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Connie Chung Reflects On News, Family And Fighting With Humor

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 8, 2011

Connie Chung has been a trailblazer in broadcast news since she started her career in 1969. She began as a copy person in her hometown of Washington D.C., then rose to positions at CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN. She became the first Asian and the second woman to anchor one of America’s major network newscasts.

Chung has done exclusive interviews, including those with Chinese leader Li Peng on the fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and basketball star Magic Johnson after he publicly announced having HIV. She has won three Emmys and a Peabody among several other accolades.

Choosing The Road To Journalism

During the summer between her junior and senior year of college, Chung had an internship whereby she watched reporters in action. She also worked for a Congressman who used to be a newspaper man. Through him, she developed an interest in writing. By the time she returned to college in the fall, she decided to major in journalism. She chose television journalism in particular because the field was fairly young at the time – 1969.

Chung comments on her career decision, “For a small, diminutive sized Chinese person who grew up in a very loud family and never spoke up in my life, it was dramatic.”

Plowing Through A Tough Industry

Chung says that when people gave her a hard time, she never knew if it was due to her young age, inexperience, gender or Chinese heritage. When facing claims of bias or yellow journalism, she fought back with humor. She says, “I wouldn’t let them get my goat by taking it seriously, even if they meant it seriously.”

“Making It”

In the 1970s, Chung was working at a Washington DC station. CBS News decided to compensate for years of discriminating against women and minorities. The organization did so by hiring four women – including Chung — who they deemed “Reporters.” About two years later, Chung was promoted to “Correspondent.” That was the first time she thought, “Yes, I’ve made it.”

But the sense of officially making it came when colleagues stopped berating her for how she wrote, produced and reported. That was after a period of rough hazing – a common experience for many other female reporters at the time.

Capturing The Co-Anchor Chair

Chung reflects on always dreaming of being Walter Cronkite. She dreamt of sitting in his chair. Reality gave her half his chair. In 1993, she was thrilled when becoming the co-anchor of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.

However, critics said her rise demeaned the evening network news broadcast institution. And she describes that having two people anchor a 30-minute network newscast was like playing “Patty Cake.”

But had she not been an anchor, she would have lost the opportunities to cover major stories, including the Oklahoma City bombing and former President Nixon’s funeral. So she was glad she did the job.

She says her mistake was not giving the evening news her full attention. At the time, she was also hosting her own magazine program “Eye To Eye With Connie Chung.”

Identifying Her Interview Style, Hitting Bumps In The Business

Chung says she is “normal and ordinary,” as though doing an interview with her is like chatting with your neighbor, classmate or girlfriend. She adds guests trust her.

But she did have two big blowups.

The first — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates walked out on Chung during “Eye to Eye.” She says, “I was giving him a hard time about the smaller companies that Microsoft would roll over.” Chung considers the episode monumental, one that raises the question of why people even step into interviews, where they are subjected to all types of questions, and when they know full well that such controversies exist … and yet they walk out in the end.

The second — Chung was interviewing Newt Gingrich’s mother. Chung describes, “You know how other women who don’t want to utter a word that is not so pleasant, like ‘he’s got cancer’ or ‘he had an affair’? She was doing that all during the interview.” Chung then told Mrs. Gingrich, “Why don’t you just whisper it to me, just between you and me?” After Mrs. Gingrich answered, her son said Chung was not being nice and that his mother did not know she was on television. Mrs. Gingrich, in fact, did know.

Looking At Asians In The News Industry Today

Chung expresses a hope that the industry would have become more diverse today. She states that breaking male traditions is difficult, “The cavemen are still in charge at the networks. They’re all white males. And you can’t get away from that.”

Embracing Family Life

Connie Chung is among the first prominent female journalists who openly shared her need and desire for work-family balance. At age 38, she married broadcaster Maury Povich after dating him for about seven years. Povich fathered two children from his past marriage and thus had no strong desire to have another child. Nonetheless, he was willing to do it because he knew Chung wanted it.

At the time, Chung was supposed to be the only correspondent for an hour-long, weekly magazine program “Face to Face.” She gave it up so she could go through in-vitro fertilization. In the end, she and Povich adopted a son, who is nearing age 16 now. In terms of her own upbringing, Chung is the youngest of 10 children. Her father William Ling Chung was an intelligence officer in the Chinese Nationalist Government. Five of his babies died during wartime, including boys. The remaining children immigrated with their parents to America in 1945. Connie Chung was born in Washington D.C. in 1946.

Chung says that family legacy was profound. In China, having a baby girl meant losing when she grew up to become a wife. Women traditionally moved in with their husbands’ families. Chung says that because her father did not have anyone to carry on the “Chung” name, she wanted to give it significance. She wanted to compensate for the disappointment.

Preferring “Asian” Over “Asian-American”

Chung says she is not hyphenated. As she was growing up, the hyphen denoted “half and half.” She does not consider herself half and half. Both her parents are Chinese. She declares she is “just Chinese.” And yet, she has been very Americanized. She was born here and states she is “American as anybody.”

Offering Wisdom

For women who are trying to do so much, Chung advises, “You can’t juggle it all 100%. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to do everything.” She adds that women should share duties with whoever they are living with, and if it doesn’t work out…”chill a little.”

[Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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