Legendary TV anchor inspires younger journalists

NdeyKumbaDembaBy Ndey Kumba Demba

Ndey: I read from a background research that you joined KCCI’s production department while still in high school. Did you always know that journalism was a career you wanted?

Kevin: I did know that and here is the reason why, both my mother and father were journalists. They were reporters and editors for the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribunal, which is a newspaper that is not here anymore. My mother was the first female copy editor for the Des Moines Register during World War Two and my father was a reporter and editor for the Register for years and years. So journalism was part of our family, but, I was very interested in television. I liked the idea of telling stories, and when I took a tour of the TV station once and I thought waw! This would be a really great way to tell stories and that’s what I did. I worked for the Register a little bit when I was in high school, but had an opportunity to come work here (KCCI) and so that’s what I did.

Ndey: At that time, did you have individuals you looked up to in the field? I would guess your parents.

Kevin: My parents very much so. My mother was more of a writer than my dad was. My dad was more of an editor. My mother was a writer and she was a future reporter for the Des Moines Register and she wrote many features. Some very humorous features, some very serious stories about everything from gambling to Catholic nuns who didn’t have retirement funds and things like that. She broke a lot of stories that she didn’t realize it. She was just doing stories she thought were interesting but imagine 35 years ago, doing a story on gamblers.  And it turns out she was the first one to ever do that story but she didn’t realize it at that time. Between those types of stories and then the human interest stories, interesting people or interesting situations and finding their stories.  I was exposed to feature reporting and that’s what I really like to do. There were also some reporters back then, Charles Kuralt was a reporter for CBS who did a feature called “On The Road” were he would literally go out of the country and travel all over the country and find interesting stories about people. And Charles Osgood is another reporter for CBS who I liked when I was in college very much so. He was a very creative radio reporter and is still on CBS on Sunday morning. As a matter of fact, he took over from Charles Kuralt, when Charles Kuralt retired from CBS Sunday morning. Those people are the ones I think I admire the most.

Ndey: Since you knew early on what you wanted, what type of classes did you take in college and university to sort of spin you into that direction?

Kevin: I took as many classes as I could, to learn about writing, about storytelling and about reporting. A lot of them were journalism courses on reporting, but, there were also a lot of writing courses in the English department on composition. I wanted to find out as much as I could about different styles, about how to develop a style of my own, what went into those kind  of things. I took a lot of journalism courses. As a matter of fact, the head of the journalism department at Iowa State called me into his office one time at my junior year and said, “You can’t take any more journalism courses,” and I said, “why not?” He said, “You already have enough courses for major. Unless, you’re going to teach journalism, you don’t need any more journalism courses. You are going to report on science and politics and people and psychology and agriculture and things like that. Go take some social science courses, political sciences, in agriculture and science and things like that. Those are the things that you are going to report on.” So I was very interested and still interested in politics. So, I took a lot of political science courses and find out how government worked and how politics worked. Early on in my career, I did a lot of reporting on politics.

Ndey: Over the years, you have covered so many stories. What would you say is your most memorable story?

KevCooney2-webKevin: The most memorable stories would include the floods of 1993, and 2008. 1993, I think everybody always talks about that, about being one of the biggest stories because it affected so many people, hundreds of thousands of people. Most people didn’t lose their homes or their homes weren’t flooded, although, many people did. Everybody was without water. And you stop and think, well, it’s like being without electricity, but when your electricity goes out, unless it is 20 below zero, you can still pretty much function. You can light candles and things like that. If your water goes out, you can’t go to the bathroom inside anymore; you can’t take a shower anymore, you can’t wash your dishes. I don’t think anyone really thought about what happens when the water goes out and that’s what the flood did. It wiped out the water for a long time, about 10 days. That was a really big story. The other stories I’ve done, again I mentioned politics. I like to do stories about politics. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a lot politicians and Iowa is a great place. Everybody who wants to run for president comes to Iowa. So one day, I interviewed six presidential candidates in one day, back in 1976 I think it was, including Jimmy Carter who ended up being president. But also six other governors and senators who were running for president at that time and they all happened to be in town. I’ve also had the opportunity to talk President Carter and the first President Bush and President Clinton and president Obama on several occasions. I’ve been able to go to interview the president at the While House twice. I interviewed President Bush on board Air Force One, which was really cool (laughs). He said to me, “what are you doing?” I said to him, “well I’m not doing anything.” Then we were done. He said, “Well, let me give you a tour of the plane.” And so, here is the president showing off his Air Force One taking us on tour up and down. You know the thing we was most impressed with, he opened the door and there was a bathroom in Air Force One and he said, “Look at this, this is the only plane that I know of where you can take a shower while you flying.” There was a shower right there and of course this was 30 years ago (laughs). He was really proud of the fact that he could just hop into the shower on board the airplane. Funny little memories like that. Those are some of the biggest stories. I think politics have always being a good story around Iowa. There have been other stories I did and I’m proud of and you would probably call lesser stories. They didn’t involve famous people like that but they were fun stories to tell, which like I said is the reason I got in this business in the first place, to tell stories. You probably tell stories. When somebody, “hey what’s new,” or “what’s going on,” or you send emails from Des Moines back home to Gambia, you are telling stories, it’s what you are doing. I just have always loved to do that. It’s all about storytelling.

Ndey: You have interviewed presidents George H Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. I would say by now you have mastered the art of interviewing a president, if there is any. But take me back to the moment you interviewed a president for the first! How was it like? I know I was nervous coming here “it’s Kevin Cooney!”

Kevin: (laughs). The first time I interviewed a president, he wasn’t president at that time. It was Jimmy Carter back in 1976. But I can tell you that the presidents are just like you interviewing me. They want to get a message across obviously. They want to tell their stories, just like a reporter wants to tell his or her story. But the presidents are all different, but they are very real I think. They usually have a message being it democrat or republican. They usually have an agenda if you will, they want to get across. The only trouble with doing presidential interviews like we do on local is, they usually have like about 5 or 10 minutes. It’s not like we’ve been here talking for 10 to 12 minutes already. You usually don’t have that opportunity with the president. His people set the agenda, they set the time, they say you going to be able to do it for this amount of time. So, it’s kind of tough to get into any sort of depth. When I talked to president, then senator Obama it was a much different conversation. We had plenty of time to talk. You get the opportunity to talk one on one, one person to another. I remember one of the things we talked a lot about when he was first running was he was trying to quit smoking. I was telling him how I quit smoking and how he should try what I tried and those type of stuff. It was just fun to relate to them on a human, one to one basis as oppose to “oh he is a big president up here.”

Ndey: Objectivity versus subjectivity is still an issue in journalism. I’ll take an example of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, were some of the journalist who covered the story were criticized for subjective reporting. What’s your take on that? Where is the line drawn?

Kevin: I think a good journalist is going to get all sides of the story. Notice, I said, “all sides,” I don’t say “both sides,” because usually, is not just two sides to a story. There are many sides to a story and a good journalist will work to get all sides of a story. There is a place and time for subjective journalism or what you would call advocacy journalism. That is to say, if you work for an organization or publication that promotes particular point of view, you can still be a journalist, but you can be a subjective journalist or you could approach a story subjectively from the stand point of the NRA or the stand point of gun control, or, the stand point of someone who is pro abortion or someone who is anti abortion. If you are writing for a publication or reporting for a medium that promotes a point of view. Advocacy journalism is one very important part of the communication process. But, in this country, objective journalism is the goal. I mean to tell the story. To me it’s always being fascinating. I don’t even understand why people would be tempted to try and be prejudice or be subjective when they are reporters. When telling a story from an objective stand point is a wonderful luxury for a reporter. As hard question, you find out what somebody feels, you find out what somebody else feels. Try and get the whole spectrum of opinion in terms of whether it is an issue or whether it’s an event. Like you got a fire down here, a big fire that happen at Younkers. Now there is some questions as to, how the fire started? Could there have been something involved? Could somebody have set that fire? These are some of the types of things you wanna cover all the angles. But you don’t want to necessarily take one side, “oh we think this or something.” Flight 370 is a perfect example. It’s been three weeks since the plane crashed and people have had all sort of theories, everything. Was it the pilot engaged in some sort of terrorism? Was it a case of where the culpit field was smoked? The pilot turned the plane back and then everybody died? The plane just flew into a rant. You know what the point is, nobody knows what happened. It’s all speculations and is okay to say that just as long as you report that as speculations. You have to be objective in those types of things. I think it becomes harder to be objective when you are covering politics and stuff. You have to, I still maintain like I said earlier. It’s easy and even sometimes entertaining and fun to be objective, because you can say, okay, this person feels this way, this person feels this way, this person feels this way and some of the things might seem really ridicules, but telling the story and having them tell their stories sometimes can be very entertaining. Five years ago, right about now as a matter of fact, we had the Iowa State Supreme Court ruled that it effect made a decision on same sex marriage ruling that aspect of the Iowa State constitution banned the prohibition against same sex marriage, so in order words, same sex marriage was legal. What happened right after that everybody had an opinion on this. What was interesting was to go out and get these opinions. How I feel about it? Nobody cares about how I feel about it I’m just John Blow who is reporting these things. I just want to tell everybody’s story. It’s not just one opinion versus another opinion. There are some people who fall in between, and that’s when you talk about politics, that’s were most people are. Most people are in the middle. You’ve got the loud screamers over here, loud screamers over here, but most people are somewhere in the middle.

Ndey: What do you think makes a good journalist?

Kevin: A good journalist is somebody who listens. A good journalist listens, just as you are listening to me now. You have a recording when you go back, but, a good journalist is somebody who listens when someone is talking. As soon as it strikes that journalist as “what?” “Wait,” “that doesn’t make any sense,” interrupt that person and don’t let him get away with something. Or, if something sounds like they made it up or sounds false, go ahead and ask them about it, that’s your job as a journalist. I think that’s what makes a really good journalist. A good journalist is someone who listens, like I said and does their homework. Sometimes you don’t have opportunity to do a lot of homework. Like a big fire broke down a building down town, you don’t know anything about the building or the history of the building or something like that. Get on the computer, get on the i pad, or the phone as fast as you can. Find out if there is any history to the building, Google it as fast as you can, don’t always trust Google, but, it’ll give you some background on it. I think doing your homework and listening are the two things, because if you know a subject and you really listening to what somebody is saying when you are talking to them, and engaging them, whether you working for press or broadcasting. Engaging them one on one, as one person talking to another, I think that helps to get to the root of the issue, if you will. They will talk much more freely and openly to you, if they have your respect and you have their respect and you really listening to what they are saying, they’ll respect you. They’ll say, “oh I’m glad you brought that up,” or it will occur to them.

Ndey: Journalism is fair to say is quite demanding. How do you manage to balance work life and family life?

Kevin: Well, I like to think of it like almost digging ditches, in that at the end of the day, when you done digging that ditch, you throw the shovel in there and you are done for the day. You go home and you don’t dig ditches at home. I like to think of it the same way. I work really hard, to do what I can, to be the journalist, to be the reporter, to be anchor and everything like that. But, once the I’m done, I’m done. I try and leave that at the office. But, you can’t always do that. You’ll see something in the newspaper or hear something on TV, or a radio report. So you’ll always paying attention to what ‘s going on. This is what I think drives a lot of people crazy about reporters, because in a way, their minds are always working. But, I liked to over the years leave it at the office, let it go.

Ndey: But sometimes, you get called back, even on an off day.

Kevin: Oh yes you do, sometimes. There is something about journalist, I think the really good ones, is like in some jobs, when you get called in like say at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, you go like, “i don’t wanna go to work.” But if they called you in because of something that’s happened, because of a big fire down town or a tornado hit or something like that. A really good journalist, they want to go in. My wife Mollie is a journalist too and we always talk about when a big story will happen or a tornado will happen, they don’t have to call us in, we call in ourselves, “hey do you need any help,” Do you want us to come in,” “We can do this.” And because that’s what we kind of live for. A good reporter really wants to come where something is going on. They really do want to come on in those things. Sometimes it hard, but, most of the time, if they call you and want you to come in is because they really want you to come in and a good reporter wants to come in.

Ndey: Going back, you have covered major events, the flood of 1993, the inauguration of presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and have also interviewed several presidents. You have also been awarded for your outstanding contribution to journalism in Iowa. Would you at this point say you have reached the peak of your career?

Kevin: (laughs) You always hope that tomorrow is going to be a better story. I may have. I’ve got a few years left. You typically retired when you are 64, 65, 66, or somewhere around there in this country, so I suppose my best years are probably behind me, as they say. But, you always hope that maybe the biggest story you’ve covered, you’ve already covered it, but, that doesn’t mean the stories you’re going to cover in the future you are not going to cover them better and you are going to use what you have learned in those stories. I’m not concern about whether I’m going to have another big story or whether I’m going to interview another president or be here for another election or whatever. That doesn’t really worry me, what happens, happens. I can’t control that. I just hope that is still as interesting as it was when I was your age and first starting. We joke that and I just mentioned this the other day to somebody who said to me, “Hey, when are you going to retire?” I said, “you know, I haven’t decided on what I want to do when I grow up.” (Both Laughed). This is just a temporal thing I’ve been doing since I was a kid. This is so much fun. I haven’t decided on a real job. That’s how much fun it is. It’s really is a lot of fun. It’s  different everyday. Yeah, you have the 5pm, 6pm and 10pm news everyday but you have different news, it’s different everyday. You meet so many people. You get to help out people or cities or situations and stuff like that by using the media. That’s what we do. Maybe become an advocate. If the city is hurt by a tornado or a family or neighborhood is devastated by a tragedy or fire or something like that, we can go report the story and get the word out to people who need it. Or, if people are suffering, poverty, homelessness, we can do stories like that. We try to keep people aware of the issues, the problems, it’s our job. People sometimes don’t want to listen to the problems, but, as good citizens, we should be aware of the good and the bad, the problems and the solutions. I don’t think my best stories are necessarily behind me, but, if they are, I hope my best reporting is ahead of me.

Ndey: So you still strive to be better, even though, you can say, “well, I’m Kevin Cooney, I can rest on my laurels.”

Kevin: (laughs) I try to come in and report once a week. I go out on a story, because, anchoring 5pm, 6pm and 10pm, three shows a day. That takes up a lot of time. Usually, it takes about five or six hours to just do a story. The idea of being able to go out and report and anchor all at once is a little difficult a times. But I try and come in every Friday, about 9 o’clock in the morning. I get to work on a story, then get that story on the air for the six or 10’clock news at night. Like I was telling you earlier Ndey, when I got started in the business is to tell stories. I really didn’t get into the business to be an anchor man. Anchor man is a nice job and everything like that, but, I got in this field because, I saw how well my mom told stories, Charles Kuralt told stories, Charles Osgood and these types of people. Great writers and they would find issues and people to talk about, to share with other people, and that is the great thing about journalism. To take little pieces and make something out of it or make a story out of it just like a construction worker would take pieces of wood and cement and things like that and make a building, or something like that.

Ndey: Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring journalist like myself?

Kevin: Three things okay. Write, write and write. Write as much as you can. Tell stories as much as you can. It’s all about putting your thoughts down in an organized manner. When you tell the story of how you talked to me, pick out the thing that impressed you the most. Don’t sit and try to second guess, “oh what would really be the news thing here” or stuff like that. What is the thing that you really took from this interview, because that’s probably what other people would be impressed by too. You have to kind of put yourself in the place of everybody else, so to speak. So write what you feel. Write from here (pointing to the heart), not here (pointing to the head) and that will make a big difference in terms of how you write and how you tell a story. If you tell it from the heart, then it will be a story that people will read with their hearts, not just with their eyes. The most important advice that I can give you is to get as much experience writing, writing, writing. Broadcasting it’s all written. In radio and TV, it’s all written, 99% of it is based on the information you have and how your organize it. So, whether it is a fun story, a humorous story or feature story or whether it is a serious story about war or a government fight or something like that, it’s all about organizing your story and tell your story and the more experience you have writing those stories, the better you become.

Ndey: Thank you very much. I appreciate the time.

Kevin: You bet. Thank you. Oh, I’m happy to do it.

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