Monday, May 9, 2011

Ann Curry Named New Cohost of Today

This morning Meredith Vieira announced she will be leaving the Today show in June. Her replacement is long time Today show vet Ann Curry. I have known Ann since the mid nineties when I was covering Today for TV Guide. Besides being one of the best journalists out there, she is one of the warmest, most caring people I've ever met. It's great to see someone who has worked hard and dutifully hung in there finally get the recognition she has long deserved. I'm reposting a condensed version an interview I did for mediabistro with her a while back where she talks about her tenture on Today, how she felt about not getting the job when Katie Couric left and how she wound up with Angelina and Brad on her speed dial. Congrats Ann!

During her twelve year-long tenure at Today, Ann Curry has been game for anything the producers could dream up from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (she made it within striking distance of the top but had to turn back when her team began suffering the effects of altitude sickness) to bungee jumping off the landmark Transporter Bridge in England to raise money for charity. At the time, she said, “I was really thinking, ‘I hope this does some good.’ If you’re going to do something as crazy as that, you want some good to come out of it.”

While Curry has always good naturedly participated in Today show stunts like dressing up for Halloween and hot air ballooning into a viewer’s backyard, it is her deep desire to do “meaningful work” that has sustained her throughout her broadcast career. She’s never been content sitting prettily behind the anchor chair reading the news. Curry is much more at home reporting from Baghdad, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Rwanda and Darfur among other global hot spots. Earlier this year, she traveled to Iran when she landed the first interview with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the June elections on the eve of his visit to the United Nations. She was the first network news anchor to report from war-torn Kosovo, the first on the ground from the Southeast Asia tsunami zone and the first to document the genocide in Darfur. While hard news is Curry’s “first love,” she’s also managed to land the big celebrity gets, too. When Brangelina was sequestered in Africa preparing for the birth of their twins, Angelina Jolie spoke only to Curry.

The self-described “army brat” and eldest of five children born to a Japanese mother and Caucasian father was the first in her family to graduate from college and still marvels that she landed on Today. “I never imagined that anyone who looked like me would have a place here.” But she makes no bones about what it takes to stay there. “I’ve come to a point where I’ve gained a terrific opportunity to do the work that means the most to me and the work, in the end, I’ll always be grateful I did. I work really, really hard,” says Curry. “

Name: Ann Curry

Position: News anchor Today; anchor Dateline NBC

Resume: Joined NBC News in August 1990 as Chicago-based correspondent; named anchor of NBC News at Sunrise in 1992. Helped launch MSNBC and joined Today in March 1997 and was named co-anchor of Dateline NBC in May 2005. Substitute anchor on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Prior to coming to NBC, worked as a reporter for KCBS in Los Angeles and as reporter/anchor for KGW, the NBC affiliate in Portland, Oregon. Began her television career as an intern in 1978 at KTVL in Medford, Oregon where she became the station’s first female news reporter.

Birthdate: November 19

Hometown: “I grew up all over the world, but we ended up in Ashland, Oregon and I still consider it my home town.”

Education: University of Oregon, BA Journalism

Marital status: Married to software entrepreneur Brian Ross; two children daughter MacKenzie and son Walker.

First section of the Sunday Times: “The Front Page”

Favorite television show: “The Office. I love Steve Carell. I like House as well.”

Guilty pleasure: “Sometimes I feel guilty about going to yoga. Like a lot of people in this world at this time, to take time out to exercise, breathe and think about your own health makes you feel guilty. But it’s what you should be doing all the time. I often feel guilty thinking, ‘I should be home.’ I’ve organized it so I can take a yoga class and still get home in time for dinner. But even then, I still feel a little guilty.”

You’ve been at NBC for nineteen years – coming up on thirteen with Today. What is the secret to your longevity?

There are two things. I aspire to be valuable. I try not to lean on too many other people. I try not to have other people do my work. The other thing is trying to keep a sense of humility and trying to always remember to be grateful for this opportunity and proceed in that way. Having that humility can help you. It can certainly stop you from getting too full of yourself.

Which is all too rare in this business.

It is. The loss of humility is a disease of this profession for a lot of reasons. I don’t want to catch that disease.

You’ve been part of the mix of so many different personalities on Today. How has that affected the way you do your job?

I’ve been grateful to have the ear of the managers of this network who have trusted me to do the stories that I am most proud of. That’s not the work that involves sitting on any couch or being in front of a camera on a live broadcast. It’s about being in the field. That’s really something I intend to continue to pursue. This was not something I ever figured out how to do when I first began at NBC and the Today show. But I’ve figured it out and it’s working so far.

I can work on the nightly news broadcast, the Today show, MSNBC and and I’m still exploring ways of getting information out. I’m a serious photographer now and it’s another way of getting the story out. That’s my motivation – to get these voices heard and get these stories out because I know they’re important to do.

Did you want Katie Couric’s job when she left? If you had gotten it, it’s unlikely you would have been able to do the type of work you just described.

I did think about that job. The one great thing about that job is you have the opportunity to interview newsmakers and have access to major stories. I would have been a fool to not want that job, but the thing about life is that sometimes not getting what you think you want has a silver lining. Had I gotten that job I might never have been able to go to Darfur four times. I might never have gotten to do what some have said was a transformation hour on Iran and the interview with Ahmadinejad or gone to Congo and brought attention to the crimes against women there. That’s just the short list.

I think people are often disappointed by not getting exactly what they want. I think the secret is keep your eyes open and not to blink because you need to see that what is possible is something you may not being paying attention to. This road I’m on has been so deeply rewarding. I realize I’m in an unlikely and incredibly lucky position to be able to get this work done because of people like Jim Bell, Bob Epstein, Steve Cappus and Alex Wallace have really let me do all this stuff. It’s interesting that you sometimes get a chance to do exactly what you should be doing because you didn’t get what you wanted. I would have loved that job and I would have relished it, but you’re right, I wouldn’t have been able to do this other work.

When we did an interview back when the Today show was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, the headline from the interview was ‘I want you to care.’ That seems to sum up so many of the stories you’ve done from Kosovo to Darfur. Would you say that’s what drives you?

Absolutely. I believe that our job as journalists is to work for the future. I believe journalism is an act of faith in the future. I believe if do our jobs with the pure motive to inform people so that they can have power over their lives, the world will be better. It’s not for me to say how or how much, but if it’s only a little that’s enough. It’s not about us anymore. It’s about our children and what they’re going to inherit. I think we all have an obligation to step it up a notch and leave them a better place.

You have personally witnessed so much of the devastation the world has seen in the past decade both natural and man made. Is there one event that you could say has affected you the deepest?

It’s difficult for me to compare them. Kosovo was the first one where I recognized there was nothing I could do to stop what I was witnessing. I will say I’m proud to say that our reporting in Kosovo was an early part of the wave that did bring change. It was transformative to see these people stuck in these camps crying without food or milk for their babies. In Darfur, I was face to face with an elderly woman who tried to save her husband from the burning house where a thatched roof fell on top of him. He was an invalid and she was in her eighties. I found her in a hospital a few days later with her whole body covered in third degree burns and her husband was dead. How do you compare that to anything? When I went to Congo I met a girl who saw her parents killed right in front of her and she ran away. She was caught by the same men who killed her parents and then chained up and raped for months. She became pregnant and when she delivered her baby, everything inside her was broken. I found her on an operating table having surgery so she could go to the bathroom normally. When I asked her if she wanted revenge she said to me, ‘All I want is to rise from this bed and thank the people who helped me and work for God.’

I see all of these events as one. That’s the one thing I’ve come away with – I recognize that every one of those lives matter. There is no life that is less precious than another. There is no culture that is less important than another, and when we allow these kinds of crimes against humanity to continue, we are hurting our human family.

In addition to doing so many important stories, you’ve also managed to get unprecedented access to the tabloid couple of the decade having scored a number of exclusives with both Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Talk to me about your relationship with them separately and as a couple. How did you establish such a good rapport with the both of them?

I think it’s based on mutual respect. I first interviewed Angelina a long, long time ago when she was first emerging as an actress. Even then I could see the depth of her wish to be useful. A lot people didn’t see her for who she was, but because I had this opportunity to sit and talk to her I could see she was far more than people realized. I really don’t know why we were able to hit it off except that I have a lot of respect for her work and I think she might have some respect for mine.

Did you find that she knew a lot about you when you met?

Not the first time I interviewed her, but certainly in subsequent interviews it was clear that she knew about my efforts. As she became a force for humanitarian work, I understood her efforts and motivation and my respect grew for her as well. Brad is very much like that as well. He has got a sense of altruism and a sense of justice. He’s really old fashioned and delightful. Maybe it’s a surprise to some people, but he’s serious about the injustice that has lingered for so many people in New Orleans. He’s not only talked about it but he’s done something about it. Some people actually want to elect him mayor although he’s not planning to run. I respect that. I respect people who stand up for what they believe in and do something.
I think they are people who get it.

It’s fascinating that you know them in such a different context from their separate tabloid personas.

I think it’s hand in glove, though. It’s because of their celebrity that they can make the movies which then in turn allow them to give money and do these good works. They have been pioneers creating that kind of trail from celebrity to altruism.

Speaking of celebrity, Today has always mined the lives of the show’s key players in such a way to connect to the audience on a personal level with segments on your family lives and background. Have you grown more comfortable with that over the years?

I’m a little more comfortable, but I still am pretty largely uncomfortable with stories about us because I think the story should be on everybody else but us. I recognize that there is an interest. The first time we did it, the response was so enormous. It was surprising because people responded not just to us, but about how they felt about their own experience through us. That’s made me feel a little more comfortable. If someone can feel something about his or her parents because you’ve been honest about your own experience about losing a parent – if you can help them in their grief – then that has value. I think that the broadcast is a soup-to-dessert broadcast. It’s going to have all that stuff, but balance is the key.

Has any of that affected the way you do your job?

I just did an interview with a woman who is dying of breast cancer and for the first few moments she said, ‘I just can’t believe I’m actually sitting with you.’ I didn’t take me that long, but it did take me a minute to have her stop thinking about that and start thinking about what I really wanted to talk to her about. That’s not good. It was an interesting kind of situation, but I don’t want it to bleed over into the work and I struggle against that.

On a happier note, you’ve got two kids and a demanding job. So many women are juggling so much especially these days. How have you made it work for you?

I finally came to the conclusion that doing a good job at work is taking care of my kids. When I’m at work, I work one hundred percent and when I go home, I work one hundred percent. I don’t think about work. I don’t worry about work unless there’s a crisis. I really do put down the Blackberry especially on the weekends. But more important than any kind of juggling is love: expressing it to your children, talking to your children and playing with your children. If I had to choose between paying my bills, cleaning the kitchen, making dinner or talking to my kids, it would be the latter. Prioritizing your emotional relationships with your family is the most important thing you can do. You can’t get everything done. The thing you can’t not get done is being connected in an emotional way with your husband and your children. Everything else you can do later. I procrastinate on almost everything else. (Laughs)

So what do you do to decompress?

Photography has really helped me decompress because it makes you look at things differently. It can sweep you away. The other thing I’m starting to do when the kids are in school on Fridays instead of going to lunch is to go to with a girlfriend to an art museum. I love art. When the kids were born I couldn’t go very often and as they grew up they didn’t really want to go. I love looking at paintings and looking at art. I have yoga, art and photography. That’s a lot.

It beats retail therapy.

I used to do that. I find that retail is not therapy anymore because I feel bad buying for myself. Shopping your closet is pretty good. I’m amazed at what I can put together, but I guess the viewers should be the judge of that. (Laughs)

How would you say you’ve gotten to where you are?

I don’t know. I’m as surprised as anyone. If I can get to where I am, anyone can. I’m the girl who wasn’t even supposed to go to college raised by a woman with a thick immigrant’s accent and grew up mispronouncing words as a result. How the hell did I get on national television? I want so much to be a journalist that meets the needs of this time. I keep trying to be good enough and I think it’s the effort. I’m never satisfied.

Do you have a motto?
Be of service and help people. Always.

A longer version of this interview originally appeared on in December 2009.

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