THE BLOG
12/17/2014 11:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You Can Do It Too

2014-12-15-SKU000984263_COVER.jpgThis post is excerpted from Connie Lawn's You Wake Me Each Morning: The Final Chapter, published by iUniverse.

As the news business has matured -- and I along with it -- it has become rougher in many ways. At all the news bureaus, there have been massive cutbacks in expenditures. Many of the major newspapers and magazines have died or on trouble. In the future, they may all exist on line, but not in print. There have been enormous consolidations in the radio industry, and many of the stations are part of billion dollar conglomerates. They cross national lines. News stations in New Zealand and Australia now have owners in Pittsburgh or London. Many of the stations take their "actualities" (or news cuts) from CNN, Fox, Sky, MSNBC, C-Span or other mass news services. In some cases, they are also allowed to use their reporters if they credit them on air. The major role left for many independent reporters is that of a commentator or analyst, and some stations do not want to pay for that. But many of my colleagues -- even the network superstars -- are in the same boat. Some of them have suffered hefty reductions in salary when their contracts were renewed. If they could not accept, they tried to find jobs in local media, where they became celebrity anchors, or they went into public relations and "consulting." But local newscasts are also in trouble. The major network anchors, however, continue to draw salaries in the millions, the theory being that they bring in the audience and, by extension, advertising revenues.

The Cable News Network, Fox and other cable outlets have hurt me the most, although I had been bracing for that for years. Many of my stations subscribe to cable services, and take their live coverage from them. I am hit the hardest from Washington, because most of the American news emanates from here. But I have been able to cover much breaking news around the world by watching cable, and giving my own analysis. I am grateful for that. So the situation works both ways to everybody's advantage.

Now the Internet poses new challenges and opportunities for the news industry, business, communications, and the entire information system. I am excited about the future; a whole new world lies ahead. I have also joined the ranks of citizen journalists, and write blogs on politics, snow sports, wounded warriors, cultural events, or anything I chose. I think it is wonderful that journalism is now open to everyone, but you do not always get paid for your contribution. You often have to do it as an avocation, and not a vocation. That does not make you less professional in anyway. In fact, it often makes you a better citizen of the world.

I have been extremely fortunate, because I worked for a strong, domestic radio chain -- IRN/USA Radio News. I have been blessed to be with them for over 20 years (they merged with Information Radio Network in 2008). But they finally changed in 2014, and many of us left them. BBC is my major international client, and I absolutely love doing "talk back" for them, any hour of the day and night. For a few years I fulfilled a 10-year dream, to contribute my version of Alistair Cooke's "Letters from America." Mine were called, "Postcards from America" and were carried on the BBC's GNS service. They did a series of interviews for BBC stations around the nation. The two or three hour rotation was a bit like Chinese water torture. It took intelligence, glibness, and a strong bladder to survive the rotations, which they fed out at least twice a day.

The White House is my primary "beat," but I can report on any major news stories or features. I have added prestige as the longest serving independent White House correspondent (Helen Thomas was the longest employed correspondent, having beaten me out by a few years! She died in her nineties). Many international stations call me often for analysis and commentary. I have been doing a large amount of such news and talk-back for a variety of BBC radio and television stations around the world, including GNS, The World Service Radio and television, London, Wales, Scotland and Belfast. This is in addition to my traditional stations in this country, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations. At this time, I am contributing a blog, or column to the internet news services Huffingtonpost.com, and Scoop.co.nz in New Zealand. I do snow sports features for "DCSKI.com." Internet sites are the future, and are much more satisfying than radio, in many ways. They have the speed of radio, but the prestige and finality of print. I also do some magazine articles for SnowEast and Washington Life.

In many ways, I prefer the commentary to "hard" news. It means I can express my own analysis and opinions, based on over 47 years of on-the-spot observation from the White House, and other areas of the world. In addition, I have more of a life. Instead of being chained to a studio in my home, or at the White House, I can broadcast from a phone booth or iPhone in the Kennedy Center, or wherever, when I am summoned to do a story. Now I do most of my broadcasting through my computer, or on the versatile and high quality smart phone. It also means you are on call 24 hours a day. And during crises stories -- such as the September 11 attacks, The Clinton sex scandals or the war against terrorism, the broadcasts can last 30 hours at a stretch, all over the world. But, it is wonderful to be in demand, and I wouldn't change it for anything in the world! Of course, it is better to be discussing sex and lust than stories where people are actually dying or being killed.

I had also been very lucky and honored, to be hired as a part time newscaster for the Voice of America. It is a superb organization, with dedicated people, who work extremely hard to deliver unfettered news to the rest of the world. I was there for about 3 years, but left after I remarried and wanted to spend the nights with my husband Charles! Most of the shifts for the new people at VOA were overnight, but that is also prime time in many other areas of the world.

VOA's potential listeners are over a 100 million people a day, in at least 53 countries. But it is impossible to estimate the impact, because the broadcasts also go out on the Internet and television, with streaming audio and video. They work horrendous hours at great pressure and intensity. Many are the nights I have wandered the hallways of the federal building, performing karate kicks and other exercises, in an effort to stay awake and alert during an all night shift. As in the White House, the VOA is also plagued by a rat problem, and the 4-legged creatures seem to be drawn to hallways and parking lots in the middle of the might. They are probably not as dangerous as walking the streets, in a high-crime area of Washington, at that time, but, they are unnerving. Still, the VOA was a fitting fulfillment to a hard-fought career. I have been a miniature VOA all my professional life, and it was fantastic to have the actual organization behind me. In fact, my first book was called "Voice From America."

I feel so strongly about the VOA, that I tried very hard to become its Director during the Bush Administration. I had some excellent support -- inside the White House and Congress. My two Senators, and Congressman, wrote especially strong letters on my behalf. But, the terrorist attacks on the 11th of September, changed the role and focus of the VOA. I would still like to serve my country in a federal position, if possible, before my working days are over.

I continue to believe news is the most exciting profession in the world, but you cannot go into it with the thought of making a lot of money. All too often, you may barely scrape by. But you can usually make an honorable living in it . . . And, you may always hit it big and become one of the major superstars in the business. But, never lose your compass. You enter the business to inform and to expose wrongs, even at the risk of your own life or privacy. Many brave reporters have died gruesome deaths, covering wars or terrorism. To report, you have to have a genuine interest in people, and be concerned about them. If you are dedicated to making people feel, understand, and hopefully lead better lives, than the news business is for you!

There are pitfalls along the way. News is not always a harmonious business. Over the years, as I became more visible, I also made some major enemies. I suppose I was lucky, for I managed to get quite far in the profession before I had to deal with a real crisis. But one such experience occurred which illustrates the pitfalls of success and a high profile.

There is one particular male free-lance reporter in Washington who has been doing essentially the same work as I for over a quarter century. He has a brilliant radio voice, but a domineering, arrogant and nasty personality. For this reason, he has lost many clients over the years. Often those who fired him hired me in his place. This has prompted him to blame me for all his problems.

Early in our relationship, I trusted him and shared my all-important list of clients and their direct contact numbers. He substituted for me when I had to be away. One day, he saw me on television when I was trying out for a position with a television news service (which soon folded in any case). Although I had done TV periodically for years, I would never give up radio -- it is my first love, my bread and butter. But this man saw me on television and, without even consulting me, sold my list of free-lance stations to another reporter in California! That was an unheard-of breech of ethics and moral behavior. Later in his career, he sold similar sensitive information to another radio client. He always denied doing it, but the evidence against him was very strong.

I tried my best to stay out of the man's way over the years because I believed he was a very cruel and sick man. But a few years ago, he saw a chance to drive me out of the business and reclaim his place at one of the networks which had fired him. He wrote a series of extremely vicious letters about me and sent them to all the major American networks, as well as the press galleries of the Congress and the White House. All of his charges were false, but the letters were a blatant and brutal attempt to get me out of his way. I was very distressed when the calls began to come in, asking me about the accusations. Fortunately, many of the news executives who called knew me well, and assured me that they had no proof of the allegations. In addition, the original letters were not signed and, as my callers said, "A letter is only as good as the signature on it."

When I told each network about the series of letters, several news directors said, in summary, "Clearly, you are the victim of a vendetta by a sick person who hates you." Most of my friends had a variation on that theme. When the first letters had no effect, my nemesis rewrote them, but signed them with a false name and a phone number in Maryland. When that number was called, this man's voice was clearly on the tape! I recorded that, and played it for all the people concerned. His distinctive radio voice is well known, and they all agreed it was his voice, without a doubt. In addition, the phrases he used about me were characteristic of the way he spoke in daily conversation ("Lawn hangs out at the State Department"; "She is a disgrace to the industry," and so forth). We also matched the typewriter to letters he had written and signed to employers on other topics. Finally, the postmarks all came from the town where he was living. We had a very strong circumstantial case. I went to some topnotch lawyers with the information I had.

In the end, the attorneys told me that a defamation lawsuit of this type could run to $75,000 or more. And although they were positive I would win, there was very little I could collect in damages. He earned limited money and had few assets. In addition, his letters damaged him far more than me. None of the organizations believed him, but they certainly believe he wrote the letters. He continues to deny it but cannot explain how his voice was on that tape. It is a pity I cannot sue, but I have found out through this and other experiences that justice is often a luxury reserved for the wealthy. In another case, I dropped the matter after spending $8,000 on legal fees. At $200 to $300 an hour, it is very expensive indeed to get involved in a complex or protracted legal undertaking. I relate this experience to show how very tough the news business can be when the stakes are high and rivalries are vicious. Fortunately, however, I have found such negative experiences to be few, and more than offset by the many joys and positive memories that a career in journalism can bring.

The man in question strongly denies he wrote the letters, or took any of the other actions. And, in an interesting postscript, we once again become friends. I told him, we are too old, and have been in this business too long, to be distracted by competition in the past. All of the events appeared earth shaking to me at the time. But, they are nothing compared to the wars, terrorism, famine, disease, and terror faced by many people in the world. We must keep our focus on what we are supposed to be covering, and not center on ourselves.

There have been other rough times, but they too have passed. The early days of the Clinton Administration were quite rocky, and the new White House press staff had many a falling-out with reporters. They thought they could go over our heads to the American public, and sell their line directly to the constituencies involved in a particular campaign or issue. It is a technique that worked well for Bill Clinton during his brilliant first presidential campaign. But the staff soon discovered that it needed us too. I was especially hurt when overzealous young White House staffers tried to take away the booth I had waited twenty years to get. I was even sharing it with another organization. But without asking me, the White House gave it to a TV organization, which they deemed more important, although it had been covering the White House only for a few months. When the organization informed the staffers there was a lock on the door (as there are on all the tiny booths), they were told, "Break the goddamn lock off and put in your own." After a great deal of struggle and anguish on my part, we worked out a sharing arrangement and finally formed a radio pool booth, which I had fought for for years. We could have reached such an accommodation in five minutes on our own, if only the White House press staff had not injected itself into the situation. Several of us took turns cramming into the booth which is not much larger than one person. But at least we could broadcast in a controlled environment. When we have to call in our reports from outside the booth, in the general press area, a lot of extraneous background noise -- including cursing and expletives -- find their way into our news casts. But, because of overcrowding I have done many broadcasts sitting on the floor, outside the booth. I coexisted with the White House rats and roaches. BBC television even featured a brief segment on me doing my broadcast this way. But, it is better to broadcast from inside the White House, regardless of the circumstances; than to be exiled across the street from the Oval Office. There is a move to do that to us, and we have been fighting it for years.

Despite that rough patch, relations between the White House press corps and the staff improved dramatically in the Clinton years, especially since President Clinton replaced Dee Dee Myers and hired the brilliant and affable Mike McCurry. Mike was well respected and loved by most of the press corps. In fact, he often had us eating out of his hands.

There were many adversarial moments -- especially during the tense investigations into Clinton sex scandals, "White Water" investments, or campaign finance violations. But the tension was cleverly alleviated by parties thrown by the White House, to show the press corps they also believe we are human and deserve a bit of respect too. And, Mike would pull a funny trick, like starting the briefing with a paper bag over his head, to honor the helpful "anonymous source" who provides us with even more spin control on a topic, to put it in the best light for the White House. Mike became disillusioned by the sex scandals, and wanted to move out to private life and more time with his family. He was succeeded by Joe Lockhart, who was also professional and cooperative to work with, but lacked the affable humor of McCurry.

The "kiddie corps" which toiled in the Clinton press office also developed a greater respect for us, as they learned about our backgrounds, saw how hard we work, and gained a bit of historical perspective. Besides, they were no longer "kiddies," having matured immensely in their important and demanding jobs. The relations continued to improve, although there was always an adversarial element. After all, our job is to probe, question, and keep them on their toes.

The Clinton White House was followed by the George W. Bush Administration. That entire press organization was superb -- headed by Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan. The press secretaries treated all the members of the press with patience and respect -- even those of us who could not spend a million dollars a year on a travel budget. Ari and Scott were especially good about giving me historic answers, which created genuine news, in response to some of my questions. Scott later broke with the Bush Administration, writing a "tell all" book. He should have had the guts to do so before. He was followed to the podium by Tony Snow, a much beloved press secretary, political commentator, and musician. Most of us loved him on a personal level, even if we did not agree with his politics. He died a tragic death from colon cancer. Thousands of us attended his funeral, and even the biggest among us sobbed most of the time. Tony was followed to the podium by his sharp, organized, and beautiful deputy, Dana Perino. She did a remarkable job, and is still around giving speeches and political commentary on Fox TV.

Too bad I could not help change policy, and avert the Iraqi War in the Bush Administration. I did try, by asking several times whether the United States could really afford a guns and butter economy. They assured me it could. In the end, they were wrong and I was right. The world economy is in chaos, terrorism tears apart Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea are menacing nuclear states, there is no peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and there is great suffering throughout the world. Terrorists such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda threaten the world.

The Bush White House press office gave equal time to some of the more controversial and obnoxious reporters, who use the televised briefings to promote their own agendas or causes. That causes great embarrassment in the press corps but, with freedom of speech, we cannot shut them out unless they pose a security hazard.

The infrequent news conferences with President Bush were another story. They were controlled, managed, and elitist. Only the wealthy and powerful reporters were called a routine basis. If there was time left over President Bush recognized reporters from a particular minority group (women, radio, or ethnic) which he was trying to impress. The President did not realize many of us reach millions of listeners or reader -- if we were not with the big traditional groups, we did not count. It did no good to raise hands, call out "Mr. President," or establish eye contact, as I did many times. Those well-established procedures elicited a withering glare, a snide comment, or a total attempt to ignore the reporter.

In addition, many of the news conferences were announced with short notice, causing reporters to risk life and limb to scramble to the White House through rush hour traffic, fight to get a parking space, run blocks to the White House, and then hope to get a seat. After all that, we were not even called in. Most news conferences consisted of two or three taken questions to the White House "pool" at the tail end of another event. Again, they were only to the top of the pack. These practices did not make for warm and fuzzy relations with the press corps, and that disappointment was communicated to readers or listeners. It did not create a residue of good will for the White House to draw on during the many times of crises. Sadly, the Obama Administration has followed many of the same practices. I guess I would do the same if I were President.

For me as well, the learning process continues, but I try my best to curb any tendencies to become arrogant, bored, or overconfident -- all of which, regardless of one's profession, can lead to ruin. Besides, with the reductions in the news business, insecurity, rather than assurance, appears to rule the day. This does not help, in a profession that is traditionally dominated by neurotics! I find fulfillment covering the continually shifting diplomatic and political scenes in the United States and in the countries I report to. Occasionally, funny experiences break into the landscape, although some would argue that the whole political process is a joke.

One occasion that stands out in distant memory is the time I rushed to the White House in a teeming rainstorm to cover the brutal Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. (He went onto become a viscous, blood-thirsty despot, who will not be invited to the White House again). I was wearing sandals, which rapidly became drenched in the downpour. At the White House, we were ushered into the East Room for departure speeches, and I found myself in the front row of the press area. I took off my rain-soaked shoes and stood barefoot, right in front of the President, the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister, and other top officials of both nations. Some of the Africans stared at me in confusion, no doubt wondering if they were witnessing a strange American custom which they should follow. They were reassured when President Reagan and Secretary of State Shultz kept their own shoes on.

Another joyous occasion was my meeting with Nelson Mandela, during his first Washington news conference as President of South Africa. When I introduced myself, he came down from the podium, hugged me, and said, "Connie Lawn, I have always wanted to meet you. But, you are not as big as I thought you were!" To widespread laughter, he recounted how he listened to me throughout his hard years in prison.

At that time, he told me, my broadcasts brought hope to him and to his fellow members of the struggle.

All this is by way of illustrating the lesson I hope my readers have learned from these pages -- namely, that you too can someday stand barefoot at the White House, if you really want to. You can find a fulfilling and often exciting career in journalism or in any other field, if you work hard enough at it. You may have to go about it in unorthodox ways, but you don't necessarily have to be a superstar, or be employed by a big corporation to do well in this profession. You also have to be flexible and change your style. For me, I am delighted to do more live, interactive "talk-backs" and less static reporting, (although I do love my news stories.)

Reporting lectures down to a radio or TV listener; talk -- back shares the microphone with him and her. I remember my children once asking, "Mommy, why do you always sound so angry on the phone when you broadcast? And, my dogs used to leave the room, thinking I was yelling at them. But, that was the old, bossy, big-voice sound of yesteryear, as opposed to the more intimate and friendly sound of today. (Except for the screaming matches on some t.v. and radio shows). The warmer changes suit my personality, where I am often told I sound best when I do not hide the smile in my voice. After all, my nickname was "smiley" as a kid -- no point in hiding my personality!

A few words of advice about this profession: first, try to avoid bosses or colleagues who are unscrupulous or exceptionally moody. There seem to be more of them in the creative fields than anywhere else. Such individuals will only cause you grief. You may please them one minute, only to find that they hate you the next. Fire them, before they fire you, and find someplace else to work. Always be true to your principles, and don't take the fall for them!

Remember that everyone is special, and everyone is unique. If you don't find your niche in one place, you'll find it in another. Don't ever give up, and don't get discouraged. The painful moments will soon pass, if you learn how to translate defeat into victory. You might get fired a lot, but that's part of the business, at least in the United States. Even Presidents and Prime Ministers get fired, so if it happens to you, you'll be in good company. If you're a good reporter, you'll probably outlast them all. I have known and covered a lot of very powerful figures in my day, many of whom are now either dead or far from the centers of power they once occupied.
Whatever you do, in any profession, remain aware of your own importance, and keep trying. We are all unique and have the potential to make something special of our lives. It may be necessary to employ unorthodox methods, take risks, and make mistakes. But, we can find our niche, with perseverance and determination.

Also remember that, like me, you'll probably make many mistakes along the way. You are never too old to be naive and to trust someone who is not worthy of your faith and respect. All of us -- even the world's leaders -- make our share of mistakes. Just keep plugging away, dare to be a bit different from the masses if you can, and, most of all, have fun!

Parkinson Disease and a Queen's Honor

As I write these updates, there have been major changes in my life. At the age of 65 I was diagnosed with Parkinson Disease. It is debilitating, and it robbed me of my radio career. It is hard to broadcast when you sound sick and weak. It is hard to walk, and I get exhausted easily. As the disease gets worse, it becomes difficult to move, swallow, and perform many functions. The pain is intense. I do not know if I can safely ski or drive again. But we all have something. My beloved sister Margo died of cancer at 39 and that is far worse.

As I aged, people were nicer to me and honored me in several ways. I am overwhelmed by New Zealand. I was on the Queen's Honors List, and given a gold medal for service to New Zealand.

The titles are honorary, but significant. This is in addition to the Life Time Achievement Award given to me by the National Press Club of New Zealand, and the champion race horse named "Connie Lawn." Many thanks to a wonderful country!

I hope you enjoyed reading this book. If you want to talk to me about it, phone me, or contact me on the Internet at connielawn@aol.com. Please do so, and tell me if this book helped you in your own career!

Connie Lawn
Washington, D.C.