are kind of the basic tenants that I don’t think will change; how to be as independent as possible and how to be responsible to the people that you’re supposed to be responsible to as journalists, and that’s society and the electorate and the citizens.
Andrea Schmitt: Thank you.
Eileen O’Connor: Thanks.
Mark Hansen: Hi, my name is Mark. I was wondering to what do you attribute all the honors you’ve received as a journalist?
Sadanand Mailliard: Got you.
Eileen O’Connor: I attribute it to teamwork. Television is – and I think most reporting, really – it’s a team effort. So I have never won any award by myself, and I think that that’s really important. You know, we have producers, we have cameramen, we have soundmen, we have editors – and camerawomen and soundwomen – and we have editors back at Atlanta who help with the scripts and show producers who help figure out how to put it all together with other things. So I think that it’s really the teamwork that you can really attribute to it. And I think it’s also… its hard work and its commitment. I mean, you don’t… Everyone goes, “Oh, it’s so glamorous, television, it’s so great,” and I say, “Oh, the number of parking lots and downpours I’ve sat in for hours at a time, chilled to the bone,” freezing, to just wait out somebody and stick a microphone in their face and say “What about it,” and get an answer. It’s perseverance; you have to not take “no” for an answer. I think that you really have to keep plugging away, which is good advice for all of you just in life as you start out, is if you believe or if you want something, you’ve just got to keep plugging away at it, and not being afraid to fail, either.
The way I always said it in television; you have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C, because two out of three at least are not going to work. And you don’t plan your stories in advance; you have to go where the facts take you, and I think that’s also another thing: we’ve covered the stories, we haven’t made the stories. We didn’t dictate the stories, we covered them, and we covered some really amazingly courageous people along the way. I mean, the stories themselves are also what win awards and unfortunately, people lose sight of the fact that – like I said, the women that I’ve met in these war zones, people like that – their stories. That’s the part I miss right now, being a lawyer; I miss telling people’s stories, in a way. But hopefully I’ll tell the stories of my defendants, the people I’m representing. I tell my client’s stories, is what I try to do in a more comprehensive way. But that’s the part – you just meet some amazingly courageous people, really inspirational people, and that’s lots of fun as a journalist.
Emily Crubaugh: I’m Emily. How did your assignments around the world shape your view of America?
Eileen O’Connor: Oh, that’s a good question… These are all very good questions.
That’s a toughie… That’s very tough…
I think that it’s funny, because it’s sort of schizophrenic. On one level you see – because you’re on the outside and you’re also talking to a lot of people who are not seeing America through its own prism and through its own kind of favoritism and idealistic view of itself. You can be a lot more critical in some ways of the things that we’re doing, or see them more objectively.
On the other hand, there’s times when you think, “God, I’m so lucky having been born an American.” And I did think that a lot, because when I would be in a lot of places, I knew I could get on a plane and go home, and I had my American passport. And I have to say, the scariest moments were at checkpoints and things when somebody took my passport away. It felt like I was completely unprotected because I didn’t have my passport on me, and it was scary. A lot of reporters will tell you that. A lot of people will tell you that. Without having your passport… Because we were on our own, we weren’t embedded. I wish! So we were crossing between lines, you had a 50/50 shot at these checkpoints sometimes of getting it right. And I got it wrong a couple of times and got hauled off and detained for a while, because either they’d say “Whose side are you on?” And you’d say, “Uh, let’s see…” and try to judge it. Or “Who invited you here?” And you’d pick the wrong person.
But I think that… you know… you also actually, I think – it’s funny, because I have a lot of talks with my friends – a lot of people outside of America also don’t understand America. Americans are really very spiritual and in fact it is one of the most religious countries in the world; more people in America go to church than a lot of other western democracies, and people are very spiritual and very idealistic because of the Constitution. And you have a more practical politics in Europe and other places and that impacts number 1, their view of the world, but also their understanding. I used to actually say the thing I like about Russia is I really felt that Russians were a lot more like Americans than they were anyone else, because they had a political system that had been based on ideology. The Orthodox Church had been very strong. But they had a political ideology that was very, very strong; they really believed in the socialist ideal, and I think that Americans believe in free speech, the freedoms attached to democracy, and also human rights.
You’re not necessarily calling it an ideology, but in some ways, that respect for life comes from religious aspects. I think that that’s something that people don’t really understand about America and how it shapes what Americans do and think and how they view things. I think that sometimes America is viewed a little too cynically, but I also think that Americans – perhaps because they are idealistic – don’t want to see the flaws; don’t want to see how others see us, and how sometimes they see the United States as deciding that our policy is right and this is wrong for sure, and they feel like the United States isn’t listening to the other viewpoints. And they might have a point sometimes… And sometimes, you know, the United States is also very strategic. I mean, there’s a real politic that goes on as well that’s a little cynical and has a double-standard edge to it, because we do support dictatorships who are nice to us. And we not necessarily see how that fits. And I think that people just don’t like to recognize that there’s double-standards sometimes that’s used.
So I don’t know, that wasn’t a very good answer, really. Not very succinct.
Seychelle deVries: I’m Seychelle. We were wondering, when you’re covering an interview or a topic that evokes a really strong emotional response in you, how do you wither integrate or balance that feeling that you have with trying to present the story impartially?
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah, that’s hard. It is hard. What I would try to do – I had that one time, I was doing the anniversary of Chernobyl, I think it was the ten year anniversary of Chernobyl. And these officials – because I had been at Chernobyl, I covered it when it happened – and ten years later, these officials were trying to rewrite history, and it was really making me mad. They were now saying that somehow, it was the United States’ fault and we should pay for the cleanup, and that was like, “whoa, wait a minute. You were the ones that didn’t evacuate these places and allowed people to go to a parade to show the world that everything was fine, who then later got sick from radiation clouds.”
So that was upset, but what I ended up doing was really, really vetting my script again and again with a couple of different people and editors, and I basically said, “This story makes me mad. These guys make me mad. These Ukrainian officials are really making me mad, and I’m not sure I could be really objective about this, and so I need you to help me here sort out my feelings and just stick to the facts.” I think that journalists… it’s not just the way you feel about something, it’s also your frame of reference that – like I was just saying, I’m an American, so my frame of reference about what the United States does is different from say if I were French, or if I was Israeli, or if I was Egyptian. My view of how the United States acts is completely different in the way I was raised, brought up, and where I was brought up. So that’s going to inform me as a journalist, for good or for bad. So objectivity, or lack of objectivity, comes in a lot of different forms. There can be a subtle bias, not just an emotional response like anger or you’re trying to be supportive.
I remember one time, it was very funny. I had this debate early on when I was a young producer; in 1985, there was a famine in Ethiopia and I was cutting a piece for World News Tonight, and I had these little kids around a fire, and there was three pieces of Sorghum – which is this little… looks like beans – and the mother was just taking these three pieces and moving them around on this plate, and she had three kids, I guess they were going to get one bean apiece, and their bellies were distended… And there’s the baby, who was about maybe – I mean, looked probably about two, was probably more about four or five, but was malnourished. – was just had this pitiful hungry cry. And of course there was also a ton of flies, because in a drought, the flies are looking for moisture too, so they go to the kids’ mouths and their eyes, because that’s the only thing that’s moist. So the kids’ eyes were covered with flies, there was this pitiful wail, and the camera had gone in really tight, and I showed this little boy. And I opened it up for natural sound, this wail. And my producer, when I fed the piece in to New York, the producer said “You know that’s just too much. You’re being gratuitous in the sense of you’re laying it on too thick, it’s the dinner hour and people will be put off their food.” And I said – probably wrongly – “Good! I hope they get put off their food and I hope they reach into their back pocket, pull out their checkbook and write a check to Oxfam or UNICEF.
And then we had this debate about, well, are you in to advocacy journalism? Is it really your role to portray this in this sort of pitiful way? And I said, “You know what? Sometimes there are stories that you shouldn’t shirk away from the truth, and to me, a famine is one of those stories.” How can you not be emotionally attached or show the horror of that, and I would say human rights abuse is that, too.
You’re covering an atrocity, and the facts say “This was an atrocity. This is what happened. These people are innocent victims. It’s a murder.” I don’t see how you could be “objective.” Yes, you could be objective, you could show the facts and not sort of accuse somebody wrongly of something, but if the facts are the facts, I don’t see how I can be objective about an atrocity and say, “Oh, well maybe it’s okay, maybe they killed them for a good reason.” That’s just impossible. I mean, women and children? Or systematic rape that went on in places like Kosovo and Bosnia? There’s no defense to that in my mind. So there’s times I guess I just can’t be objective about some of this stuff.
Jonji Barber: Was that part of your motivation for going in to Vital Voices?
Eileen O’Connor: Oh, yeah, actually. Part of it was what I saw happening to women in war zones – how hard they had to work – but also the fact that in World War I, everyone talks about how few… In many ways, I think there’s 2,800 casualties right now in Iraq, which is a huge amount. I mean, there’s no getting around that. But when you look at that compared to combatants in World War I, where there were tens of thousands of people lost. The Russians lost 23,000,000 people in World War II. Twenty-three million. Because there was the siege of St. Petersburg, of Leningrad and people literally starved to death, or actually there was cannibalism, because the siege, they were basically blockaded by the Nazis and couldn’t get anything.
So when you think about – and a lot of those were Soviet soldiers – but since that time, since the First World War, now most of the people who die in war are not soldiers, they’re civilians and women and children. And it’s more about strategic warfare and also about – in many cases when you have an insurgency or in the case of Bosnia you have an ethnic conflict – it’s about terrorizing the population. And that’s why you have rape or suicide bombs or attacks on mosques or attacks on churches or things like that, because that’s a thing that really is a more psychological thing. But the problem is most of those victims are civilians, and most of them are women and children who are left behind. The women are generally trying to protect the kids.
The problem too is in Bosnia and in Chechnya, the men couldn’t stay around; they’d be dead. They would just be taken out and arrested and shot. If they were there, male and a certain age, and that certain age just kept going up as I covered the war in Chechnya. I mean, I saw old men killed. Then you were basically a suspected “bariviki,” you were one of the rebels. So that was it. I mean, I watched Russians being shot by Russians, and the colonel say to me “Oh, he’s a bariviki,” and I said “He’s a white Russian going to church, and the church is there across the street. Here, his prayer book is in his pocket,” and that’s… you know…
I don’t know if that answers your question…
Jonji Barber: No, it does.
Eileen O’Connor: Okay.
Megan Mitchell: Hi, I’m Megan. We understand you’ve been in Chechnya, Romania, Afghanistan and Bosnia during war times. How has your world view been affected by seeing war and conflict so directly, and is there a certain experience that’s shaped you that you can share with us?
Eileen O’Connor: Gosh… I’m trying to think about that… One experience…
You know, I think that how it’s affected me is actually pretty interesting, because… I’ll give you an example, a very recent example. My kids go to a catholic elementary school, and the eighth grade traditionally, the kids have a choice that they can go to the Pro Life march down in DC and there’s a mass there. Our kids have generally gone, and I’ve sort of said to them, “Look. I think you’re too young to decide on this issue yourselves,” and my husband and I sit down with them and say, “Here’s where we stand on this issue. We’re personally against it, but Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, we don’t feel it should be overturned because we have problems with denying this choice to women who for a lot of different reasons maybe want it. And it’s hard for us to sort of reconcile that thing, but we think you should go to the mass and pray for a resolution to this problem, so that maybe there’s never any unwanted pregnancies; that would be the perfect solution.” So they’ve decided to go in general, but we’ve often said though, you really look up on this as freedom of speech and people expressing their political viewpoints; you’re going to see both sides in this, and you should listen to both sides. That’s how you form your opinions.
So our kids were going to go, there was a permission slip that went out and a bunch of people traditionally have, half the class has not gone. Parents have said no, the kids are too young, whatever, whatever. Maybe they don’t believe in it. So in this situation, a teacher went around to all the classrooms with a clipboard and asked each of the kids whose parents said no – said they weren’t going – was it their decision or was it their parent’s decision, and did they believe in abortion or not, and why or why not? And all the kids came back and – and then she said, “Don’t tell your parents I was judging you. I don’t want a bunch of phone calls back that I was judging you all.”
So there was two issues for me going on there. Number one, I don’t want my 13 year old told “don’t tell your parents anything,” and also number two, I just felt like they should have talked to the parents. It’s inappropriate. But the whole episode smacked of intolerance for other people’s beliefs, and I guess that’s where war has really… I went to the pastor and I said, “Look, I’ve stood on the edge of mass graves. I’ve watched bodies being pulled out of rubble, and the only reason these people were killed was because somebody else didn’t like what they believed in.” I have a real visceral reaction to intolerance of other people’s beliefs, because I’ve seen how destructive intolerance can be.
And I think intolerance in this country is on the rise. Intolerance between peoples beliefs, and I think it’s actually fostered by what I was talking about earlier, the commercialization of news, because what sells is people fighting each other on TV. And the red states versus the blue states is what sells. And unfortunately, that’s not where good policy is made; good policy is made in the middle. But people are made to feel guilty because they believe one way or another and called stupid on television? Some of these screaming shows like The O’Riley Factor… And there’s the ones on CNN, Nancy Grace, I mean, they’re all screaming “Oh, that’s stupid.” That’s just… I don’t think that should have a place on networks that are supposedly a ground for serious debate. And I have friends from Fox who say, “Oh, O’Riley is not news, it’s never billed as news, its infotainment.” I said, “You know what though? I don’t think viewers – I don’t think that they see it like that. I think that’s your rationalization for saying its okay.” But it’s this intolerance stuff that I think is where I’ve come down from war and that has really affected me. We ended up saying our daughter… she didn’t go. As a protest, we just said “you’re not going to engage in this at all.” And we’ve really taught our kids that this kind of intolerance…
I mean, in terms of events that have affected me the most, it’s hard to say. I think there was a… It’s not really… I guess it’s a story; throughout the war in Chechnya, I covered a village called Sameshki, and I covered this one unit of the Russian military. And every time I would go, I would go back to both of these places and I would just check in with the villagers and with this command post. And this one time I went back, it was kind of the culmination in some ways – it was sort of the end of the war. But I went back, and there were these women who had stuck it out, were the only ones left, and who at one time during this whole – when I was covering them – they had been bombed, there was a huge… they were getting – helicopter gun ships were just bombarding them, and there were troops on the ground as well, but they were coming in and out and they were just killing any life they saw; anyone moving, they just shot. These women were in this basement with all of the old men and women around the village, they had taken them in and they were trying to keep the kids quiet, because if they found them in the cellars, they were taking people out and shooting them, women and children.
So this old man went out because one of the babies was really hungry – it hadn’t had milk for two days – so this old man said, “in my house down just one house over is milk, and I’ll go get it, because I’m so old, they’ll know I’m so old I can’t possibly be a danger.” And in the end, he was shot. We kind of reenacted this, because then I got the version from the troops and we sort of reenacted it and did that story. I went back to the town, they were all leaving, actually this was in my last trip to the town, and it was funny – because I always went, so they used to hear, people would hear I was back in town, or whatever – and here’s this woman packing up all of her possessions… And it’s kind of embarrassing actually, this part. She’s packing up all of her possessions and she goes back and she said, “I was hoping you would stop by. We’ve got to give up,” – she was like, “I’m never going to leave my home,” – she said, “I’ve got to give up, I’ve got to go; I think my husband may be in Moscow.” She hadn’t seen her husband in two years, didn’t have a clue where he was. And she said, “we’re going to go to this refugee camp right over the border,” and she had all the kids, and she said, “but I was packing up, I was just about to leave, but I was hoping you’d stop, so I waited because I have a present for you.” And she went back in and she said, “I got this at the market,” – and the market in a war zone is pretty bleak – and it was a plastic brush and a little mirror. And she said, “This is a gift for you, because I know you need these when you do your stand-ups.” So it was very sweet. I was like, “God, this is what she thinks of me… Always like, got to fix the hair!” It was very hard to say goodbye to her, and I lost track of her – I tried to find her in the refugee camps, but I had no way of finding her.
But that woman had such bravery. I remember one time interviewing her, and my notebook fell on the floor, and her daughter dove. Just dove under a couch. She was shell-shocked. Five year old kid; she was shell-shocked. I felt terrible. But any loud noise, this kid just thought she was going to get shot.
And then, the other story I think is that same trip – sort of an emotional rollercoaster. The previous month was International Women’s Day, and International Women’s Day is a big deal in Russia. It’s a huge holiday. So for this command post I’d been covering, they would never let me stay overnight which is when all the action occurred – when they really got shot at and the insurgents would come out in the field. And I kept begging them and begging them to let me stay overnight. So I was with my camerawoman Margret Moth, and everybody else in the crew had gone off to feed the tape from that day – and we always traveled in teams because kidnapping was prevalent, so I never… Like happened to Daniel Pearl. I always had systems in place, people had to call in every hour from the phones, and you couldn’t go off by yourself, everybody always had to know where you were going, just for the event, you couldn’t meet somebody alone, and on and on.
So anyway, Margret and I went down to this shtab and I had forgotten it was International Woman’s Day, and I used to let the troops use my satellite phone to call relatives, their mothers, whatever. So I came by, “does anybody need the phone,” and my usual question, “can I stay overnight?” And they said, “Oh, no, the colonel is coming, we have a present for you. Spraznikum! Its international woman’s day,” and I go, “Oh, I forgot about that.”
So the colonel comes out – and again, we’re in a war zone market – he’s got these two dead-tired carnations in his hand. He said, “Oh, we heard you were in town and we went and we… We appreciate that you’ve been covering what we’ve done, and we got you these carnations.” So they handed them to me, and you know, “Spraznikum!” And I was like, “well, if you really want to make my International Woman’s Day, you let me stay over.”
So I did stay. In the end, we hardly lifted the camera, because they were talking to us really – Margret didn’t speak Russian, but… She had actually been wounded in Sarajevo; she is missing most of her jaw now, she was shot by a sniper in the car – she’s an amazing camerawoman that’s covered many, many war zones. So we were just fascinated listening to these guys’ stories and they were talking really honestly about this is their Vietnam, they were really concerned about the horrors people had seen and perhaps engaged in, what that was going to do to a whole generation of Russian men, I mean, it was these very philosophical conversations about the future of their country and the impact of this war. And most of the time they were drinking lots of vodka and they were like, “No camera, no camera,” so I took notes and notes and notes and notes and notes. Two of the guys – two of the most articulate guys – were leaving the following month, and were so excited; they were telling me about their families and showing me pictures of their kids – one of them was an older guy.
So the next month when I’d come back and I saw the people leaving from Sameshki and I went to the shtab and I said, “so, those guys left last week, right? They went out, have you heard from them yet? You want to call them on the phone? Aren’t they in Nijni?” And this guy says, “Oh, you didn’t hear? Let me go get the colonel.” And I’m thinking, “What’s going on?” And they all were just looking down, and the colonel comes out and he said, “They tripped a mine on the way to the airport and they were all killed.” But they were eighteen, one of them, so it’s like your age; imagine. So he thought he was out. So I think that day was like… you know the elation of these people having survived a war and finally getting out, and then this kid… Don’t put that on the website.
You never know. All these people, they’re all sort of innocently drawn in to it, and these soldiers are – they don’t know why they’re there half the time, they’re just sort of… In the coup in ’91, they weren’t even told what they were doing, so it was really kind of amazing because these guys… That’s how actually they turned against the coup plotters, because there were these women babushki coming up to the tanks – these old ladies – and they were like, “Does your mother know you’re here? Do you know what you’re doing?” And they’re saying, “Well, we heard Gorbachev was sick and we’re protecting the country,” and she’s like, “You’re engaging in a coup! This is against the people!”
But half of those guys were just kids. They were drawn in to this thing; they were conscripts – in Russia, its forced conscription.
Piranha Sharon: You have already said that you worked in the war zones and how it was like, but I would like if you could speak more about your experiences and how it was for you to work in areas where women were not treated equally.
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah… that’s interesting.
Where it was kind of weird for me, women not treated equally, was actually not in a war zone, but in Asia, in Japan and Korea. I was in Korea and I was interviewing – I was doing a documentary – and I was interviewing all these government officials, and this guy in my office said… We were going to this church because I was also – Christianity is very big in Korea – and I was trying to cover part of that as an aspect; I was doing a documentary about Korea. South Korea.
So this reverend who was having this service – there was a lot of important people who came to this service – so I was covering this service and his sermon and everything and this guy said, “The reverend really wants you to come to his house for tea afterwards, and there’s a bunch of people going to be there, but you have to pay homage because he let you cover the church.” We had a tight schedule, so I said, “Okay, we’ll stop in for just enough to make it polite,” and everything.
So we go in there and there’s all these people who I just interviewed, like the deputy prime minister and this and that and the other thing. As I come in, they said, “Oh, hi, how are you, and by the way, you have to go off in this room because the women are over here.” And so all the women – all their wives – were off in this other room, and so I went off in the other room, and I just did because you just don’t… You have to; when in Rome. You can’t be impolite because it’s the wrong thing diplomatically for you to do in the sense of… You know, I’m also representing CNN; it would be rude.
But I did later, when I had the opportunity with a couple of these men, I did say, “I found it odd that I could interview you on a very equal – but you won’t in a social setting, women aren’t allowed to have opinions on the same level as the men; it’s kind of funny, explain that to me. Just explain the thinking behind that.” And you know, they couldn’t, really. They did struggle. So that was kind of interesting. But I have to say that my response to it too was to go into the bedroom with the women and kind of organize them. I basically went in, “Do you guys think this is fair? Hello? What do you think?” And they were like “No!” All these women were highly educated. So I was like, “I think you should all go out there.” So I’m not sure what happened after that; I left.
Sadanand Mailliard: Next time, they won’t send you in to that room.
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah, they won’t send me in to that room. So that was the precursor to Vital Voices, but… No, and I think the other thing is actually in Japan.
In Muslim… There’s a misconception in some ways – I think in some times – about how… There’s a lot of people who think that women are completely – because they’re wearing the hajib or a berka in the Middle East – there’s a misperception I think. There is definitely inequality for women in the Middle East, there’s no question about that in some ways. But I think that there’s this thinking that there’s a complete lack of respect for women; it’s a different kind of respect. There’s a lot of Arab women who really resent women in the west feeling sorry for them. They really don’t like it, because they think, “You just don’t get it.” And one of the things I remember; in Islam, the reason that men don’t – there’s a reason that men don’t shake a woman’s hand – it has nothing to do with disrespect. It’s actually kind of a personal thing. It’s basically they don’t know if they’re unclean; if they’re menstruating. So basically there’s a religious thing about it, and connection. But I don’t think that that’s saying, “You’re not worthy,” or “You’re beneath me,” it just a tradition.
And I think that the problem I find with… I saw a woman, one of the CNN anchors went over to Afghanistan – she actually never got in to Afghanistan, she was in Pakistan – and she was all, “Oh, and they wouldn’t even shake my hand.” And I was like, “Hello? Could you read a book about the culture before you go?” It just was disturbing because there were people in there going “Oh, can you believe that?” And I was thinking, “Well, that’s just completely not fair.” And I can understand why people feel that that’s kind of discriminatory against their own religions, too. So I think that the idea really is that when there’s this disparity, when women are treated differently, you have to look at: is it really different? Or am I being treated just in a different cultural way? Or am I really being discriminated against; put down, disrespected, et cetera?
I do have to say one thing. In Japan, when I got there, my husband followed my job – so I had two toddlers and my third daughter was newborn, three weeks old. We fly to Japan, 14 hour flight from London – so you could imagine, everybody’s screaming; hungry and screaming. And my husband had the dependent visa and I had the working visa. And we get there to the border and the border guard says, “Oh, there’s got to be some mistake, this is really a big problem, there’s got to be some mistake.” And I said, “What’s going on?” And he says, “You have the working visa, your husband has the dependent visa.” And I said, “Well, that’s right, because I’m the CNN correspondent and my husband is going to get a job, but he doesn’t have one right now – he’ll probably freelance or something – but yeah, that’s right, he’s the dependent.” And he said, “Oh, no, no, that must be a mistake because Japan is a really important country and CNN is an important news organization, and they would never send a woman to cover Japan.” And I was like, “You know, you’re probably right, I’m sure this was a huge mistake, so just let us get in to the country and as soon as I get in, I’ll sort it all out and I’ll be on my way in a week or two.”
So I got stamped in and sorted it out on the other side, but he only gave me a two week stamp. It was pretty funny. So I literally did have to go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and it was kind of comical. So when I was on Japanese TV when they would talk to the CNN reporter on Japanese TV, Good Morning Tokyo, and they ask me, “So what was your first impression of Japan?” I tell them that story. And I got all these letters from women going, the equivalent in Japanese of “You go, girl!”
So anyway… Other questions?
Nina Castañon: Yes. I’m Nina, by the way.
Eileen O’Connor: Hi, nice to meet you.
Nina Castañon: In your experience of covering stories that reveal people in extreme situations, do you see heroism as an extraordinary or a natural human response to adversity?
Eileen O’Connor: God, that’s another great question… You guys…
I think that people tend to rise to the occasion. I mean, look at Katrina. Look at 9/11. I think people tend to. I think there’s heroes in everyone, it just depends on the level upon which you’re called to be a hero, but you can be a hero every part of your life. You could be a hero making dinner for some homeless kids. You can be a hero reading to a kid who has a single mother. There’s a lot of different levels of heroism, so I think that what’s interesting is that sometimes it’s the adversity that forces the heroes out of people, when people should think about heroic acts every day.
There’s a thing that – my husband took this thing out of Colin Powell’s biography – it’s like eight basic rules of life; Colin Powell’s eight basic rules? You should get it, it’s actually really good. We had this tapped on our refrigerator for a while for our kids. One of them is: “Integrity is doing the right thing when nobody’s watching. And I think that heroism is kind of along the same lines. It’s doing the right thing when nobody’s watching.
Nina Castañon: Was there maybe an event that you saw or something that’s going to stick with you?
Eileen O’Connor: In Lithuania, when they first started the National Front movement? When it first started there was this National Front congress, and these people were meeting and talking about reviving Estonian culture. And this was still in the Soviet Union, it was 1980… I guess ’87, maybe it was ’88 – things were just beginning to thaw. At the end of this conference, they got more and more and more critical of the Soviets and the Soviet Union, but they eventually – all of them stood up at the very end and I really thought that… There were a lot of police outside… It was really a leery situation in the Batiks, and they ended up joining hands and singing this national anthem – it was their national anthem in Lithuania, their original one, which of course they had secretly taught their kids all along in their native language – they were all crying, and it was also this amazing moment because everybody thought any minute now, the soldiers could come in and just do whatever; arrest them, kill them, whatever. And they just stood there though with this brave… I don’t know, they were all heroes in some way.
And I think I’ve seen heroics. This guy, Landsbergis, he was the first president of Lithuania. They declared independence; they were blockaded by the Soviets, they couldn’t get gas, they were surrounded by tanks outside the parliament and we used to sneak in and out. I used to sleep on the floor in the parliament where all these guys – there’s the president of the country, and he’s sleeping night after night after night on the concrete floor in this parliament building, and yet he just was convinced that if he just stood his ground, eventually they would be free. He could have been taken out and shot at any moment. They could have stormed the building, he was their biggest target. And yet he just insisted on doing this.
It was funny, I saw him right after the 1991 coup; his first act after the coup in ’91 when Gorbachev kind of – they had already declared independence – he said, “The KGB? Get out of here. Get out of Lithuania.” Because he realized that the communist party was over and that they couldn’t really enforce anything against them. So I went to cover that – kicking the KGB out. And I hadn’t seen Landsbergis, so I’m covering the KGB leaving and I went over to his office – and now there’s no tanks outside, but the sandbags were still there because nobody had time to clear them away. So we’re climbing over sandbags and I get up to his office and I asked his secretary, “Where’s the president, can I get an interview with him?” And she started to get up to go see him, and I guess he’d heard me outside; he comes out of his office and he said, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last,” which is, you know, Martin Luther King. And then he just hugged us all because my crew was there and he was just so brave. I thought, “Oh my god, this guy…” And he was a pianist. He was a teacher, and pianist, he was a music teacher! This guy was just incredible. Eventually, he seeded the presidency to somebody else, because he said, “You know what, I can’t really – I’m not very good at running a country.” …The fact that I could go up and ask his secretary “Where’s the president” was probably indicative of… You know, you need a little more bureaucracy, here.
Alyssa DeBenedetti: My name is Alyssa. Michael Josephson said in an interview with Bill Moyers that for him, the most moving moment was having a child. When he compared it to how he was approaching teaching ethics to the law students with how he wanted to teach his son ethics, he saw an enormous inconsistency. Did having a family affect the way you approached your work and the subject matter that you wanted to cover?
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah. Definitely. It definitely did. It’s very funny. And I had this debate with my girlfriend who didn’t have kids at the time. I said that it made me a better reporter, because I became much more human. It’s hard for me to say exactly why. I just looked at issues in a different way and saw their connection a lot differently.
My girlfriend and I were debating this because I was… We were talking about diversity, and I said, “I think that sometimes in the magazine show,” because one of the magazine show anchors who will remain nameless – works for ABC… Famous woman, blonde hair, works in the morning now… But she said – I don’t think she really meant this – but we were at dinner and she said, “You know, it’s really difficult because we have people – our producers having kids and if you’re working on a magazine show, you’ve got to be able to travel all the time and I just think that when people have kids, they can’t really do that job. They shouldn’t take the job if they have kids.” And I said, “You know, it’s almost like diversity in the workplace. I think to have just a bunch of very young – no offence – 20 year olds, twenty-somethings, 30 year olds who are single and running around the world, their viewpoint on the world is way different from somebody who has got roots in the community, who cares how their education system is going, because it really matters.” I said, “Even the story choice. I think you would be maybe a little more interested in the New York nightclub scene as opposed to education in Oklahoma The way people decide things.”
So I think there’s that, and my girlfriend said, “Are you trying to say that I’m not as sensitive just because I haven’t had kids?” She now has twins, and it’s changed her opinion. But no, I think it is different because there’s that and then there’s also – actually, television became easier for me. I used to get nervous doing live shots, so when after I had my first daughter – I had been a producer for years but then I went on air, and about a year after I went on air was when my first daughter was born – and I just remember sitting there doing a live shot and I had just come back from maternity leave and I was just about to go on live and I was getting really nervous, and I thought, “What am I nervous about? Childbirth, now that’s something to get nervous about. This is television, who cares! I’m not going to die! It’s really not going to matter that much.” So it’s funny, because I became a lot more natural on TV because, you know, hey.
But anyway, I also think – I used to cover war zones and it was really hard, because I would go off in dangerous places and I had kids. And I definitely thought about what is going to happen to my kids, and I have five girls. Five daughters, daughters need their moms I think, in some profound way. Boys need their moms too, and their fathers. But I think that it affects them and for any parent to die, it affects your life. So it wasn’t just about I’d covered war zones before, but it was about my life at risk, not the life of my children, which was going to be affected if I died. It wasn’t that they were going to die, but that they would be profoundly affected.
So eventually, I kept covering and I kept rationalizing it, saying, “Well, I’m trying to help other women and children,” and my daughter would say, “Mommy, why do you have to go away?” It was so dangerous to get in and out of Sarajevo that we went in in six-week rotations, because in order to get in, you had to go down this road that we called “sniper alley,” and it was also just this really steep road – I mean, some of the peacekeepers were killed; they went off that road. It was very dangerous: it was winding, there were no guardrails, and you had to go at a certain speed, because you could get shot. So it was very, very tricky. We didn’t want to put our drivers at risk really that often, so it was tough. So the rule was that we went in and out every six weeks, to minimize the number of trips. So that was hard; I’d be gone for six weeks, that’s a long time. My husband, we had a deal: he wouldn’t work as much, he would stay home more – he worked at ABC at that point – and vice-versa. We would work from home more when one of us was away, so that we were around more.
In any event, eventually my daughter was seven and finally was – I would say to them, “well mommy’s going away, so that people won’t fight, so that other mommies and their kids can be safe, and maybe by mommy covering the war, people will talk to each other and they’ll end it, and that’ll be a way to protect the other mommies and their children,” and that’s how I’d explain it to them. And then finally, my seven year old – I came back one day from Chechnya, and there was so much disease in these places because there’s not electricity, no running water, and so a lot of times cholera and things break out – so we would not let the kids touch us. My husband did war zone coverage, too. We would just immediately go into the bathroom, take our clothes off, put them in a garbage bag and put them straight in the laundry, take a shower and then we’d come out and say hi to the kids, because we didn’t want them to get sick.
My daughter though would sometimes – when I was taking showers – she would come in and sit in the bathroom and talk through the curtain, and she said, “Mom, why were you gone so long? What was going on?” And then she started saying, “Have you ever gotten shot at?” …I was like, “Well, yes, but I know where I’m going and my goal. We’re safe, no worries, momma knows what she’s doing, its fine, and it’s so important that I cover these things…” And then finally she said, “What happens to me if you get shot?” And it was like, “That’s a tough question to answer, Marina,” and it was really kind of my head saying, “you know what, I can’t really justify this.”
I did do a bit more, but I was really limited. I didn’t do quite as much as I used to do. And I think that… My husband’s gone into Afghanistan during the invasion there – he didn’t go to Iraq, he was supposed to go to Iraq. I was asked to go to Iraq by one of my old cameramen; we were now out of CNN, he’s actually a cinematographer in Hollywood, Michael, he’s ex-army. And he said, “Why don’t we go in for PBS? You and I could just do our thing, and let’s go.” My husband was supposed to go to Iraq, and we have a rule: we don’t go at the same time, ever. So I said no. But also, I was like, “I don’t know. I think it’s too dangerous.” Plus if you’re on your own and you don’t have a network – we were going to in as stringers. That’s really dangerous. You have no backup; it was going to be tough.
But Michael went. He ended up freelancing for PBS, but attached in with them and stuff. But he’s single and he’s got a dog, and he does Jackie Chan movies, now. He does, actually. Oh, and there’s a new TV series, he’s a steady-cam operator, he does Ghost Whisper, some TV series or something; he does the steady-cam work for that. He’s actually a great cinematographer.
Nina Castañon: Oh, Jennifer Love Hewitt?
Eileen O’Connor: Yeah. I don’t watch it! I know all about The O.C. because my kids are all over that.
Sadanand Mailliard: I know we’re getting down, I think we’ll go down to the last couple questions.
Seychelle deVries: Yeah, it’s been really great.
Eileen O’Connor: I feel like you’re bored.
Sadanand Mailliard: This justifies why we come.
Kristen van’tRood: My name is Kristen. Bill Moyers said in an interview that there’s two things going on: what the interviewee wants to say and what the interviewer wants to know. How have you found to be the best way to get what you want to know out of the interview, and how can we apply this to communication in everyday life?
Eileen O’Connor: Listen. I mean, I think that’s it: listen. There’s so many people who don’t want to listen; there’s a lot of reporters who don’t want to listen. They have a preconceived idea of what that guy or woman should say, and they go and ask the question, and when they don’t get the answer, they keep re-asking the question in a different way to get the answer they want, instead of listening to what is probably a fascinating answer and going with it, and saying, “Oh, wait a minute.”
The number of times I’ve changed – I couldn’t… Most of my stories, I think. You start out with like, I’m researching this angle, I’m researching that angle, and you do a little bit of advanced research – you look up, “Oh, so and so says X about that,” – you kind of know. You’d be not doing your homework if you didn’t pre-interview. I mean, you obviously did research about my career. You kind of have an idea where I’m going to go with certain things, sure. But when you go off on to a tangent or something, let them! Listen. And then ask a follow-up question. I think it makes for a much more fascinating thing.
I do a lot of moderating of panels, and I hate it when moderators go, “so and so, what did you have to say? Now you. Now you. Now you.” It’s so much better if you listen to the first person pose the question – here’s the topic of the panel, pose the question – and then listen and then take something from that person’s statement and say, “well so and so just said X, I’ve heard that you think about this, but how do you…” and ask a question that’s sort of… When you’ve listened to somebody else, you can move the debate so much farther because you’re not just ignoring the facts or the opinions in front of you. So listening, I think, is probably the best.
Sadanand Mailliard: That’s great; you just answered one of the questions that we crossed off the list because we were running out of time. That was a twofer.
Eileen O’Connor: Oh, okay! Yeah?
Edison Dudoit: Hi, my name is Eddie.
Eileen O’Connor: Hi Eddie.
Edison Dudoit: Given your life experience, what would you offer our generation for advice?
Eileen O’Connor: Uh…
Sadanand Mailliard: We always do that one.
Eileen O’Connor: I know… I know, I know, I know.
Daniel Nanas: Should have warned you at the beginning.
Eileen O’Connor: I know, yeah.
Get involved with community.
I think that in today’s world, everybody is wired up, and I watch this with my kids. They’ve got their iPod in IMing their friends, they’re doing their homework and they’ve got the radio on. I’m going, “How much more stuff could be…” They’ve got three screens up on the computer, too. They’ve got the IM, they’ve got video playing, and their English paper. And I’m like, “Oh yeah, I bet that’s really getting a lot of attention.”
But I mean, I think that the problem is too is that it’s hard. You sort of feel like “Oh, I’m so connected in the world, I’m IMing, I’m text messaging my friends,” but much communicating are you really doing? How much really, like, L.O.L. and such… My daughters use all these… They text message me all the time with these abbreviations, and I’m going, “What does that mean?” So it’s… I mean, just writing a long letter to somebody; writing an essay about what you feel; keeping a diary; but getting involved with community, getting involved with other people.
I have my kids. We go and make dinner for homeless families that stay at our church and other churches in the community. Basically, they’re single moms who are homeless, and they basically go from church to church. But the kids – there’s three or four families – and you basically make roast chicken, pasta or something – but then the kids, the ideas is that the kids play with their kids for a couple of hours, and then the moms get a break. Because these moms never get a break; they’re just always on. If they’re working, they might drop them at a daycare, but they never get a break – they can’t afford a babysitter. So, that’s the idea.
It’s really interesting, because my kids have really, I think, learned a lot from that experience. Because they’re like, “Wow, they don’t have toys.” My nine year old said, “Why can’t I take this doll to this little girl,” and I said, “Because they don’t want you to take… The toys have to stay in the church, we brought toys and that’s what they want. They don’t want to keep piling up toys at the church, because they can’t take them with them – they don’t have a home; they don’t have any place to put the toys. So that was a huge eye-opener for her.
So I don’t know. I just think also, politically, you guys have got to get involved. I just think that’s what I mean. Get involved with community, get involved with people in your community, get involved with people who aren’t of your social ilk. Understand American and Americans and get involved politically. No matter what party you feel about, just get involved, and hopefully not on the sort of screaming right and screaming left.
I think people should get involved with what’s happening with journalism. Start a debate and demand better quality of the quality press. That’s a good thing. So anyway, I’ll get off my soap box about the press. I’m not actually – I think the press is great here. I’m not trying to say that – and they’re such amazing people – but there is sort of a huge transformation occurring, and people are really not sure how to deal with it and they’re really scared that the quality press is going to disappear and just be this hobnob of blogs and commercialized “infotainment.” I mean, newspaper is really declining – you know, buy a newspaper. Or support the Wall Street Journal, or somebody’s website, because quality press needs to be supported, I think.
So anyway, that’s it.
Daniel Nanas: Keep that in mind for when we report for our web log
Eileen O’Connor: Okay.
All: Thank you.
Eileen O’Connor: Thank you.