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Q&A: Kiran Chetry: On Career Transition, Nepal and Journalism

CNN's KIRAN CHETRY discusses her recent career transition, her connection to Nepal, and in particular, broadcast journalism.

Kiran Chetry, 32, is a rising star of cable television news in the United States. She began co-anchoring American Morning, CNN's flagship morning program in April 2007. Before that she co-hosted "Fox and Friends" on the Fox News Channel. She is based in New York. In an interview with Dharma Adhikari of Nepal Monitor, she discusses her recent career transition, her connection to Nepal, and in particular, her views about broadcast journalism.


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Photo © CNN

Let’s start with the recent convention of Nepali journalists in Washington DC. How was it unique in the sense that it was the first such meeting of Nepali journalists in North America?
I really commend everyone that put that together. It is really great to be able to come together as journalists, especially of the same nationality, people with common concerns and common interests in covering the news. It’s great that they were able to organize like that. I was very honored to be invited to speak and it was also really interesting to hear some of the other speakers.

I think that it’s a small but growing community here in America and it’s wonderful that the journalists’ society was able to put that together. I think it was a great thing and I hope it will be the beginning of a very long annual tradition. Hopefully it will continue to grow, and more people will get involved.

You recently moved to CNN from Fox News. How has the transition been for you, so far?
We started off with the tragedy of Virginia Tech – it was our first day on air when that story broke and we’ve also been covering a lot of politics following the debates and a lot of breaking news in the morning.

And the best thing about CNN is that we have global resources. We were able to do interviews and get reports from the only Western television journalist in Iran. We were able to have on the ground, real-time reports from Baghdad. I feel people who watch American Morning are going to get a very comprehensive view of the news— everything that is going on around the world and also very important things that happen here in the US. Being a part of that, to me, it is an honor.

How do you define and describe the nature of news in today’s world-- the difference between hard news and light news, particularly after your transition from Fox News. CNN is considered more to be hard news-oriented. Isn’t it?
I think that there is a broad definition of news, certainly. We take into consideration the top stories of the day, whether they are international, politics, unexpected breaking news about weather or a murder or something like a shift in policy. We have been dong a lot of immigration issues, we have also been doing a lot of issues, in fact, on American Morning about Asian Americans in the workplace and we have a special correspondent doing that type of work. So I think we have a very broad definition of what news is.

And this is about being a “South Asian.” Because you don’t really seem like a South Asian unless somebody does some research on you! There are very few South Asians actually doing major shows on cable television in the US. What does being a “South Asian” mean to you?
I define it in a more narrow term. I feel that being half-Nepalese is my heritage, something I have always grown up being proud of and living with. It’s never been something that I dwell on a lot; I think that it’s just my life, it’s who my family is, it’s who my father is. My cousins, many of them that are my age, are here in the US, either studying or now have jobs here. And that is just a part of our culture. And I have lived straddling both.

But you are right, when people look at me they don’t necessarily say, “Wow, Kiran must be Asian” or “Kiran must be from Nepal.” But I think that when you get to really know me and you spend any time with my family, you see what an influence it is. Since my father is from Nepal and that is what I grew up around. It’s just me.

And there are not a lot of South Asians, if you want to put it that way, that are represented in the news. However, there are a lot more at CNN, which is interesting. We have our special correspondent Sanjay Gupta, also Betty Nguyen, who is on our air and Alina Cho, one of our American Morning correspondents. All of them are Asian, or South Asian. So I think it is wonderful to be able to see more faces of diversity. And, I am one of them, even though I may not look like I am! I think I understand what being part of the Asian culture is like, not to put everybody into one big generalization. But I definitely understand a perspective because it is part of how I grew up.

How would you describe the nature of your connection to Nepal today?
It’s my family. Many of them come back and forth a lot. And a lot of them are, like I said, studying here in the States. And my father’s brothers are also here as well as my cousins. In fact, I recently met one of my cousins in New York. I last saw her when I was thirteen, when I last went to Nepal.

It’s great to be able to catch up with family. I am hoping to go back to Nepal. I am hoping to be able to take my daughter with me, who is only 15 months now, so when she is a little bit older she can have some memories as well like I did. Because the first time I went after I was born was when I was 7 and I still vividly remember Nepal. When I went back when I was 13, it was so different. And I am sure now when I go back it is going to be even more changed.

What stories on Nepal or South Asia would you put on your show, if you were visiting there and reporting from location?
One of the things is the attempt at the emerging democracy. Also the goings on in parliament and the first time voting on the Constituent Assembly. Of course, we have been following the situation with the Maoists and the difficulties. My father did a lot of interpreting for the courts for asylum here for people who were persecuted or who were fearing persecution and had been threatened by the Maoists. I think that’s something that would be very interesting to cover -- to follow one of those cases so people can understand what is going on there. And of course, the elections, which everybody has been following, including the Carter Center and others about the potential for the peace process, and the political negotiations that are going on for the future.

About your mother’s ethnicity-- where is she from?
My maternal grandmother was Ukrainian. The other quarter is a mixture of Dutch and German. But my mother’s mother’s parents were the first ones to come over to the United States from Ukraine. And they came to Pennsylvania. They had 9 children. My grandmother was the oldest. She grew up in a household that was also very ethnic. Her parents spoke very little English and the kids were the first generation raised here in America.

Now a few professional questions. What are some of the key characteristics of a good broadcast journalist?
First of all, you have to have curiosity about the world around you. You have to have the ability to communicate, of course, just like you would if you are a print journalist - it is just slightly different. You have to be able to be not only curious but willing to spend a lot of time trying to put what you are saying into context, because reporting a story is reading what is going on and helping the audience, the viewer, the reader, understand it and put it into perspective in the world around them. How it relates to them is also something that is important.

It is also important, I believe, to be a good listener so that you can hear what people are telling you, and you can learn from the world around you. Every time we interview someone, it is an opportunity to learn something new and to hear a different perspective.

The best thing about the job, I believe, is that you are able to bring so much information to people. They call it the newsgathering process and that is true, because we are everywhere. As members of the media, we inform our fellow citizens, whether world-wide citizens or in the US and we can’t take that lightly. We are informing those around us so that they can make decisions when it comes to their lives, when it comes to their views. And I find that endlessly fascinating. Everyday, there is something new.

What is your view about the significance of personal, physical look in broadcast news? You have been rated #3 among “TV’s Sexiest News Anchors” by Maxim magazine.
(Laughs) I try not to pay too much attention to that kind of stuff or take it too seriously. You know, it’s television, so, of course, there is a focus that people sometimes have on someone’s appearance. I think sometimes they focus more on the appearance of women - as we see it with Katie Couric. She certainly gets picked apart a little more about her appearance than her male counterparts. But I try not to put too much stock in that.

Who is your role model in television?
There are many people. Just to name a few, I would definitely say Peter Jennings. He is somebody I grew up watching, and I really admire his style of delivering the news. You felt like he was having a conversation with you, never talking down to you. And I think it is important that you give the audience credit for being intelligent and informed. And when you are delivering the news of the day it is important to make sure that you keep that in mind - that you don’t necessarily know more than everybody else. I also like Peter Jennings a lot because I met him in person when I was very young and was trying to get into the television business and he was somebody who was very kind. I was an intern at that time in a little cable station. I also really admire people like Diane Sawyer. She has been in the business for so long in so many different ways and she still brings a lot of energy. I really find that admirable.

Your father, Homa Chetry, briefly worked for the Voice of America radio during the 1970s. How has he influenced your career in journalism?
My father was very supportive of what I wanted to do. There are careers that people are extremely interested in. No one would ever say to you: Don’t become a doctor. Because being a doctor has a lot of pride and status associated with it, and once you work really hard and get through school you have guaranteed employment for life. And that is something that’s very important especially when someone can understand the immigrant experience— when you come over to the United States and you have very little and you build into what you eventually have. You want to pass on to your children something even more than that. My parents were so encouraging about seeing through that I had everything I needed to get an education. But I think that part of them was a little bit nervous about the thought of me going into television news, because, as we know, this is a very unstable business, especially when you are in front of the camera. You do your best and you move up. But there are people who never make it as far as they want to go.

I remember being at school and my dad asking me: Are you sure this is what you really want to do? And then he realized how much I loved it. My parents supported me by driving me up to Erie, Pensylvania for my first commercial television job. I remember they helped me move on a hot August day when it was 95 degrees. They supported me when I moved to California to take a TV job.

It makes me feel good to know that both my parents are proud of me and they know the things they have given up are also the great rewards of being able to do something that you love like TV journalism. The fact that I ended up at CNN - they see that as a dream fulfilled.

So far, what have been your most challenging assignments and some interesting ones?
The challenging assignments are the things where you see people suffering and there is nothing that you can do to help them. You are bringing their stories out in hopes that other people can see what they are going through and can feel for them. My assignment after 9/11 was covering the victims’ families and we were out there every single day. Not knowing if they could pull anybody out, family members were walking around with pictures of their loved ones and day after day it was very difficult. The Virginia Tech shooting is another example. I interviewed a lot of family members who had lost loved ones. I put myself in their shoes and imagined what it would be like if, God forbid, my dad had to go through that. It was very difficult, especially seeing that situation unfold.

Sometimes, let’s say, you are interviewing someone in a position of power within the government and you are trying to get answers. Of course, they don’t want to always be completely forthcoming. And so sometimes you have that back and forth. I always think to myself when I am doing interviews: What do the people watching at home right now want me to get out of this interview? What do they want me to ask? It’s always very challenging but I love doing it, the whole process of newsgathering, whether you are out in the field or conducting a live interview in studio.

One of the criticisms of the US media is that they pay little attention to international affairs, specially the US-based TV programs. And also the criticism about the coverage of minorities—it is not always accurate. How do you look at this?
I think that the US news media does cover US stories and sometimes centers around things that perhaps affect a small number of people or focus on one missing person, let’s say, when there is so much other news happening. But I think that CNN covers global issues better than anyone else, frankly, not only with the coverage of CNN domestic but also CNN International. We are some of the only people that have correspondents and bureaus all over the world, including in Africa and Asia. I think we are better at it than others.

In terms of minorities and television, no doubt, there is an under-representation. I don’t think it is intentional, but that it is something that many news organizations are moving toward becoming more mindful of and taking steps to change in the future.

As a broadcast journalist, how do you keep tab on international affairs?
We always have CNN International, CNN en Español, Headline News and CNN on. Of course, we have the wires and feeds that are coming in continuously. These are video feeds where you get information on various stories. And we rely on our producers as well to flag interesting things. This is a 24/7 operation. News stories breaking around the world are monitored at all times and drawn to our attention. Of course, you can’t always cover it all but we certainly have resources at our fingertips so we are always able to keep abreast and cover the different stories.

So it is just a matter of reading—I get a lot of the big newspapers in the morning stacked on to my desk. We also have them right at our computers; we can watch video that is available to CNN at all times. The Internet also plays an enormous role in broadening our world and making us aware of other things that are going on across the world.

What suggestions do you have for young people, specially from South Asia, who would like to embrace broadcast journalism as their career, and who are looking up to you right now ?
That is the ultimate complement that people would say: Maybe someday I can do what she is doing. I believe you have to love it because it does take up a lot of your life. I mean, it does, just like when you decided you wanted to become a doctor or whatever you want to become. So you have to love it. You have to want to do it not just for fame or anything like that.

I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be here at CNN after years of anchoring in really small markets and wondering if I was going to advance. I think you have to be well-read and you have to be curious. The most important thing I can say really is to do an internship, learning from other people that do it and finding people who are willing to take the time. One thing I always say is if anybody wanted to come learn from me, follow me around, or wrote to me asking advice, I would always try to help them out, especially young people that are deciding what they want to do or deciding the best way to go. The reason I say that is because I had people who helped me. You can’t do it alone. You can’t do it without people guiding you. And that early guidance helped me, I’ll always remember, and that is something I want to pass along to others as well.

Posted by Editor on July 8, 2007 3:06 AM