Foreign correspondent Peter Copeland shares stories & lessons


This podcast is brought to you by the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs at Ohio University Hi Everyone I'm Bev Jones and this is just about work where we talk about everything that might happen chasing stories and also talk a little bit about the challenges of reporting in today's difficult market world and given him opportunities to manage news businesses across all kinds of platforms Peter's latest book is both a personal story your book which I loved the book is finding the news adventures of a young reporter and I I learned a lot and totally enjoyed hearing about your adventures they started back when you were a cub reporter in Chicago and one of the things that fascinated me right from the beginning is you union organizing something like that I I didn't know and I was working a summer job up in northern Michigan I met a man who juggle his personal life his family live and all of the pressures of being a reporter he'll talk about how through trial and error owned by the Tribune at the time and it was a training ground it was sort of a boot camp for journalist they assigned me to a more experienced reporter and I showed her Peter Thank you so much for joining us here today on guest about work and also talking about and sometimes in war zones or other challenging situations he struggled to be fast accurate and fair and he'll share lessons learned from a lifetime very committed journalism could you tell us about how you sort of fell in love with journalism and and what you were doing a cub reporter I on my I had never studied journalism so they assigned me to a young reporter at the city news bureau of Chicago which was a wire service info with my life and I I wanted to do something important but I didn't know what it was I I thought maybe I would go into political action or who had this opportunity to be a reporter and it's like something hit you you you became born again it felt like for four days that was pretty much the extent of my training she said Okay you're on your own now and I was walking middle of winter in Chicago Chicago Tribune and said you know if you'd like to try journalism you should he said what you're interested in is what journalists do so worry and a valuable guide to the best practices and journalism the book is finding the news adventures of a young reporter I I gave it a try I mean that was such fortunate break that I got I wish that something like that could happen to everybody you were so lucky yes yes and you hear Peter tells the story about how he became a reporter and how he learned the journalism values that matter more than ever and how yet did bribed yourself as kind of an ordinary okay student kind of interested in politics not very career driven all of a sudden you it took an interest in me and my future and saw something in me that I hadn't seen and he turned out was the publisher of the phones before the Internet I ran as fast as I could to the smoke got there before really the fire engine Scott there they were just the the big shot reporter right and he looks at me pathetic son he says I'm not the chief of the chaplain and but a bunch of other reporters arrived at that point and they had a TV camera that was on they were they were taping so I'll go one of those really cold days and I saw smoke from to the West where I was and I call the office and I said is there a fire in uptown had worked a little bit as a college newspaper reporter but only for semester two and when I got out of school all I knew I wanted to do something me I could think of ran looked for a phone to call the office because the oh the woman who trained me she said the most important thing is you've got to get the story in it doesn't matter what you know do not hear me what I'm telling I need to know how many how many firemen are responding and so I said okay what's a truck what's a bumper Erin police radios were going we had these teletype machines said clack and dinged but I heard this voice over the coming up as I arrived and the there was an apartment building that was in flames I I saw people hanging out the window trying to get away from the heat and they were they were dropping she didn't speak much English I could tell from the way she looked at me but I made a phone gesture with my hand she pointed to the phone call the office they said Okay we're going to give rewrite and I waited in woman picked up and she said this is Hollywood if you've got an I I started like hyperventilating people jumping all news radio station that they also kept on at full blast and it was a story reading a journalist reading story about the fire and it was riveting to read I was thinking you know this could go either way for a lot of people this would be the worst day at work ever did you have some of those feelings right up until you heard the story or did you just know as soon as you started running around that the chief all of a sudden starts behaving like the firefighters that you see on TV and he's talking about the how it started and what's happening where the it coming back at me it was a complete rush and from that minute really I was hooked so as you're telling that story and I was kind of riveting there's something to this I'll actually tell you about another young reporter who in a similar situation. He was an intern working for me when I was how a grownup Washington bureau chief and on the day of nine eleven he was a New Yorker who was in Washington as an intern a college intern his mother and his grandparents were journalists and it was in his blood he was destined to be a reporter undergoing all these questions at Holly had asked me to get a God the story filed everything when I finally went back to the office what you've seen unless you could file the story you have to tell everybody else that's your job so I- i- banged on doors until the woman let me in and I sent him up to New York to cover the story there because we had people in Washington covering the story at the Pentagon and elsewhere a story like that then you should really not do journalism that it's not for you it's not for everyone and luckily he pivoted and babies down and small children down to people below the four stories below at who are catching them and everyone was screaming and the fire was popping about no wonder that start what was the address I didn't even know the address of the building okay I wrote Donald these questions go go find the chief okay so I ran out they said Yep it's coming in over the radio now go and they were listening to the police and fire radio in the office and I I I didn't have this was in the days of Yes because the place where I started city news was a legendary boot camp that trained great journalists and the culture was so strong and so pure that you couldn't help but pick it up so embarrassed so I ran over I found this other guy who's a chief who is wearing white hat he was the actual chief he starts screaming at me to get the F. away from he started to he got up there he started ask people questions and he couldn't do it he he said I I feel like saw this guy she told me the chief chief will be wearing white hat so I I saw this guy without a white hat on a little Ray Jeff what do we got here and went back to school studied finance he became very successful he's very happy he doesn't regretted at all but it wasn't for him for some reason it was for me it's not forever the trucks are the ones with ladders pumpers of the ones with hoses case I look out the window I called called told her what I saw and then she asked me all these questions they're suffering and I'm intruding I it just doesn't feel right to me and I told him after I said if if you don't feel good covering it you just watch and try to imitate what other people are doing and that way you pick up the skills but also more deeply it's sort of like joining the marines or some austere religious order that they don't even have to tell you the rules because you absorb them and ear and get the f out of his life and he's got a fire his guys are inside so get Outta here at the at this point I'm just shriveling up oh my goodness out of the building their their their babies being tossed there's people dragging themselves through the snows you wait wait wait how many trucks how many pumpers for me kind of sitting back and watching intently I wanted to be able to talk to but what I think is so there was this chaos in the office all the time especially when a big story was happening like this fire was big and everyone was yelling at each other and the typewriters were clanging in the fire from home usually alone often in a scary place but the bonding though we have is beyond anything else it a thunderbolt that tells them there's there's something important here there's a mission did did you start to get a sense of mission this early it was going and maybe covering some sort of local government meeting or some kind of issue and how intense that I see with young journalists where they make shift is somehow they realize it's important that they get almost the values and everybody thought that it mattered it mattered more than anything my husband the journalists sometimes trying to explain local paper you've got to get out and work your way up and then maybe one day you can come back to Chicago and so you you took a job in El Paso which of course is on the order and you sort of edged into thinking like a forest foreign correspondent as you learned Spanish is that right values become so much part of you that that they drive everything is that how you feel yes and I I felt that and then they're in that religion there are sex okay there's a sector police reporters their superintendents there's a second and then convinced the paper which really also is completely lucky and sounds like a story from another time convinced the paper that they needed a bureau and I could tell from the words that it was my story that I had filed to holly and I thought Oh this is so great because this is like my own story how was that I am surprisingly maybe I guess a lot of reporters are introverts winging the smoke was blinding I was overwhelmed but I just ran towards the building and I I was taking notes got everything you were not only speaking Spanish but you wrote that when you spoke Spanish it major feel like another person what I always wanted to do is I wanted to to fix things I wanted to speak up I wanted to enter the dialogue and I thought you know this this isn't it's partly because of the danger and the loneliness you gravitate towards other people that are in the same situation and they can be reporters from anywhere in the world any age any media it doesn't it's the the mission that we share that brings you together so was El Paso was like this window on Latin America was right on the edge of were the United States touches Latin America and to me it was the past us to the south and I I spent two years in El Paso and fell in love with the language and the culture and learning new things the whole job for an introvert that's difficult sometimes there was something about Spanish and maybe a Mexican culture copy editors their intense in a different way I got the joined the sect of foreign correspondents who are the ones that are far of people thinking oh he can't speak Spanish because he's a white guy from Chicago and then when I did they were thrilled and there were older women stories in Spanish and that helped to but I will say that there was some tension at the paper because I was and I he ended up becoming one of my great teachers but it was it was awkward for awhile it must have been a bit awkward and I fortunately I wasn't afraid of making mistakes one of the weaknesses people have learning a second language is that they're ashamed of making mistakes then this again white guy from Chicago I was taking Spanish I convinced the paper to give me a couple of weeks off so I could go to Mexico City and study oh absolutely I I I had to learn how to transmit stories from abroad and also how to basically that's not fair why don't you send me to London so I can learn English better as a joke but I got the point order named Joel Vera at the paper who was actually more experienced at journalism than I was and had grown up on the border and was bilingual bicultural he said Spanish and I paid for my own way I paid for the classes but the paper gave me the time off there was a Mexican American the way you became a foreign correspondent the path from Chicago was it at some point somebody told you you've got to get out to a lot that felt lighter to me and lighter in the in the sense of not being such a burden I didn't feel so constricted the funny thing about El Paso is for most people for centuries it was the path going north it was the city on the border was called all in right for you but you also must have some facility with language could you started pretty much cold didn't you you didn't know Spanish and all of a sudden pretty the people who do fall for it fall deeply and forever I I know what you mean I was a journalism student and for me Chicago and I covered some big stories on the border with immigration and drug-trafficking but the idea that you were going to cover an entire country and really an entire region because a two starting out in Mexico City as a bureau chief you didn't have an infrastructure to support you and you were doing a lot of things professionally but you had some fun in Mexico City and that's where you met your wife that's a nice story cover an entire country that was the that was the hardest scariest part covered car accidents and fires and press conferences I covered the mayor of in at the paper who loved the fact that I was trying to learn Spanish and they tutored me and the more time I spent speaking Spanish the better at it I got and then I started to get not only was this a a foreign culture and language you're still learning but you were still learning how to manage the process weren't you propelled grenade things like that because I was covering the wars in Central America I didn't really know how to speak about my feelings or my my heart I went to the movies I I sat down got my popcorn looked around I noticed there was this beautiful woman behind me and I kept thinking in Mexico City and that I should be the bureau chief and they bought it that's amazing you are a lucky guy some things just have nine to people why he's a journalist for life regardless of what he's doing is a job at this particular moment and he said think of it as a religion that the that everybody knew about except me and I was going to be embarrassed because I was going to get beat on a story in my own territory so you were ever learn the only way you learn is when you speak you can't just learn listening so I I'd love speaking Spanish and and I got a kick out of had all of Latin America and the Caribbean might beat that was overwhelming and I I could never relax because I always felt something was probably happening somewhere an impact on your career I guess today is Distinguished Journalists Editor and author Peter Copeland his career has taken him around butter during the movie I glanced back a couple times I thought she's probably waiting for somebody because she's very attractive and nobody showed up let them believe that my Spanish was better than it was and at that point sort of after being almost a year Mexico City I was very good in Spanish about ambush rocket I saw her again she was waiting for a bus the woman from the movie theater and I thought this is this a sign go do something probably got a boyfriend it's too complicated I embarrassed and Mahboba the typical male female thing it wasn't really about I when I first moved there I didn't have any friends and to be honest I kind of fit about my Spanish at but a and we force ourselves to be out there and we know it it's good for ourselves to be out there and asking people questions the the job is you have to meet New People and ask them questions the city is fabulous it's it's all lighted up and buzzing all the time and their people out walking and arm-in-arm and There are something is kind of practice some witty remark in my lame Spanish get up to her about to open my mouth I chickened out I thought modern office buildings mixed in with colonial style buildings big palm trees it's beautiful standing there taking it all in two it's a fall night so I went to the movies I went to the movies by myself that that tells you my situation Mexico either working or I was alone so I essays Mexico at that point it was just a man and a woman and we were young so I went outside and I was admiring the city it's a mess she was bouncing her leg and kind of nervous I thought Scott Waiting for somebody but the movie ends she still alone I thought up on a goal also the North Bay it was the path of people coming from the area that's now Mexico up into what's now the United States for me it was the opposite it so I I ran across the street and I realized running across the street that she was waiting for a bus but there were two cars lined up in front of her and these guys leaning out of the cars and going almost Sita Mansudae they were trying to get Edita gave her trying to offer a right but it wasn't it wasn't wasn't nicely done you know more and more information about what was happening I was responding I wanted motto to help me my wife to help me do the story because it was overwhelming she thought I was Being cold and callous and could I not see how everyone was suffering and including her and so I've resigned myself that this was some sort of difference and the we'll be back with Bev after this brief message it grew than the longer we were together and then when we had children especially I felt this terrible I almost fainted it was so moment and we've been together now for thirty years in Ohio University can give you the skills to do just that the school offers a multidisciplinary approach where public policy the years of of of of travel and long hours the first time it hit home was when the earthquake hit Mexico City in nineteen eighty five you have this wonderful romance which has helped to shape your life and that's often at odds with the UH that it takes to get something right even if it means going into a war zone or other scary place and working long hours so that's the one hand on the other hand are you ready to make a difference in the world the Voinovich School of Leadership and public affairs intensity that a foreign correspondent has to have how did you manage that is that something you were consciously dealing with all of your Gratien or environmental studies by visiting Ohio Dot Edu slash one of at school tug between my responsibilities to her and our children and my responsibility to the job they never were lined up it was always and I was covering the story living there but to me it was a story and it was a big story and there was a lot of pressure from the United States for the Environmental Studies in Entrepreneurship come together to educate tomorrow's leaders learn more about the master's in public administer I I it's okay if you stay with me thank you and the the guys drove away we started talking and she said you know do you have any friends that Mexican one of the things that comes across in your writing is that mecum you go home she's just started laughing at that point she was actually laughing real laugh and she said yes just male friends I said what would you be my Amiga and she said an kantar which is like love to I and there there was no work life balance it was just the work it's a it's a challenge that is one or the other and I I felt there was sort of a work life balance but when a big story happening I was sent the scale broke so it it it is a challenge I thought you Showdon in the book how you have to intense so on the one hand you are passionate about journalists about telling the story about doing everything city in Spanish she said Amigos and I said yeah a few and she goes she says Amigos are Amigas male friends or women friends and I said no just they were I didn't think they were going to kidnap her but they were bothering her I went over tapped on the shoulder and she jumped up like a foot and I think many pupil deal with but when you're going into danger and when you're leaving and nobody knows when you're coming back or passions and and you been able to navigate them so you did some really tough reporting and Latin America and then from there it's okay it's okay and I I said in Spanish I meant to say a mental offer my assistance ended up saying something like the boss I wait what's going to happen and in some ways it's even scarier I think than some people in the armed forces 'cause you don't necessarily have the structure and the information system are they sent you to to Washington to cover the Pentagon and it you wrote in in the book that when you found yourself at the Pentagon again all right bye-bye By the time I was draft age the draft was ending so I I missed military service when I was assigned to cover did that work out I had never been in the military didn't really have many friends that were in the military I was born after Vietnam in a very faren situation you decided to cover your new beat cover a strange new country had the Pentagon I I thought I'll just read a few books and interview people and but I was thrown into it right away Ange they have a very strict social hierarchy like any society and so it all kind of made sense if I could treat this the big story about the United States shooting down planes over Libya I was way in over my head but then when I step back and as a foreign place that I was visiting and try to learn about and I always went to foreign places with excitement and thought about it I thought well these are people who they all wear uniforms like local costume they have their own way of speaking lots of acronyms like their online interest and an open questioning mind it worked perfectly I I didn't have any preconceptions I didn't have any judgments about them I really was just trying to be receptive and but it will my knowledge was so limited that I I had to make a chart of all of the ranks accuracy matters immensely it's part of the mission but sometimes just being accurate even that's not good a a guy in a green uniform Silver Bird on the shoulder I would look at my little cheat Silverberg colonel and say oh hello colonel I mean that's how bad it was but mistakes but you're not so familiar they become jaded and you and you don't see things so you made it clear in the book how you really really try to come in with fresh eyes and be very very careful and you get it right that Ori Heights in Panama City which was the military base where the US operation was headquartered and there was a MP there at the and I I it down the copier at the office and I made it fit in the pocket of my suit coat so when I would see somebody in the hall at the Pentagon that's that was very innovative for you but but that's the exciting thing about journalism to us that you go with a a beginners is and you see things that that people outside of the military say don't see and a lot of people in the military didn't see because they took it for granted enough you you talked about when you were covering some of the first women to be in combat and how although you were accurate it it was tough I said your commanding officers also female they all said female instead of women yes she's a female captain Linda Bray but when you come in with fresh eyes is he thinks that new so what you're trying to do is get to the point where you're not so new that you're naive or was the dictator. The I went several days after the invasion I I was drove up to fun on some of the people involved can you tell us about that nineteen hundred nine the United States invaded Panama to overthrow Manuel Noriega I knew that women weren't supposed to combat but here now I had to who were in combat told the public affairs officer there was an MP commander email and at that point the there was a ban on women in combat that women were expected to be safe they could participate in military life but they were there were few of them and they were banned from combat so but I said like I said to all the troops I I said so soldier did you see any action I went up to quarry heights I found a public affairs officer because we needed permission to speak to soldiers I knew something was up because I and I said really just being nice because she was at the headquarters where I figured there had been no action and she was locations in Panama and at she was at a command post when the invasion started she realized that some of her soldiers were encountering more opposition I wanted to talk to I didn't get into the women part of it wasn't lying but I wasn't fully truthful he said fine go talk to the so there was a Kennel barracks there she drove over in her Humvee crashed through the gate they the Panamanians were firing them achieve fired her weapon at them her troops were firing the sort of went on during the night the next day the the and I interviewed probably twenty five people altogether went back wrote the story about women participated fully in the eating troops in combat. I thought I should get some more examples though so I drove around Panama I found another dozen women that saw action impis I found her she was very Reticent About Talking She knew that to supposed to talk to the media that would that were there instructions but gate and she asked me what was I doing and who I was and I showed her my and she went through my stuff to make sure that I wasn't carrying a weapon or anything our largest military operation since since Vietnam so they leaked a story to rival topic of the White House briefing here was this Iraq woman who led her troops into battle and army was feeling well and she smiled and said a little bit and I said really and I said what happened and she said well I can't tell you you'd have to talk to my commanding officer she's up on the hill exaggerate for example I called it a fierce firefight to me that may be redundant that any firefight is fierce but it didn't seem exactly a victim of friendly fire like that and I agonized about my story I went back word for word trying to thank you know did I up a Hornet's nest around here and I thought Oh and she says oh no it's great and what she was feeling and what all the invasion of Panama and that was my story Linda Bray was part of the story but she wasn't the main part the next day I called the Pentagon on something else she didn't think that anything big happened I it took me at least an hour to get the bare facts out of her and the facts were that she linda and they described and I felt like I hadn't but Linda Bray publication that said my original story about women in combat was quote grossly exaggerated that was like a kick in the teeth to me I had never been got chewed up in the crossfire she her commanding officers reacted badly they lectured her about you know why she seeking come across in everything you ride and it's very I don't know inspirational I think for all the army was torn about the reaction because pretty soon Linda Bray was on all of the talk shows she was The it was a twenty nine years old commander of one hundred twenty and peace including about a dozen females they saw action at three different and she took a military a disability discharge and and left the army and went into a career in trying to point out something that happened where she behaved excellently and honorably and and fought well and got a security but her career really was ruined by what happened and which to me was so ironic because I was jury to based on what the women who were in the firefight told me but again I wasn't there I was basing my story on what they told she went back home tried to return to normal she had hoped to make her the military her life career basically she felt that she was driven out from still in Panama but I called up to the Pentagon to get information about something and of female major from the army she said man you you kicked in an Expected Atta Panamanian military barrack that was also the home of their military dogs police dogs me and I- agonize really did I exaggerate did I try to tell a better story for my own benefit then but these days journalists under attack in in so many ways said it must be Mighty discouraging for young doc and she quit she was she was disabled also because she had her hips had been injured not in Panama but before on the one hand were proud of all of our soldiers but we don't want a single soldier getting so much attention and we don't want this whole issue of women in combat to overshadow that is a real question and I I tell people that if you think well maybe I'll be journalist or maybe I'll be journalist or or for students who are thinking about becoming journalists do you have any words of advice or win in the Panamanians were gone but I then realized well this is very unusual that not only were women in combat but this is a woman encouragement for people who might be thinking about a career in journalism and are just not sure if it's rocket scientist or you know design some new algorithm for Amazon. Then you should do one of those but if all you can think of company so to me the scary thing would be to be forty journalists now and thinking I've invested so much but I'm not sure about the future and I I really never intended it that way the the passion the caring you bring to the ethics of journalism for those of us who already fans of journalism and in regard good reporting is so vital to democracy about all you've ever wanted to do is journalism than you should go for it because this is a super exciting time now it's a place where soldiers thought was that yes this happened the women behaved the way they were supposed to be the way

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