My Foreign Correspondent Journey Began at Columbia
How Columbia Journalism School Changed My Life
My mentor at Ohio State University urged me to attend Columbia Journalism School so that I would earn a master’s degree and teach one day at a university. And that is what I did.
But teaching didn’t happen for more than four decades after my graduation as a member of the Journalism Class of 1962, until 2005 following my retirement from the Associated Press (AP). After a four-decade career as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief in Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi, London and Tokyo, I began a new career at age 65 teaching journalism at George Washington University.
My time as a foreign correspondent was a journey that began six weeks before my graduation from Columbia, when I joined the AP as an editor on the national desk at the agency’s old headquarters in Rockefeller Center. They told me that once the summer was over, I would be sent to a domestic bureau that might take me back one day to New York or possibly to Washington D.C. But as soon as the AP learned I had received a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship upon graduation, I was put on the career path to become a foreign correspondent–and that is how Columbia changed my life.
Thanks to Columbia being located in the media capital of the world, I had the opportunity to join the AP while still in school. Thanks to Columbia, I was on my way to becoming a foreign correspondent. My first experience abroad was in 1963, while on the Pulitzer Fellowship, doing assignments in Southeast Asia while based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I then returned to New York, with the hope I would be sent back overseas as a full-fledged foreign correspondent for AP. In November 1966, just four years after graduating from Columbia, my hopes came true when I was assigned as a correspondent to New Delhi.
For the next decade, I traveled and reported throughout South Asia, interviewing the region’s leaders including Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Pakistani opposition leader and later president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Bangladesh independence leader and later prime minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the king of Bhutan, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, and the ruler of Sikkim and his American-born wife, Hope Cooke. It was a decade of major breaking stories, including the India-Pakistan war in 1971 that led to the birth of Bangladesh, India’s first nuclear explosion in 1974, severe famines, the campaign to eradicate smallpox and, finally, covering Prime Minister Gandhi’s State of Emergency from 1975 to 1977, when civil liberties were suspended and severe press restrictions were imposed.
On a lighter note, the AP had an important obligation to cover sports, and I became the only American journalist in India to write about cricket, mastering phrases like “bowled out,” “hit a century,” and “leg before wicket.” And how can I ever forget going to Nagaland, on the remote Indo-Burmese border, with the Rev. Billy Graham in November 1972 to cover his evangelical “crusades” and marking the centenary of the arrival of the first Baptist missionaries? I was the only American journalist with him.
My life had changed forever with my time in India, arriving in 1966 with one suitcase and leaving 11 years later for London, in May 1977, with my wife Rachel; two young children, Yael and Joshua, and enough suitcases and other belongings that it took two liftvans, or large containers, to transport everything we owned.
My 24 years in London, from 1977 to 2001, were as eventful as our decade in India had been…a period of four prime ministers, from the end of James Callaghan’s government, through the era of Margaret Thatcher, to her successor, John Major, and then Tony Blair as the Labor party returned to power for the first time in nearly two decades. There were also the British Royals, from the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana on July 29, 1981 — I still remember walking down Fleet Street that morning past crowds of onlookers to the AP office two blocks from St. Paul’s Cathedral where the ceremony took place — to their divorce in 1996 and, finally, to the death of Princess Diana following a late night car crash in Paris on Aug. 31, 1997.
Just as I look back on my decade in India and vividly recall spending a week with the Rev. Billy Graham, so do I look upon my two decades in London with a similar, searing memory of meeting another major religious leader of our time, and that was His Holiness the Dalai Lama. When I was elected president of the Association of American Correspondents in London in 1999 and had to organize a series of luncheons and other get-togethers with important dignitaries, my goal was to somehow have the Dalai Lama be our guest. Thanks to Rachel, who had started a neighborhood forum in the borough of Southwark where we lived, I learned that the Dalai Lama would be coming to Southwark in south London to open a peace garden on the grounds of the Imperial War Museum.
As it turned out, the Dalai Lama’s then information officer was a fellow alumnus of the Columbia Journalism School, and ultimately it was worked out that that the American correspondents would meet His Holiness over tea for a half hour at the Claridge’s Hotel, where he was staying. The Dalai Lama seemed to enjoy himself so much, as he sat cross-legged on a very proper upholstered chair, that he spoke with us for 90 minutes–an hour more than I was told he could stay!
In 2001, after 24 years in London, I learned that a friend of mine was retiring as the Tokyo bureau chief, and I thought it would be good to go back to Asia to finish my foreign career in the region where it had begun. Three years later, as my assignment concluded and I headed into what I thought would be retirement, Rachel and I were honored to be invited to the annual sakura, or cherry blossom, reception hosted by Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in the gardens of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Normally, guests do not have an opportunity to speak with the Japanese royals, but in this case, the Empress stopped to say hello as she and her husband moved down the receiving line, perhaps because she noticed Rachel in an Indian sari in the colors of the cherry blossoms. Wearing the traditional formal morning dress, I said to the Empress that we were honored to spend the final day of our AP life at the sakura reception, and she replied in perfect English:
“Journalists are very important, because they perform the important task of informing the world of what is happening in our country and of creating better understanding. I wish you all success for the future.”
A month later, our future began in a new city, Washington, D.C. And I was able to begin a new career that enabled me to keep my word to my Ohio State mentor, George Kienzle, to teach journalism at a university one day. I am fortunate that since 2005, I have been teaching journalism at George Washington University, trying to inspire the next generation of journalists – and helping to recruit students for the Columbia Journalism School.
This past spring, as a member of the school’s Alumni Board, I was asked to contact a number of students in the Washington, D.C., area who had been accepted to Columbia but who had not yet made a final decision. One student in particular stood out as outstanding, but she was wavering between doing graduate studies at Columbia or somewhere on the West Coast.
She asked me, “What should I do?”
“Go to Columbia,” I replied, “It is located in the world’s media capital. There is no better place to study journalism. I know. It worked for me. Columbia changed my life!”
She took my advice and is now a member of the Class of 2017 – 55 years after my own graduation.