[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Clark: This is April 1, 1994, and this is the fifth session of our interview with Charlayne Hunter-Gault for the Washington Press Club Foundation. Thank you again for your time right before you're about to leave for South Africa in the morning.
I wanted to ask you some of the questions we've talked about before. You've practiced journalism at the New Yorker, the New York Times, and now "MacNeil/Lehrer," which are three of our most venerable media institutions. I'd like to hear a little bit about each one of those in terms of how they've influenced you in terms of who you are in journalism today and how you practice your craft, beginning with the New Yorker. What was it like to start there in journalism?
Hunter-Gault: I think I've been privileged and blessed, really, to have been associated with the media institutions that I have because each of them, though different, had a particular and has a particular way of nurturing good journalists. Starting at the New Yorker, I think William Shawn's vision of how to develop good journalists was one that definitely influenced the way I developed because in his mind's eye, the writer was like a plant that had to be nurtured and nourished. And so there was none of the sort of hard-bitten, hard-edged editor coming down on the writer. The writer's psyche was what was so important.
There are legendary stories about how the New Yorker went out of its way using all kinds of euphemistic approaches to tell somebody what they had written really stank. It was always something like, "Well, this piece doesn't quite work." I can still hear Shawn saying that. But he didn't say that to me too often.
The very first piece that I did for the New Yorker was a little reminiscence piece. And it was not many words and it was kind of a mood piece about my grandmother and I, a trip we took to Harlem from Covington, Georgia [although I used a made-up name for the town, Leverton]. And I'll never forget when he called me to say that the New Yorker was buying the piece. He simply said, "Miss Hunter, I've read 'A Hundred-Fifteenth-between-Lenox-and-Fifth' and I think it works." And that was like saying, "You have just been admitted to heaven."
I said to somebody, "That feeling was so great that I would have settled for just those words and not any payment." And somebody said, "Well, you're not a professional yet because every professional wants to be paid." So that was a very good lesson I learned, too, to be excited about someone affirming your work but also to demand or to expect to be compensated for it. I mean, that's what distinguishes professionals from amateurs.
And I think the genius of Shawn's editing was that no matter how much or how little he worked on your piece with you, he always was able to make you feel as if you were doing the work yourself, as if any idea of improving the piece had come from you. I remember my second piece—I was so excited about the first piece, which wasn't a real story as much as it was a mood piece, a tone poem almost. But my second piece was a real short story with a beginning and a middle and an end. And I had looked at all of the pieces in that genre and most of them that had been published were—well, I won't say wordy but with a lot of description; that was big at the time at the New Yorker, lots of descriptive passages about everything. So mine was full of descriptive passages about the kudzu vines crawling out onto the highway and this and that and the other, all the atmospherics of the South.
But it was really a piece about my grandmother and so when I got this call from him this time, he said, "Miss Hunter, I'd like to talk with you about your piece. It's very interesting." Here again nurturing the writer, because he didn't say to me over the phone, "The piece needs work," he said, "It's very interesting." And when he called me in, he said, "Your piece as it stands now has some very interesting elements in it but it doesn't quite work."
So I wanted to know, "Okay, does that mean it is really bad or it is"—and then he very quickly proceeded to say, "You have a very strong character in here in your grandmother and that's who the piece is about. So I would suggest that everything in here that doesn't develop that character be taken out." And of course, Ross Perot was nowhere on the scene but that phrase of his is so appropriate because when I left Shawn's office and went to my desk, you could hear a giant sucking sound of all of those long, flowery, descriptive passages about Southern highways and kudzu and everything just went right out.
I had revised that piece, I would say, within forty-five minutes, because it was such a simple directive and yet it was exactly what was wrong with the piece, the essence of the story had gotten lost in the detail, which, as I said, I had copied from what everybody else was doing. And once I did that, it was just a lovely story. I didn't even need anyone else to tell me. I knew it was there. That was the genius of that place.
When I got promoted to the "Talk of the Town" and started writing there, one of the things that I learned early on which I think has been useful in all of my journalistic work, whether it was in magazines or in newspapers or on television, was the absolute nobility of a simple idea.
I think that one of the real pitfalls for writers is trying to convey too many thoughts at one time. We all get caught up in the excitement of developing things and ideas in our heads and breaking stories, or whatever the creative thing is that we're working on. I think that the essence of good reporting, as well as good writing, is to be able to convey simple ideas. They may be about complex issues and they may indeed be complex thoughts. But in order for the reader not to have to work so hard that they lose interest in the subject, it has to be readable. And to be readable, or, even if it were on television, to be understandable, it has to be relatively simple.
There's a difference between being simple and simplistic. And I think that that's one of the things that we work at, too, especially on television, how to keep it simple but not be simplistic. But working for "Talk of the Town" where there were so many really good writers—there were a lot of "A" writers—so for your piece to get into the "Talk of the Town", which was limited to two, three pieces, it had to be "A+".
There were a lot of things that would give it that edge. One was that it was well-written but then these were writers who come from the best schools so you could assume that most of them were well-written. They had to be well-written, they had to have something unique about them, and they had to be presented in a way that was different from what everybody else was doing, even though we were all writing in the editorial "we" form.
So I think what Shawn encouraged, just very subtly, not in any kind of blatant way, was to pursue that which you know and which interests you. And at that time for me it was the black community and it gave me an edge because this was 1963, '64, '65. There wasn't that much of a concerted effort to cover the black community in any of the media because the '68 riots and the Kerner Commission* report hadn't come out yet. So it was a very sort of episodic, paternalistic look at what was going on that predominated in the media at that time about minorities, and blacks in particular.
* Kerner Commission - National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Lyndon Johnson on July 27, 1967, known by the name of Chairman Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. The commission issued its report in February 1968.
So what I did was to go to Harlem and write about extensions of the things that I had written in that first short story, "A Hundred-Fifteenth-between-Lenox-and-Fifth." Harlem viewed through the eyes of someone who didn't see it as just one big pathological blur but as a place where people lived. And when you write about people, you sometimes encounter the pathology or the unique or the bizarre. But if you approach it from the standpoint of people, as opposed to the standpoint of freaks of society or freaks of nature, then you get a much more rounded picture.
So it was that kind of thing that I did and it was extraordinary for the time because, as I said, no one was doing it consistently. And practically everything I wrote got into the magazine because it had that combination of things: It was well-written; it was unusual in the subject matter; and every now and then it would have a little bit of an edge to it that was different from what everybody else was writing. I tried to do it with some humor when humor was called for.
Clark: It sounds like a perfect world. Why did you leave?
Hunter-Gault: It was a perfect world and that was what the problem was. I had a little bit of an insight into the world of journalism when I had worked as an intern in the summer at the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times in Louisville, Kentucky. This was during the reign of the Bingham family and there was a legendary editor there by the name of Norman Isaacs. That summer I learned so much, which was one of the reasons I often encourage young people, before they decide to commit themselves to journalism school—not that there's anything wrong with that—but to see what practical experience does for them, and then how journalism school would fit into the scheme of things. I think that summer I learned so much about the rudiments of reporting because I was allowed to go out and report. I could see the difference between the environment in that newsroom and in the New Yorker because the newspaper was rough and tumble and hard-drinking in those days before health-consciousness: hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-driving. And editors would bite your head off if something was bad and unceremoniously reduce it to an M head which was like a couple hundred words, or dismiss it out-of-hand and you'd never know the difference.
So I knew that there was a different world outside the New Yorker. I was very young journalist although I had had a lot of experience for my age because I had worked with the civil rights movement newspaper in Atlanta, Georgia, which was a muckraking little paper that uncovered injustice and discrimination and so forth. So I'd had really good experience in that regard.
But I was concerned about the way in which I was forming and developing. I was worried that if I wasn't held to a tougher schedule, at least, I might get lazy or I might not push myself the way I felt I needed to. The New Yorker was not demanding in the sense that it didn't demand that you produce something every day or every week. They had enough good writers so that there was always an excess of material for the magazine.
So I looked around and saw young people who were graduates of the best schools just wasting away because they couldn't handle the lack of discipline imposed from the top. And I didn't want to be like that. I didn't want to spend six months to a year sucking my thumb or contemplating my navel. I wanted to produce. It was very important to me to establish myself as a journalist.
Well, in those days you didn't call yourself a journalist until you got to be Walter Lippmann or at that level. But nowadays everybody calls themselves a journalist. The first kid out of journalism school says, "Well, yes, I'm a journalist." The difference between a reporter and a journalist was the difference between a politician and a statesman. You didn't call yourself a journalist until you had achieved something notable, until you had really accomplished something. And usually it took a very long time. I mean, not every kid on the street was calling himself a journalist. It was the deans of journalism, most of whom were men. There may have been a few women who would have been exceptions but it was a very male-dominated profession. And so the senior statesmen in the profession, for the most part, were men. When I think of somebody, I think of an
elevated status of someone like a Walter Lippmann or a [James] Scotty Reston or a Homer Bigart at the New York Times.
So I wanted to be known for what I could do. It was in a way, while I've often said I didn't feel I had to prove anything to the world—I knew who I was, I knew what I wanted to do and what equipment I had to do it—because I had been famous at nineteen for something that should ordinarily have required no effort other than, you know, getting good grades and getting into college. I was famous because I had walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia. I was famous for being black.
I'm like everybody else, I don't mind being famous. But I wanted to be famous for something that I could do, that rested really on my abilities. So I wasn't satisfied that everybody knew my name. I wanted them to know my name in the context of what it was that I wanted to do, not in the context of what I was reacting against.
So I felt that this discipline was something that I very much needed. So I left the New Yorker. And also I felt that because of the distractions that I faced when I was still at Georgia, although the campus settled down after a while and was relatively quiet—I wasn't taunted throughout the two and a half years I was there—I still felt that I was somewhat distracted. I had reasonably good grades most of the time. But I felt that something was missing.
So both to gain more education, education I thought I had missed, and to develop this discipline, I looked for fellowships that I could study more and [looked for] work that I could do that was in a less pristine environment, with every intention of returning to the New Yorker eventually.
So when I left, I got a fellowship to study in the social sciences at Washington University. Also, as a part of the fellowship, I would edit Transaction magazine which published articles in the social sciences by academics. And if you've ever read an academic treatise, you know that one thing that is sorely needed is an editor's hand.
So that was fun in a certain kind of way because I was back in an academic environment that wasn't hostile and wasn't threatening, except that the formulations for social scientists were such that they didn't quite square with the reality that I already knew about and the reality that was happening in the streets. This was the year that Martin Luther King was killed. So you had all of these theories about social stratification and inequality and so forth. But it was so far removed from anything that was going on in the streets.
After the assassination of King, I got involved with the Justice Department and some other agencies in working with academic institutions and state civil rights groups to look at how the media could respond to the indictment by the Kerner Commission, which was that the media had to bear some of the blame for what had happened that caused cities to erupt in flames and rebellion and unrest.
So by participating in those sessions and having some ideas of my own about how to bring in the coverage, how to reach out to communities that had not traditionally been covered—that's all I had been doing all my life. One of the people I met at one of these seminars was the news director at WRC-TV in Washington [Irv Margolis] who wanted to do something very much like what I was proposing: more intensive coverage of minority communities, not just treating them as episodic cases and studies and some sort of weird behavior. So that's how I got from there to television. I spent a year doing that and then I came to the New York Times.
I guess that if the news editor of WRC/NBC had remained there, I might have stayed a while because he did have a different idea of approaching these issues and allowed us the time within the nightly news to do it. We did something called "News Four Probe." There were three of us: a white woman, black woman—me—and a black man. And out of each nightly half-hour news segment, if we had a piece that was six, seven, eight minutes long, it would get on and get on in a prime position in the news report. Well, that was revolutionary.
It still is. And it was very successful. We won a lot of prizes and all that, if that's the way you measure success. But we made a difference.
But then he left to come to New York. And at that point, the news director in New York, at the local NBC, thought this was the most ridiculous use of time he had ever heard of. So I knew that I wouldn't be happy there. And he offered me an opportunity to write for "Huntley-Brinkley," which was the major network news team at the time. But I didn't want to work for someone else. I wanted my own vision translated by myself. And so I went instead to the New York Times.
And the Times was, in its own way, very much like the New Yorker. It didn't nurture writers in quite the same gentile and wonderful way that the New Yorker did. I mean, I don't think there's any place that did that because that was all invested in one man, William Shawn. But they trained writers, I think, in a very good way. They had very high standards for their reporters. And while it was a rocky period in terms of African American reporters and the newspapers making the adjustments to their presence, I think that I waged some noble struggles and I think that they responded often in a very good way. And I measure that by the fact that there were some positive changes that took place as a result of those struggles.
So it was a good place to work because I was encouraged to come up with story ideas. I was given resources to pursue those ideas. And although in some instances I had to fight for some of those ideas and some of those expressions, I felt that I won enough to make it a noble struggle and a worthwhile struggle.
Clark: You were part of the fight to bring the word "black" into consistent usage at the Times. Could you tell us about that?
Hunter-Gault: Well, I think that the fight to bring "black" into consistent usage at the Times was probably one of my most significant battles there because it wasn't just the fight over the word. It was the fight over perception. And I think that that's the fight that we still wage, those of us who come from different perspectives, working in mainstream media. It's the fight that goes on in the larger society that's so far unresolved, and one of the critical challenges that faces us all as we continue to move in the mainstream.
But this was a critical moment where many people in black America were saying that the term "Negro" was derisive, derogatory and not appropriate. And I think that by the time that I wrote the memo about it, a significant consensus had begun to develop within the black community. It never happened with African Americans. But I think there was a real, significant consensus about "black."
So I wrote a story. I was in Chicago reporting for the national desk on a meeting of a black women's group, and used "black" instead of "Negro," and filed my story and got on a plane. And by the time I got to New York, the first edition was out. And everywhere I had used "black"—not everywhere but about every other time, just for variety's sake, the editor had changed it. And I have a very low boiling point. I did a real slow burn that by the time I got home from the airport had burst into full-scale rage.
In those days, they had a process by which you phoned in your copy, you dictated it, and then it was reproduced there in the—I don't know what kind of little office it was where they had these people—and then it was distributed to ten editors, you know, different copy editors, major editors, page-one editors, this, that and the other. That's how I phoned in the memo. It was distributed to all the editors simultaneously.
It created quite a stir because of the: a) unorthodox way in which it had been phoned in and distributed, and; b) because of the content. And it led to some serious discussions, some anger, hurt—because the editor whom I was working for at the time was a wonderful man who couldn't understand why I couldn't bring this to him and ask him to deal with it.
He would have dealt with it. He was honorable and sensitive. And he would have gone to the editor who made the change and said, you know, "Don't do this any more." But then it would have just happened. Because of this mindset, you see. The New York Times, like every other major newspaper or journalistic organization in the country, was run by white men, not necessarily venal, but men who saw the world through the prism of their experiences.
And this was my whole point, that you are making judgments about things like this issue through the prism of your own experience. And if you have invited us in, if you have brought us in, if you have opened your doors, whether they were forced or voluntary, we are here and you have to pay attention to what we have to say; because theoretically, the reason we are here is to give you the value of our insights and our perspectives and our points of view, within the context of how you do good journalism. Nobody's trying to be an advocate but the whole point of bringing people who are different into the newsroom is so that eventually through the gathering of ideas and observations from a variety of people with different perspectives, you get a synthesis that is probably as close to the truth, i.e., objective information, as possible. You can't get it from one source because everybody grows up and is subject to things that come out of their environment and so their perceptions are affected by the experiences that they've had.
So I thought, it's a wonderful idea to have plurality in the newsroom, to have different kinds of people with different sets of experiences. But you have to use them. And I think that that's the tragedy so far of this great experiment in difference in our media is that intellectually we've committed to bringing in people from different backgrounds and experiences. But still there's this emotional need by the people who run these institutions to have the last word.
Clark: Is that still true, do you think? Has it changed?
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Hunter-Gault: Just one thought that I would like to finish about that. Essentially the memo was not so much about the New York Times not using "black" when a black reporter wrote it. It was a wake-up call about perceptions and to say that you cannot any longer sit here and allow your perceptions to affect the way in which we try to report the truth. You have to allow other perceptions to come in. And when you have people whom you have sent out there to get at the truth and you've sent them particularly because they have a unique appreciation and understanding of that community or environment, then you're going to have allow their perceptions to be considered in the overall.
I talked about how in those days—and I think it's still true to a large extent today, twenty-some years later—the perception of people who live exclusively in the suburbs or who live exclusively in enclaves that consist of people who look like them or whose experiences are pretty much similar is still a problem. It's not as much of a problem as it used to be. But I think that the struggle that we're having, not just in the media but in all these institutions that have been owned by and run by white men is the struggle for power. And that is why the whole fight over affirmative action has been so bloody because those of us who are inside are saying it's not enough to be inside, we want to make a difference. And it is important for our views and voices to be heard because we don't want to make a difference just for the hell of it. We want to make a difference so that we can affect the quality of all of our lives.
Clark: What's necessary for that difference to be able to come about?
Hunter-Gault: I think that what will bring about that difference is a greater appreciation for the contributions that we all make. I'm not saying that my view exclusively is the right view. But I'm saying that this is a profession particularly that holds as its highest standard objectivity and truth. And we know that it's pretty close to impossible to reach the pure objectivity or pure unvarnished truth. But we can come a lot closer to it if we get that synthesis that is generated from a wide variety of sources. And if we can do this, if we can come
to the pot and put of all of our spices and all of our potatoes and whatever vegetables we're going to put into it and discuss it, you know, and taste it together and say, "Oh, it needs a little bit more this or a little bit more that," rather than it being an adversarial process, we make the product better.
But if it's going to be one of conflict because certain groups are still holding on to the notion that it is they who will be the final arbiters of truth, then we won't get to where we need to go, either in terms of a more inclusive vision or in terms of a better product. I think that all of our products could be improved if we had a much more cooperative spirit as we go about the process of inclusion, if you think of it as a positive thing as opposed to something that we have to do because the law says it or this or that or the other.
We ought to want to do it, not for the morality of it. I used to think that when I was young and idealistic. But it's not for the morality of it, it is for the absolute pragmatic side of it that we ought to do it. If you look at the world, it's true of the world and it is also true of America. If we are going to understand the evolutionary changes that are taking place in this country, as well as in the world, we cannot simply see it through one prism because we remain in that way kind of trapped in a way that doesn't permit the reality to come through.
And then if you continue to deny this force, it's like what happened in 1968. The eyes of the media were closed to what was going on in the ghettos of America and so it was like if the tree falls in the forest and if you didn't see it, then it didn't happen. Well, you see, life isn't like that because there was something happening there and one day it exploded and everybody had to look.
And it was a lesson that I learned very early on in my career, that you cannot ignore these forces because they will one day explode. And I think that that's what happening in America today as the complexion of society changes, and the complexity as well, as we receive more people from different cultures, different countries and cultures, and different communities. We have to appreciate that that is happening in order to make the necessary adjustments so that we don't end up like Bosnia.
America is still the one place where there is, I think, a consciousness that this experiment is going on, at least in some quarters. In my own reporting, I'm very much interested in that because it's just an extension of all the things that I've ever been a part of from the time I started my work in journalism.
Clark: Doesn't objectivity, the notion of it, carry with it some sense that anyone could cover anything, like any white person could cover any black situation, any man could cover any woman's situation?
Hunter-Gault: Well, you see, here again, I don't think that any of us has a corner on truth. To my way of thinking, as I said before, I think that if we all worked in this together in an atmosphere of collegiality and cooperation as opposed to competition and antagonism, we could produce a better product. I would be the first to rise up in anger if someone told me that I could only cover stories that related to African Americans or women.
One of the things I pride myself on is working hard at having the sensitivity to cover any situation. I don't think that we get very far if we begin to limit on that basis because we have a kind of Balkanization that I don't think is necessarily productive. I think that you can have sensitive white reporters covering black stories, because that happens. When I go, for example, into the Middle East, I know a fair amount about it. But the first thing I do is seek out people who are from the area, from the territory. I look for journalists who are Israeli or journalists or who are Arab or Palestinian Arab.
If I go into Somalia, I look for local people who can help me see what I have not yet learned to see, because even though I might have some intellectual understanding of what's going on, there's no situation that is just that simple. So I always look for others who come out of the culture or out of the environment or out of the experience to help either validate what I think I'm seeing or help to open my eyes even wider.
I don't go in, even given the background that I have, coming from being on the other end of segregation. I hesitate to use "victim," because I've never thought of myself in that context. But in the larger sense, you know, people who were denied access, who were denied their equal rights in a society, are, at a certain level, victims. So my natural tendency and inclination is to identify with the society's victims or people who have been deprived or people who've been on the outside, the have-nots.
But even with that empathy, I still find certain environments beyond my comprehension, beyond my understanding. Being in Saudi Arabia, I was in an environment where women were treated as second, third-class citizens. But I was not in an American culture. So I had to work really hard to try and understand the environment that I was in and how I should function and how I should relate to that environment.
Now, of course, you know, there was a movement that started among some Saudi women to demand more rights. But I had to step back from that a little bit and not allow my own cultural experiences, being brought up in a democratic Western society, to affect my attitudes about what I was doing and why I was there.
So I open myself up to learning more and understanding more, and don't go in with a mind-set that says, "I know what's right." And I still see that a lot, especially when my experience is with Western reporters. And while I think that we enjoy greater privileges than any journalists in the world because of the U.S. Constitution and because I think that we are freer to ask tough questions of leaders, all of that is good and we perform in a way much better than, say, if you're in a repressive society or a society that doesn't encourage a free press, and in fact inhibits a free press. It's not so difficult to perform in a different way because they tend to ask the sort of soft questions of their leaders and uncritical questions. So that that much of it is great when we can do it because I think it encourages them, it provides a different model for them, and so on.
The down side of that is that we often bring a very arrogant, imperialist attitude when we do that. I mean, our way is the right way, without taking into consideration the culture of the place, the patterns and practices. In the end, the people themselves may reject those patterns and practices and go against their own culture. But I don't think that's our place to do that. I think it's our place to try to understand the cultural environment in which we're working and try to report through that lens.
Clark: You told me recently that you were proudest of your work that you did in Somalia—or as proud of that work as some other pieces. I was thinking about that, particularly in relation to the story that you told about a woman named Michele who allowed you into a children's feeding camp and how careful you were not to be intrusive with her. And I was thinking about what Calvin Trillin wrote about you in the New Yorker series when he was observing you at the University of Georgia, and said that you had a unique capacity to watch yourself being watched, and to stand outside of yourself. I'm wondering where that comes from and if that does still help you in places like Somalia in those villages.
Hunter-Gault: I can't say that I know what gives me the distance that I have to look at things outside of myself. Maybe it comes from being an only child. Maybe it comes from being brought up in the church and the religious teaching that there's always something that's larger than you or greater than you, because as I have gotten older, I have realized the central importance of religion in my life and perspective.
For years I didn't even think about it. But I think that a lot of the things, the challenges that I have faced in my life, I've been able to deal with because of the way I was brought up, with deep religious values, and values that made me feel very good about myself and very comfortable with myself. And as I said earlier, never thinking of myself as a victim even though I've been in circumstances where as a person I was victimized, part of a group. I was victimized individually as well as a part of a group.
But what has given me the capacity to stand away from myself or away from the situation or take myself out of it, I don't know exactly. I think you probably need some kind of better analysis of that than I can offer in my own analytical way. But I have it. I can walk into situations and see it outside of myself.
And I'm absolutely committed to that kind of journalism, which I don't see as being inconsistent with being compassionate and sympathetic. And I don't see that as being inconsistent with being a good journalist, a fair journalist—perhaps not objective because I just don't like the term.
But the absence of objective for me is not advocacy. The absence of objective is reality in which we do the best we can to be fair to all sides. And yet I think there's room for passion. I think if we had more passion, sometimes, in our work, our work would be improved because whether we're dealing with policy or politicians, we're still in the end dealing with people because those policies are going to affect real people. And I think that sometimes we forget that in our business.
But I think that the "people first" [idea] for me probably also is a result of my upbringing. I was brought up in a church community, brought up in a real community where people were important, where you did things for people, you were kind, you truly did unto others as you would have them do unto you—unless, of course, you slipped and you sinned and then you went to church and asked God's forgiveness. But I think that that's been a very important part of my development as a person and as a journalist.
Clark: You're about to go to South Africa and the elections are scheduled to be held on April 27. What do you hope to accomplish in going there and what kinds of things are you thinking about as you are about to leave, about who you want to cover? I know you did an interview with [Chief Mangosuthu G.] Buthelezi several years ago, in which he appeared one way and now he appears quite different.
Hunter-Gault: No, he appeared the same way then.
Clark: Did he?
Hunter-Gault: I thought he was a bit mercurial.
I hope to bring maybe some news and fresh insights. At the same time, the journalism that I'll do there is like the journalism I do anywhere. It's people-centered. In fact, probably the first two stories I'll do will be to go back and find two of the people who were a part of the first series I ever did from South Africa, which was called "Apartheid's People." It was an amazing series in the sense that—I hope I'm not being immodest—but it was amazing in that we had all focused on apartheid as this sort of blanket evil.
But we tended to report on the policies as opposed to the people. So that when I did a profile of a young black man who was a poet and worked in an advertising agency and was by all measurements middle class, people were very surprised. I wanted to find somebody whom Americans could identify with in every respect so that, you know, walking through the corporation, relating with his colleagues, white colleagues, having lunch with them, walking around the office. Everyone says, "Oh, yeah, yeah. He's a real person."
And then I wanted them to get on that train with him and ride back to Soweto where he was forced to go because of the color of his skin, the only place he could live in South Africa was this almost indescribably deprived ghetto of a community. So that you could identify and then all of a sudden it hits you in your gut. You say, "Oh, that's how it is. That's what apartheid is." And not just for the blacks, because I think that coming out of the South of segregation and Jim Crow, I realize that victims can be both the oppressor and the oppressed because the oppressor has to invest a certain amount of his energy and his humanity in keeping his foot on somebody else.
And so I went and talked, had a very sympathetic conversation with an Afrikaner who revealed himself to me—his friends and family—and he revealed himself to me, his fears, his hopes. And I came away from that feeling, as I feel often about things in this country, that for all of our modern means of communication, our big failure is in communication, people-to-people communication.
And they're in South Africa, of course, which is much more extreme than anything here, because it's all imbedded in the constitution, this separation and inequality. But the white South Africans can live in one location and just across the road, which we would call in the South "just across the tracks," would be the black township where all the black people live. And the twain never met.
The route of transit was always blacks from their ghettos or from their township to the white areas to work as servants and then back to their squalid townships. And the whites never went there. And no matter how close they were to their black servants—and many of them will tell you how much they like, you know, this one and that one and the other one, and how she fed their children—like the mammies from the South, the slavery and so forth, and segregation—loved them as long as they stayed in their place. And they [the whites] never went to their place so they had no idea and they didn't care what conditions they lived in.
So to explore this lack of communication, which fed the prejudice and hatred that ultimately we saw on our screens, was a fascinating thing and very revealing, to explore it through the people as opposed to through the policy. So I'm going to go back and visit a couple of those people to see how their hopes and fears and perceptions have changed because the last time I was there was in '85 and it's been almost ten years. And with the black man whom I profiled in '85, I'm going to go with him to vote. And just to even think about that just brings chills.
Clark: It's very exciting.
Hunter-Gault: Here is a man who must now be in his forties who has never in his life been able to go to the polls and vote and have a say in what happens to him and his wife and his children. And when I saw him in '85, he was very pessimistic, almost. I remember the last shot of the piece was his daughter who was playing on a merry-go-round. And we just froze on her as he worried and wondered about her prospects for the future.
So with this turmoil that's happening now leading up to the election, I'm just wondering, you know, what he's going to think about her future now. And she's old enough now that she can say what she thinks about her future. It's just doing what I always do, talking to people and hopefully sometimes getting them to talk to each other.
Clark: Thank you so much.
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