[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Clark: Okay. I'd like to talk with you today a little bit more in depth about some of the coverage you've done abroad, particularly Somalia. I think it's really an interesting story because of the role the media has played in the story itself. But just to begin with, I'd like to ask you, when you were assigned to go to Somalia, what were some of your expectations about what you would find there and how did those shift once you arrived?
Hunter-Gault: First of all, I think I volunteered to go to Somalia. It wasn't quite an assignment. I wanted to go to Somalia. I had been in Somalia in '91, before Siad Barre's regime collapsed and I had an audience with him. I was on a private mission for the Council on Foreign Relations. I tried to, at that time, interest the program in an interview because I had access to him and he hadn't done many interviews. And I was also working on an interview with Mengistu Haile-Mariam who was then the president of Ethiopia. They were very interested in the Mengistu interview but not at all in the Somalia interview. And that will partly tell you where Somalia was on our national and media screens at that time. It was the little dot that it is, jutting out there into the Indian Ocean. People would say "Somalia, what?" "Barre, who?" "Siad who?"
And yet I could see that in context of Africa and African problems that this was an interesting and important story because there had been a lot of U.S. assistance to Somalia, growing out of the Cold War competition.
Clark: Could you spell that out a little bit?
Hunter-Gault: The Soviets had been their patrons during one particular period, helping to build him up with arms and other weaponry and military equipment. And that was during the time that the U.S. was in Ethiopia, which is next-door. Then the Soviets switched clients and took up—became Mengistu's patron. So the U.S. then became Siad's patron. So it was all a part of the superpower pawn game-playing, the geo-political game-playing in Africa.
So for all those reasons, and then here was this guy, Siad Barre, who as we found out in conversations with people there, was slaughtering rivals, especially the Isaacs, members of the Isaac clan. There had been a celebrated massacre of, I think it was something like fifty-five people on a beach, people who just were in the wrong clan. So he had as much to answer for as Mengistu. But there was no interest.
And they were willing to cooperate. So we simply met on the basis of the Council business that I had to do and let it go at that. At that time, Somalia was a small place but it was during Rahmadan and so, you know, most of the eating and things took place at night. And you would see someone like Barre, when he got up after the—you know, they'd fast all day and they'd eat and party all night. So you would see him—and he was a bit mercurial anyway, even in ordinary times, so you'd never know when you would see him. But we saw him after waiting most of the morning.
The hotel where we stayed was nice. It wasn't particularly spiffy or grand. It was modest but, you know, commensurate with the size of the country and everything. I thought it was quite charming, actually, with some capacity to communicate between Mogadishu and the outside world—limited but some. I made some phone calls. And Mogadishu itself was lovely. And then we went to look at refugees from Ethiopia, from the Ogaden that hadn't been resettled, several hours outside of Mogadishu.
On the way, we stopped in a little place, Merca, to order lunch so it would be ready when we came back from the visit to the refugee camps. And the refugee camps were interesting. I had to leave because there were two little girls there. If I had stayed any longer, I would have brought them with me. And I knew I couldn't do that at this point in my life.
Clark: Oh, there are others who'd love to have them.
Hunter-Gault: But I'm totally, totally taken with these kids and impressed with what the people in the camps were doing. But still it wasn't a life. And so the whole idea was how to try to get these people resettled outside of these camps. And we came back to Merca, which again was a charming little seaside town. We had the most wonderful meal I've ever had. And it was all very calm. So that was the image I had in my mind, almost like a sleepy little place. I know I was sleepy all the time because it was hot and I was jet-lagged and these meetings would take place late at night and half the time, I'd fall asleep. I was so embarrassed.
But at any rate, when I went back, of course, the image that was in my head was the one that we'd all seen on television, of the starving people of Somalia, thin and frail and dying. So when I landed, I didn't quite know what to expect. It was a very scary landing. In fact, I've just been trying to write about it in another context. We couldn't land at the major airport at Mogadishu because the military had shut it down.
So we had to land on a kind of muddy, dirt strip outside of town. And because the roads in Somalia are so bad, the infrastructure was always bad and it's just deteriorated even more since the civil war, this landing strip had been set up. And as we looked out the plane window, a little plane we had chartered from Nairobi, Kenya, we could see all these Somalis down on the ground with guns and, you know, moving around. It was quite ominous looking because we didn't know if they were friendly or not. And of course, the stories at that point were legend about the banditry and all of that that was going on. It got worse, rip-offs of TV crews.
Clark: Had the four journalists been killed then?
Hunter-Gault: No, no, no. This was—
Clark: This was earlier.
Hunter-Gault: The Marines had just gone in, in December of '92.
But when we got down, you know, my producer [Jeff Goldman] is very good in these kinds of situations and eventually we got in contact with the people who had been sent to meet us. We had communicated with another European broadcast outfit and they knew we were coming. So that was my second visit—welcome—to Somalia, quite different from the almost royal welcome that we got the first time.
Then the trip in was very hairy because the roads were bad. We were in a truck. But we got in. And then, of course, the civil structures of the place were totally decimated. None of the buildings that I had been in, where I had visited officials and had conversations, were operating. And the Taleh Hotel where we had stayed was just a shell because in the civil war, fighting, those buildings were just shelled to pieces. I think there were a couple of walls still standing but it was wrenching.
It was that kind of assault on my memory that was predominant because what you were led to anticipate from the TV images were just bodies everywhere, people dying and sick and crawling around.
Clark: Kind of a helplessness.
Hunter-Gault: And it was that, yes. But by this time, people who had been sick had either died and were buried or were in facilities, feeding centers, either therapeutic feeding centers where they had intense feeding
around the clock to bring people—and you know, it's amazing how quickly you can restore a starving person to some modicum degree, minimum degree of health, even maximum.
Clark: Who ran these centers?
Hunter-Gault: The local NGO's, non-governmental organizations. Part of the problem had been, with all the fighting people were afraid they couldn't get access to things like this. And of course, the soldiers who had by this time landed were providing security. Part of the thing that brought the troops in was that the food that had been sent to alleviate the suffering that had been brought on by a combination of drought and civil war—they had a double dose of tragedy because there was a civil war which made it difficult to farm, and then there was the drought. And they were equally bad perils.
So the thing that brought the troops in was the fact that the war lords, so-called war lords, were preventing the food from being delivered from the docks where the ships would land and out to the people. So one of the first things they did was to secure the port, get rid of the war lord riff-raff or whatever, and start getting that food to those feeding centers, and then to escort the NGO convoys out into the countryside where the people who hadn't come into the cities were waiting for some kind of food relief.
So the image wasn't, again, what I thought it would be. And yet many media people who had come there for that purpose spent all their time looking for these starving people.
Clark: That's interesting.
Hunter-Gault: In fact, one of my colleagues had gone down to one of the media area centers—there were places where media people congregated—and heard one assignment editor tell his correspondent, "Goddamit, we came here to film starving people and you go out and find me some." But you had to look.
Clark: That's fascinating. That's so fascinating.
Hunter-Gault: Now, that isn't to minimize the degree of the tragedy because thousands of people were dying a day in January, December and January, when the troops got there, and that number was reduced significantly after there was a stable security presence there. But by this time, as I said, the most extreme cases had died and were buried often in these mass graves, or they had been placed in feeding centers.
It was several days before I got around to doing anything like that. And I went to Baidoa, which was a perilous four-hour drive, down one straight road, with bush on either side so that you could easily be—and the Somalis—the villagers along the way, in order to get revenue for themselves, I think even in ordinary times, they had things like rusty bed posts that they would attach to some kind of rotating wheel, very primitive kind of thing, but it was enough to block the way. And they would take toll money from the trucks and things that were making deliveries.
They didn't bother us. I don't know how they reacted with other camera people but that was how the bandits would often stop convoys of journalists and they would take their equipment. And then an hour later they'd send word, "If you want it, this is where you have to come, and bring five thousand dollars." They knew everybody who went in from outside went in with lots of cash because there were no banks. And we cashed up all our travelers checks and everything in order to have enough money to negotiate all the things that we needed, including security and everything else. You had to deal in cash.
So when we went down to Baidoa, I wanted to do people as opposed to situations. I didn't know exactly what I was looking for but I knew the kind of thing that I wanted to see. And I wanted to see something that would give some indication of how the people were recovering from this. One of the centers
that one of the NGO's had set up was a therapeutic feeding center for adult men who were the last [group] that they had started to concentrate on.
And through some confusion and chaos in the scheduling on their part, the center that we were supposed to go to wasn't available that day. When you're in the field like that, under danger and time pressure and everything else, you can't afford to blow off something that you've committed to for a day like that. So I said, "Well, find us another one." They said, "Well, there's a children's one." Now, you know, everyone's been doing stories on children. But I hear about this woman who runs this from Jackie Farmer, my producer who just left here. Very good. So I said, "Well, let's go see."
We got there and we met this woman named Michele. And it was one of the most extraordinary experiences I've ever had because it was the good news—well, let's put it this way. It was a bad news/good news story because the bad news was that there were people who had been starving and they were mostly the children, but some women. And the children were very sick. That was the bad news. The good news is that with feeding of high-protein biscuits and rice and beans and milk, they were able to bring most of those children back—either had brought them back or were bringing them back.
Now, the stories that were told were horrendous about how many of them got there. One kid's whole family, by the time she got there, the father was sick when they left the village. And he stopped one day under a tree to rest, and told them, "I've got to rest." And while he was sitting there resting, a hyena came and ate him, in front of them. And they straggled on, I think eventually the mother died. And then finally maybe one or two of the other kids died and then there were two. They were taking care of each other.
And this little sick girl—I touched her—I remember. It was the most extraordinarily challenging thing I think I have done. The last thing somebody here had said to me was, "Now, be careful. If you go into any closed-in space where people are coughing, you know, get out of there because TB [tuberculosis] and other kind of germs spread like that in the air." And I walked into what was like a little hut and it had five or six rooms. All of them were wall-to-wall kids, mothers there sitting with them, some of them feverish, some of them delirious, and all of them coughing. But somehow it didn't matter.
So we went from room to room. And I suddenly felt so totally intrusive. I just felt totally uncomfortable in the face of all this misery, to be walking through with a camera. I mean, I had met this little kid, for example, who was just well on the road to recovery and they had tried to take him back to the orphanage across town—he was about four years old, about two feet tall. And every time they'd take him back, he'd find his way back; he refused to leave. And they would give him clothes to take with him to the orphanage. He'd sell the clothes and come back.
And there were kids with malaria and other kinds of disease like that. And then there was this one kid—this was when my frustration about my presence there just reached its peak. This is a kid who had contracted gangrene in the leg. He was not only going to lose his leg; they knew he was going to die. And he had the biggest—he was real thin—and he had the biggest eyes. And he just looked up at you like, you know, not utterly hopeless and yet helpless. It was right after she told me the story of his situation that I said to her, "I'm sorry. I feel that I'm being intrusive. Am I?" And she said, "Well, not yet, because the media have been here before but this is a story that needs to be told. And so, it could get to be a problem but it hasn't yet."
And then she took me outside and showed me this tree they called the "death tree." And that was the tree where throughout the day and night, mostly at night, when they would die, they would wrap them in some kind of sack cloth and place them under that tree because so many were dying, they didn't have the facilities and resources to take them anywhere. And nothing was working. So they would place these little bodies under this tree and every morning the death wagon would come and collect them and go and bury them in mass graves, because the area in front of this place already was filled with bodies. The nurse told me about the death tree and she was worried about the space around the death tree because she said any strong rain and those bodies were going to be exposed to all kinds of diseases. Kids were out there playing on these mounds of dirt.
So my approach to covering any situation always—I do a certain amount of planning here in my office with my colleagues. But the way in which I cover these things now that I found the most effective is to allow it to evolve out of the situation. And here was one you couldn't have planned for. So what I did with that one is what I did with most of Somalia: I decided that people were so focused on Somalia because of the television images and yet none of them [the viewers] can be there. So I wanted to try to create a mood in my pieces that made them feel that they were there. So, for example, I never put on any makeup. I tried to be neat and everything, but I didn't spend a lot of time fixing my hair. It just seemed so obscene, in a way.
I had one word with the cameraman who was the lead cameraman, a wonderful guy from Belfast [Eugene McVeigh]. I was doing something, just looking, and he was off shooting cover footage. And I suddenly wanted to talk to this man instantly, and he wasn't there. And so I had told the producer, I said, "Look, this is how we're going to do this. It's going to be like cinema verité because I want the people to experience what I'm experiencing when I'm experiencing it, not after I've gone and set up the cameras and turned on the lights. I want it now. So tell him that from this moment on we are joined at the hip."
And that's why whenever I go anywhere, I ask for him, because with that little bit of instruction, expression of what I wanted, he completely understood and I never once ever—I mean, we could get off of a truck and be surrounded by hundreds of people and I would never, ever even look for him. I would just start interviewing people and I would know he was there. And I think it's some of the strongest work that I've done because I tried to get out of the way. And based on the reaction in the letters and things that I've gotten from people, it worked.
So I did the same thing essentially when I went to the Middle East. I tried to be up close and personal with the people. And I think that you can do that without crossing the line away from journalism and into something else, whatever else that would be. I mean, it's a kind of personal journalism. But how can you not be personal in a situation that is that tragic and human?
Clark: You must have a tremendous amount of feelings yourself.
Hunter-Gault: Well, I think anybody would. I mean, anybody but the coldest, most calculating person.
So that was the main thing. My own view of it was that everybody knows that people are starving and dying. But the story here is more layered than that. And also the fact that they had begun to very quickly, actually, arrest the mortality. So that I went to these villages and tried to get some sense of—you know, because I thought that one of the things that, for all of the sympathy of the American people, there were these questions about how they could let themselves get into this position.
So I went to village in which I hope I was able to show—I was able to show, the extent to which people took it in I don't know—they were people who before the civil war there, were self-sufficient. They were farmers producing maize and all kinds of crops that they fed themselves with and exported to other places.
But this guy told me the story, this elder in this village told me the story of how the soldiers of Barre came there and because they suspected all the men in the village to be collaborators with the anti-Barre forces, rounded them up and shot them. And everybody who did flee to the woods, they shot and left for dead, including one woman who had a baby strapped to her back. And when the villagers returned after the massacre to collect the bodies and bury them, there was this woman with this baby still strapped to her back. She was dead and the baby was wiggling on her back, alive.
He told me this story. I said, "Show me the graves." And he took me to where these—and as far as the eye could see, I remember in the foreground was a camel and it was like a half mile away. And that whole space was filled with—I don't know, I think it was more than two thousand bodies.
So it wasn't just indolence and laziness on the part of the people. And perhaps if there hadn't been the civil war, there would have been some way they could have even coped with the drought. The drought would have been hard and that's a fact of life. But these are people who have gone through drought before. But it was this relentless killing and massacring of the people that so wounded them in every conceivable way.
So I just let him tell me the story. And at the end, I think he didn't—you know what happens in these kinds of situations, it happens in America because the media are so omnipresent. And it's interesting how in places like that, people so quickly adapt because here people haven't been used to television cameras all over the place, but they soon, as happened later with the children, get used to it and they get used to providing minimal information for the sound-bite.
And so, the kids would be making noise and stuff. And these camera crews would be paying them off to be quiet. So that any time a camera crew would show up anyplace, particularly in the urban areas like Baidoa—not outside in the villages yet or in Bardera or Mogadishu—kids would come up and start yelling and screaming until you gave them some money to be quiet.
And I realized this was happening. One day I was doing the Christmas story, Christmas Eve, and they came up to me. I was interviewing these soldiers in this half-track. And they [the kids] started this and I put my hand on my hip, like we used to do down South and I looked at these little kids like they were little kids who had lost their mind.
Clark: Yes. People!
Hunter-Gault: And I didn't even speak. I just stared them down until they got quiet and slunk off. And I finished my interview. But they were getting ruined by this indulgence of these people trying to get these sound-bites and run them off.
So this village elder told me this whole story. And then he got a little anxious, he wanted to get back, because this was the first delivery of grain to this village. So he wanted to go back and make sure that everything was okay, so I walked back with him. And then I went off and talked with some other people, including this widow whose husband had been killed in the Barre massacres. At that time I did not know she was pregnant but she had two other kids. And I talked to her about what had happened and she told me about him being killed in cold blood.
So at the end of the trip, we had to leave because we had to go when the convoy went because the convoy was under escort of the Marines. The elder came running after me, "Wait, wait!" And he brought me back and he said, through the interpreter, that they wanted me to be the one to present the food to the village. And I think it was simply because I had established a human connection with this man—because I told him, I said, "Wait a minute. I don't have anything to do with this food being brought here. I just came along for the ride."
"No, we want you." It's interesting for Africa because, you know, it's such a patriarchal society. He chose the man and the woman. And the man was the son of the man he said was the oldest man in Africa—he was over a hundred twenty-five years old, he said. And so I presented a great, big thing—I don't know if you saw that one but a great, big bag of grain. And then he said, "And we have the woman," which surprised me. And when I turned around, here was this woman whom I had interviewed earlier, the widow. And the widows wear white on their heads. The piece ended on her face because the face told the whole story.
One of the things that has happened with my gaining my experience doing these [pieces] over time is I can construct the piece in my mind as I'm doing it. So I had seen this piece, I had already started to write it as I was moving through this village. And I could see this and I saw that as the next-to-the-last. And I didn't see anything else until we got on the truck to go back. And when I turned around and looked down this dusty road,
the entire village was standing in the road and waving—the entire village, including this shy woman. And I saw that as the close.
But when we got back to Mogadishu and were editing, it was anti-climactic, after that woman's face. And my producer [Anthony Van Witsen] had the good sensitivity and instinct to recommend that we stop there. I was prepared to argue because the other scene had been so arresting. But when I saw that face frozen there, I said, "You're right. That's it." Now, I could have insisted and he would have done it my way. But you know, that's where the collegial nature of the effort comes in. And also, it's a benefit to having a team that you work with all the time because they trust you and you trust them and their instincts because they're proven over time.
So it was a very different Somalia. Everybody in that village, like the women when we got there, the elder apologized that they weren't all there. Many of them had gone to the bush to hide because they had no clothes, they were naked, and just because they had no money and no materials to make things. And that was the village when I went back.
The second part of my Somalia coverage is that, you know, we all get drawn to these things. And I often have an instinctive aversion to going where everybody's going because everybody's going there. And what can we do that's going to be different? Well, we always end up doing something different because while we go often to the places where everybody is, we take a very different approach. In fact, most of the time we try to stay away from other TV people, not to not relate because when you're out there, everybody relies on things from everybody else.
But we're all—the same blood that runs in all of them runs in us. So if something big were happening, the temptation to get involved in that would be so great. So we just stay away. We had a house, a villa that I had found when we first got there that we rented. The other thing that happens is that everybody flows to the spot of the big story, like Somalia or like the Middle East. They do their thing and then they leave and they feel that they've covered that. And then they don't go back.
But in April we went back. I still have this desire to go back. The recent trip of General Shalikashvili, the head of the Joint Chiefs—we had considered going but I had thoughts about it over the weekend and I said, "No, because it's a twenty-four-hour trip that's going to be totally orchestrated by the military." And while I think the military did some great things in Somalia, even as they did some ridiculous and stupid things, you cannot do the kind of story that needs to be done now by a quick in-and-out trip like that. So we decided not to go.
I would still like to go back because the U.S. over time has invested a lot in Somalia, before, during, just to see—because people told us when we first went there, NGO people, that if the U.S. didn't stay the course, that is until the country was back on its feet, it might end up being worse than if they had never gone at all. So that's what I'd like to go back and see.
Now, it's not too late. I mean, the U.S. is just pulling out and so you could go in June, you could go in July, you could go in August, or go in December. Maybe that's the time to go, December. But a peculiar thing has happened. And it is this that I will always, I hope as I have breath in me to breathe, inveigh against this.
The interest is so totally down now in Somalia that it is difficult to make a case for that expense. It is an expensive undertaking to go there. You have to take in all your food. You have to take in everything because there's nothing there that you can rely on. You can eat vegetables that you can peel and stuff like that. But you have to take in your milk, your water, everything. And communicating from out of there is very costly, as well. So to be able to convince somebody that we should go where there is no longer a U.S. military presence or maybe even not U.S. officials, State Department people or anything, to invest that kind of money into going back there is going to be a very difficult argument to make.
Clark: Here, you mean.
Hunter-Gault: I mean just in American television. It would be difficult here, too. And we do more than most in following a different path. But I think even here it would be difficult.
Clark: Is that really the case of a lack of interest or is that because it's so politically sensitive?
Hunter-Gault: Oh, it's not politically sensitive. That's not the reason. It just gets uninteresting after a while. I think the feeling is that it's not a major issue any more in American policy. I mean, that's an attitude that has to change over time if we are going to truly reflect what is happening in the world because, you know, communications is such today that while countries still have their own foreign policies and everything else—well, it's going to be hard to ignore places like that. Or maybe it won't. I mean, it'll perhaps be easy to ignore them.
Clark: In the short run.
Hunter-Gault: Or maybe even in the long run because even in the long run, what difference does it make what happens in Somalia? I mean, it's not like what happens necessarily in Russia or in Bosnia, for that matter, which could spill over. There's virtually nothing in Somalia that could happen that would involve any kind domino thing that you could remotely identify as U.S. interests. If humanitarian interest in general becomes an overriding principle, then if it happens in a little, tiny place like that, fine. It's not my own personal wishes, but I just don't think that there are going to be any compelling interests in doing it.
I mean, the one thing about this place [MacNeil/Lehrer] is that I could probably make a case and I could probably go. One of the considerations I had recently on the Shalikashvili trip was, with so little interest at this moment was how long I would I go. If I went with Shalikashvili, I'd like to stay after he left. And my concern was that—I'm not ever overly concerned about the danger but I'm not going to put myself at that kind of risk without a real interest and commitment from the program. There was no question at this point that there were other priorities for the program.
But the way I put a sort of marker on it, I went out to Denver and I interviewed this young man who was a worker in one of the NGO organizations, International Rescue Committee. And his jeep one day hit a land mine and blew his leg off—or he lost his right leg eventually and now they're trying to save the left, I think it's going to be salvageable—and had him tell the story of what happened to him. And I've gotten a lot of letters on it because he was so sympathetic.
But also it was interesting because he said that the Somalia that Americans see on television wasn't the Somalia that he knew because by the time of his injury, the areas in which he had been working were coming back, structures were being put back in place and things were starting to grow and people were starting to feed themselves and have food left over for sale and export. Who knows what's going to happen between now and next December? That's a big question mark. But it will be interesting to see how many people who were there the first time around will go back and see what has happened.
You know, these are humanitarian issues and it's increasingly going to be those kinds of things that are going to be the stories. I don't think that the conditions that gave us the Cold War will come back. There might be other ones, though. And it's interesting that as Russia moves to reassert itself in the national arena that many people who now have great suspicions about Russia's overall ultimate intentions—I don't know enough about it to really be an expert—but those rivalries that forced this kind of thing in the first place could come back and you could have situations that have nothing to do with humanitarian concerns driving our actions and policies.
But in the absence of that I think that human rights, humanitarian concerns are going to be major factors in the near future.
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Clark: I just wanted to ask you a couple of questions about Somalia and how things worked there in terms of coverage. Did you normally with your team have any kind of contact with journalists who were already in the area who have lived there and corresponded?
Hunter-Gault: Oh, yes.
Clark: What is that like with "MacNeil/Lehrer" versus some other news teams?
Hunter-Gault: I don't know.
Clark: You don't know.
Hunter-Gault: I don't know what the other news teams do. I think they probably look for—most places they have to get fixers on the ground in these situations where they don't know the terrain. And I always look for local journalists. In Somalia they had a quite vigorous press, as it were. You know, mimeographed sheets which were widely read and they were quite strong. I mean, the cartoons were funny and sophisticated and on the money. And while their regular presses had been shut down they were communicating among themselves.
Now you know, outside of the U.S., especially in places like Africa, in developing nations, the journalists are often, if not torn, divided between those who between those who support the government and those who don't. I think it's almost rare that you have journalists who aren't torn, especially in countries that have been involved in liberation struggles. Most of the journalists see their work as being part of building the nation. Now, it doesn't always mean necessarily that they will work hand-in-hand with the government, although many of them do. But they try not to do things that are antagonistic to the government or that they see would be to the detriment of the nation. They have a different kind of mindset than we do.
But I'm not critical of that. That's their situation and it's different from ours. And it's sort of rare to find so-called independent journalists or journalists who will analyze in the same way the Western journalists do, especially American journalists. But I was able to find that in Somalia. And I think part of the fact that I'm black and have had the kinds of experiences I have, I can appreciate that culture and their instincts nonjudgmentally. I mean, I'm not judgmental about it or certainly not necessarily critical.
Now, you always consider the source of your information. But I found this Somali journalist who was very fair-minded. And apparently he was quite brave because he would go on both sides of the city. The city was divided into north and south Mogadishu. And the north was one war lord's territory and the south was the other's. He'd walk back and forth between the two, unconcerned about any harm that might come to himself. But I think as a result, there was quite a bit of respect for him and for his integrity. He would call it as he saw it. And he was very helpful to us.
But it's rare to find journalists in developing nations, undeveloped, underdeveloped and developing nations, to be as so-called objective as ours. I mean, I have problems with that because I think even ours come out of some strange bags sometimes.
Clark: So how would you define good journalism in terms of its relationship to objectivity?
Hunter-Gault: Our journalism?
Clark: How would you define what you would call good journalism? Yes, yours.
Hunter-Gault: Well, you see, I don't know what objectivity is because everybody comes out of a set of experiences and backgrounds that are going to cause them to see things slightly differently. I don't care what they say, I don't believe there are any totally apolitical journalists. And while they may not be promoting a particular agenda, for example, during the civil rights movement. I mean, most of the journalists, especially those that came from the North but many of them who were Southern, were totally sympathetic to the civil rights people, including myself. And that in their eyes they saw this movement, I think, as being right.
But journalists, if you took the strictly objective line, aren't supposed to make those kinds of moral determinations. You're supposed to just go out there and cover the story. But that never happens. It just doesn't. It doesn't mean that they necessarily are really one-sided. But you know, you look a little ways. And I said "increasingly." I see this as a growing trend. You look at articles in the newspaper today, especially papers like the [Washington] Post and the [New York] Times and journalists who cover certain subjects throughout the week might write columns that are more or less news but then on weekends, they can give their opinions, and often do.
And opinions I see creeping more and more into the news columns. But even before this particular period there were always those—I mean, seeing the world through the eyes of the power people in this business, up until just very recently— and even now, with some exceptions—has been through the prism of white males, with a certain kind of background and experience. They weren't necessarily all wealthy or all that. But they had a certain assumption about themselves and about the world based on their privileged status as white males. And so it was very difficult to convince them, if they ever reached a conclusion about something, that they were wrong. And I've had quarrels even with some of my friends who were in positions of power because of positions that they've taken, which is often out of ignorance. It's often not venality, it's often ignorance, but it's still the impact, the effect is still the same.
So proceeding from that perspective, I have real problems with the term "objectivity" because how did we get racism and sexism and all these other things that are revealed when we analyze our media. It is because this principle of objectivity is an impossible standard to meet. Here is the argument, for example, for fairness. Here is the argument for more diversity, of points of view and experiences and backgrounds and so on: because no one person has a corner on objectivity, how better to arrive at something that at least is fair than to have the perspective of a variety of people. [Tape interruption]
Hunter-Gault: It seems to me that if we were truly interested in truth, then it's what we get after we have gone through, after whatever information that we gather has been processed by people with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Every reporter goes out and comes back and brings in a product, whether it's print or electronic media that goes through some kind of editorial review process. And so starting with whoever the reporter is all down to those involved in the review process, the more different perspectives and backgrounds that you bring to it, from the copy editor to the overall editor, the better the product is going to be because I will see things that another woman, who may be white, will not see, or a Northerner because I'm a Southerner and there's a different culture there, or a white male or even a black male. So it's just always to me made the most sense—forget the morality of it, although I would first and foremost put morality of being inclusive, but forget the morality of it. The pragmatic need to have a good product to sell ought to drive that kind of inclusiveness.
Clark: Do you think we are close to an understanding of that?
Hunter-Gault: No. I don't think so. I think that the people who've always made the decisions are still making them. And I think that the few inroads that people with different backgrounds, cultural heritages and
skin colors and genders are able to make—the few people who have been put in those positions are in such isolation within the organizations that it's very difficult for them to have an impact. They can register an opinion but their opinion doesn't carry anything like the weight of a critical mass.
And so often I think that people who are put in positions like that are overwhelmed by the culture that they find. And this isn't necessarily a condemnation of them. But they just find themselves going along, just to get along, because they could be out any minute, too, because they don't have any real depth of support. I mean, if there were the commitment in the society and it was strong, then these people would have support and they could be strong. You can look at some things and see that there's been some degree of—you can see the result of some different kinds of interventions and so on.
But by and large, when a big and important job [opens up], for example, in the networks or anywhere else—and I include PBS [Public Broadcasting System] in that—it still goes to the white man. Now, you have exceptions, like Diane Sawyer and two or three others. But have you seen any black person being put in any [similar position]? There's Ed Bradley at "Sixty Minutes" and he's certainly in a good position, but these are rare exceptions. Black people and women—I think at a certain point the racial thing presents a greater challenge and difficulty than the gender.
Clark: What about the combination? [Tape interruption.]
Hunter-Gault: I think men are just more comfortable with men. And white people are more comfortable with white people. It's just as simple as that. And I've seen it time and time and time again, routinely. I mean, again there are exceptions. And people might look and see me as an exception. I don't, but in general, it is what I just said. People's comfort level is very important. And people are much more comfortable with their own. I don't have any doubt in my mind where I would be if black people were in charge in this industry.
Clark: Yes. I don't, either.
Hunter-Gault: But that's the way it is. [Tape interruption.]
Clark: Let me ask you a question that occurs to me when you talk about levels of comfort. When I was watching your series on apartheid people, I was impressed by your equanimity. And you were in the home of Jan LaRoux. How do you pronounce that?
Hunter-Gault: LaRoux. (Lah-Rue)
Clark: And your exquisite sense of projection, a sense of ease with these people with whom you probably have very substantive disagreement. In fact, as you narrated the pictures that we were seeing, you obviously expressed your observations, analytic observations about the limitations. What is it that enables you to operate with such ease? I don't know if I would call it objectivity or distance or sophistication. But what is it that enables you to cross those kinds of boundaries? Do you make individual judgments about individual people or do you have a way of withholding judgment?
Hunter-Gault: I think I have a way of knowing who I am and separating that from what I do. I attribute this in part to the way I was brought up and I've become even more conscious of it as I've written and had to speak about my book and talk about what it is about. And it has a lot to do with my perception of who I am. I was brought up to believe that there was nobody better, that there was nothing I could not do.
One of the stories I tell is how my father, from the earliest time I can remember, used to tell me I had a first-rate mind. He never said it's a first-rate mind in relationship to other black kids or boys or girls or whites or whatever. It was just, "You have a first-rate mind," period. And without my even realizing that, that created a certain attitude about myself. And I guess there were times when I would get really distressed, when I wouldn't be performing at the level that I thought I could be, and for a long time never felt that it was because I couldn't. I felt that it was something I just wasn't getting.
You know, I have deficiencies and deficits like everybody else. But I think that this insistence that I was first-rate and that I was as close to perfect as any creature God ever made could be, while it might lead to even excess, it might even lead to certain immodesty, or as people used to say of my father, you know, he was arrogant. But for a black child growing up in the South, it was my salvation. And it is today because there might be circumstances that I feel challenged by, people that I might feel a bit—I don't feel awed by too many people. But to be in this service is like being in—some of the places I've been in—for the heads of state, Elysée Palace, there were different places. It is always my principal concern, am I asking the right questions, am I getting the right information? And my nervousness is more about that than about who I'm interviewing; have I constructed the right sequence of questions to get at the kind of information that's going to be useful?
Now, there may have been a time earlier in my career, although I can't remember it, when I might have been a little bit more intimidated by the surroundings, some of the surroundings. I'm trying to think of any. Or maybe when I was less sure of my abilities as a journalist. But never as a person. So I've always felt that provided I could hook up the other part of it—the journalism part—I could talk to anybody.
I've always felt that the power of journalism, the kind of journalism that I do—and we do here—lies in our ability to elicit from the person their beliefs so that the public will be able to judge the integrity and rightness of both beliefs or the wrongness of them. I'm now committed to that although I'm growing somewhat frustrated, given the way that our societies are moving, I'm somewhat frustrated by our formats that I think often limit us in terms of getting at the shades of gray, because it's in there that I think often the truth lies. And sitting there knowing that somebody is lying—
Clark: What do you do?
Hunter-Gault: There's not a whole lot that you can do. You can use the record, the available record, and you can use other people's criticism. But after you've done that, after you've said, well, the record shows this and they deny that or disagree with that or other people say this and that and they disagree with that, you can press them and people can maybe get an impression. But you just cannot sit there and say, "Well, I know that you're not telling the truth." You just have to hope that people will appreciate that.
I think the public is a lot more sophisticated than we often give them credit for. Now, sometimes they read a lot into things. But I think a lot of times they can get it, they get it. They will look there and they'll see somebody dissembling and they'll be able to tell. Not always but a lot of times.
Clark: Well, we could tell when Joseph McCarthy* dissembled in front of television. That was one example.
Hunter-Gault: But you see, in an increasingly telegenic age, electronic age in which telegenicity is—I just created a word, I think.
* Joseph Raymond McCarthy (1908-1957), Republican senator from Wisconsin who led a communist "witch hunt" from 1950-54 accusing the State Department and the U.S. Army Signal Corps of employing communists. In televised hearings from April 4 to June 17, 1954, McCarthy's claims are unsubstantiated and he is finally recognized as a reckless fraud. In December 1954 the Senate condemns McCarthy for misconduct.
Clark: That's a great word.
Hunter-Gault: But which is increasingly important and relied upon, I think that's the worry because people become experts at—it's just like the CIA taking lie detector tests, you know, in this recent thing with this Russian spy. They know what to do to pass the lie detector test. Just like my mother recently went to see a doctor and she didn't want to go but she went because of an incident. She knew she had not a leg to stand on in terms of not going. And my mother, who's very shrewd and smart and manipulative—I didn't realize how much so until she went to this doctor—just totally snowed this doctor.
And I thought about the lie detector test and I thought, if you know how to push the right buttons, you know, you can beat this thing. And politicians and others are now taking lessons on how to master the video image. And so I think that that's something to be really worried about and is causing me—and I'm probably not the only one out here, there may be others but I'm just speaking for myself—to look for different ways to communicate.
One of the things that I have come up with, I came up with several years ago and I may have talked to you about this before, is the conversation, which is not a confrontational interview and not an oppositional interview although I might put to somebody something that somebody else has said. I might argue with them a little bit out of my own ideas and perceptions. That has opened up a little bit of the space. I'm still not convinced that I'm—this is something I'm trying to work on.
I guess in the end it's how you do a better interview. And I think I do reasonably good ones but there are some that still trouble me and I would like to figure out—and those that trouble me are not the ones where I'm dealing with the regular people. With the regular people, it's okay. They're not so sophisticated that they ever contemplated how to pull the wool over your eyes. And usually it's not in their best interest to do that. It's the experts and the policy-makers and the politicians and people who have made a science out of lying to people. It's just that that I'm challenged to try and figure out some format that is more flexible for not stepping over the line of fairness but for being able to say to the people, "What you're hearing is not the truth and I know it."
I don't know how we do that yet. Some people are better than others on television at it. I mean, [Ted] Koppel has recently gotten way out there. He'll just say it. But you know, he has a lot of power, he has a lot of authority, he has a lot of support.
Clark: And he's a white male and he can get away with it.
Hunter-Gault: And he's a white male.
Clark: What was it like to interview [General] Norman Schwartzkopf?
Hunter-Gault: That was great—people told me. I had said, "How much time am I going to have with him?" I asked his aide. And he said, "It depends on how well you bond." [Laughter] Well, you know, for a lot of women that's a bit of real daunting comment. But see, I'm a military brat.
Clark: Yes, you seemed very comfortable with him.
Hunter-Gault: So I knew how to bond with the general because I had been bonding with generals and colonels and captains and lieutenants all my life.
Clark: Did you bond with him before airing?
Hunter-Gault: Yes. I only had before air-time to bond. So the minute he walked in the room, I started commenting on his fatigues. They had a new special Desert Storm outfit. They had used one of the pieces of material to drape over the secret map that they plan their strategies with, you know, for the interview. So, I was talking about that and he was saying his wife liked it, too, and she'd had a skirt made out of it. I knew I had him then.
I don't have any problem with using my femaleness. I don't go in trying to be one of the guys. I go in trying to be me, a reasonably attractive—I don't mean just physically—I think I'm not an unattractive person. And I think men—it depends on the culture but I haven't had a problem with men in any culture.
You use what you've got. Boys will use their boy talk and their testosterone bonding to do it, so I'll use what I got. Which isn't to say I would screw for an interview, I'm not saying that, or do anything untoward. But I'm talking about just in terms of my presentation. I don't think it hurts to be charming. And, you know, if necessary, at some point you might have to turn off the charm if somebody's going to play with you. But I haven't found that to be the case. And in the main, I have found that even the most cantankerous and hard-bitten of people will respond to gentleness and respond to good manners.
I had unlimited time, for example, with [Lt. General] Hafez Al-Assad [President of Syria]; who rarely gives interviews. And he spent half an hour and would have spent longer talking with me and inviting me into his quarters—into a receiving area, just me alone. And if ever there was a situation that was intimidating, because when I walked into the outer room where all the crew was assembled, they had their people from the Syrian TV because Syrian TV was going to run the interview, too, after we did. And there were seventy men in there—and me. We just chatted and he became very comfortable. And people have told me that they've never seen him more relaxed on an interview. And he spoke quite openly and freely. So I think that everybody—use what you got.
Clark: What was it like to interview Alice Walker?
Hunter-Gault: Oh, it was good. I know Alice, you know, I've known her for a while and I know what she's like. It was easy. We come from the same culture.
Clark: That was for the "Rights and Wrongs" series. I realize you've got to stop in a minute.
Could you just tell me a word or two about how that series started?
Hunter-Gault: "Rights and Wrongs"?
Hunter-Gault: "Rights and Wrongs" was a brain child of Danny Schecter and Rory O'Connor who had produced "South Africa Now" for a couple of years and filled a real void in terms of pieces about what was going on there, at a point when the networks weren't interested. After that was over, they came around with this idea of a human rights series. And they came to talk to me about it. I thought they came to me for support; they had done that with "South Africa Now". So I was all prepared to do whatever I could. But they wanted me to anchor the show.
And it was so in keeping with my own thinking about new ways of approaching some of these issues. I mean, human rights is an old issue, as it were, but it has new meaning in this current world configuration in which nobody's quite figured out what real standards are going to be applied to nations—what practical and moral standards you can apply to determine the suitability of a nation to be a part of the family of nations.
So I thought that this was kind of right on. And plus [President Bill] Clinton had talked throughout his campaign about the importance of human rights and how human rights was going to be a centerpiece of his administration and all that. And then to create special positions within the government to deal with human rights.
So it just seemed to me to be right on target, not only because of the subject itself but the way in which they planned to do it. This is a time when network television is drawing back on its commitment of resources overseas. And yet even without the superpower rivalries, especially without the superpower rivalries, what we have to look forward to in the coming years is these inner ethnic tribal wars and small conflicts. And we see that increasingly governments are democratic governments. Yet, "in principle" democratic governments don't necessarily treat their citizens in that way.
So without correspondents in many of these places, some of which will be real out of the way, how do you find out what's happening? And why is that important? Well, it's important because of what America says it stands for, for one thing, and in order to hold it accountable to its own principles, we need to see who it is supporting and how and why. Also there is this overall concern about the Family of Man, which is admittedly idealist, but why not?
So without the presence of resources from networks, people and financial, this seemed to be a great way of filling a void, at least temporarily, because we use a lot of video diaries and video reports that were done by the people themselves.
Clark: Yes, it's fabulous.
Hunter-Gault: Obviously, those have to be packaged within a journalistic context. But that's where we come in in part, to say, you know, this isn't the most "objective" piece you'll ever see because it was done by the people who were involved in the situation. But here is the situation as they tell it. And we can often say, "Now, the impact in those cases"—if the governments or whoever is doing the suppressing choose not to cooperate with us—"the impact is often disproportionately in favor of the person telling the story. But we'll try to make every effort to assure some balance."
Clark: Well, some of these things that camcorders get, of course, would never be gotten by anybody else.
Hunter-Gault: Would never be done otherwise. I mean, we were the first to air stuff about Saddam Hussein draining the marshes in southern Iraq. In fact, when Abe Rosenthal wrote his piece about female circumcision and how nobody—the networks—weren't doing anything—we sent him a copy of the transcript and the tape and said, "Hey, ho, wait a minute."*
Clark: Yes, I wondered about that when I read that editorial.
Hunter-Gault: Yes, we did it first. And I think subsequently he wrote another editorial in which he agreed.
Clark: Thank you so much for your time.
* Alice Walker was interviewed by Charlayne Hunter-Gault on her views on female circumcision, and the interview was aired on "Rights and Wrongs." Subsequently, Abe Rosenthal, columnist for the New York Times wrote a column criticizing North American feminists for not speaking out about their opposition to female circumcision.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
Washington, DC. All Rights Reserved.