Journalism as public service: A Q&A with Frank Sesno
Max Sano, founder of Greenzine, sat down with Frank Sesno to discuss his career in multimedia journalism. Frank started in radio and moved towards live reporting as a CNN Correspondent in its early years. He is an Emmy Award-winning journalist, author of Ask More, and Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
In this interview, Frank reflects on the relationship between creative storytelling, journalism, and public service.
Who is one of your favorite news broadcasters or personal heroes and how did they help shape the way you view the world?
Well, there are many I suppose it would probably start with–even though I wasn’t around when he was broadcasting– Edward R. Murrow. He stood up to power in the McCarthy years when his peers were timid. He realized that the job of the journalist was in fact to hold those in power accountable.
More recently, there are lots of people in journalism for many different reasons who I really look up to and value. From hard news interviewers like Mike Wallace, who was not flawless or without mistakes, but fairly fearless and very direct and effective in what he did. To the poets, like Charles Osgood, who brought a lilt and a rhythm to journalism.
So there are a lot of people I look up to. The names I gave you are largely broadcast journalists because that’s the realm I come from, but there are so many people in print. One person that comes to mind is the legendary Johnny Apple of The New York Times who I knew when I was in London, and I watched him work and it was magic.
That lends to the different mediums of journalism that have defined your career.
How does your work across different mediums inform the way in which you cover the issues, since people can process information in so many different ways, going back from the 80s into the present?
I started in radio. I remember very vividly there was a guy in the advertising department who said, “Research shows that if you run a radio ad, you have about four seconds to catch the listeners’ attention.” I took that to heart in the way that I did my reporting because similarly I felt, “If I don’t catch a listener off the top, if I don’t get a forceful set of words that comprises a hard lead or a really interesting story, they’re going to be gone.”
When I went to television, it was a very different kind of job because there I quickly learned that it was the picture that matters. That you had to lead with a picture. Television is a visual medium. When I write for text, whether it’s for print, or whether it’s for digital media that people are grabbing on the fly through their digital device, those first words, that first paragraph, I know that I need to draw people in without sound or pictures.
The answer to your question Max is this: The story is fundamentally the story. But, the narrative arc that you create, and the creative space that you generate for how you deliver that story to your audience, is flexible. It needs to reflect the medium through which or across which you’re doing your storytelling.
How did your role as a CNN Correspondent, moving from radio to TV, specifically shape the way you approach news coverage?
Moving from radio to television, for me, was an adventure in either daring or stupidity. So when I moved from radio to television, I remember saying to the guy who hired me, “Am I going to get a coach? Am I going to get somebody to teach me?” He said, “No God dammit, go learn how to do this. You’ll figure it out.” That’s what I did.
I learned by making mistakes. I learned by figuring out that I needed to open my piece with a powerful picture. I learned that I could write expressively if I wrote visually. I learned that I needed to smartly get to a sound bite and that the sound bite needed to get right to the heart of the matter. So it was swimming in the deep end and it was a lot of fun.
I had the luxury (and I think this is important, because I don’t think a lot of people have it now) to make mistakes, because everything was so new. There was this shared newness that made it an incredibly exciting and mission-driven experience because we were so conscious that we were revolutionizing the way people got their information.
That comes with, like you said, learning by doing and trying to set the tone for what you wanted to report.
There was sort of a parallel newness that made it all very special. I was learning television for the first time and cable news was learning television for the first time. The U.S. never had this. We had three networks that went on the air at 6:30pm or seven o’clock at night and handed the audience what they needed to know on a 30-minute silver platter.
We didn’t have real-time reporting, certainly not from around the world. We didn’t have people standing live on the White House lawn as I was doing at any hour of the day or night saying what had happened just then. Or putting someone on live from a crisis or a catastrophe as it was unfolding so that people could see it unfold.
So it was a very dramatic experience, and as I say, we were learning on about 12 different levels. Individually, organizationally and journalistically. This new format also changed the way we were bringing people news and the speed with which we were bringing new people in the news.
Somebody still had to be making editorial decisions through that, so it was a very unusual time and learning curve.
The 24 hour news cycle seems tiring now. I can’t imagine what it felt like in the process of it formulating as not just a concept, but as a defining feature of the journalism industry. I don’t envy you in that regard.
Oh, no, you can envy me. It was great! I remember, I did our Sunday talk show and I remember interviewing the president of Turkey. The then-president of Turkey thanked me, and he thanked CNN for carrying congressional hearings live because they were then carried live in Turkey.
He said, “I want to thank you and CNN for helping my country learn about democracy.”
Of course, as we look at Turkey today, maybe they didn’t learn so deeply, but history is funny that way.
The same president of Turkey, I remember I was told this by the White House subsequently. I was at the White House, and the President stepped off the helicopter. We shouted questions at him and he said, “I can’t talk now, I’m going to call the president of Turkey.”
When he finally got through to the president of Turkey, the president of Turkey said, “Mr. President, thank you for calling. I’ve been expecting your call. I saw you say that on CNN.”
When you have stories like that, you realize:
How amazing and how dramatically different journalism was.
B. The awesome responsibility you have when you’re speaking to the world like that.
You better get it right. You better understand the different perspectives and nuances. If it’s a question of knowing your audience, what do you do when it’s a global audience? Who is your audience? Your audience is everybody. So how do you speak to everybody? It’s a very challenging question.
That kind of answers my question I was going to ask you. How can journalism be a form of public service? That’s spot on!
Besides working through back channels and through people that have established connections, it’s like, no, I heard you on the news. So where’s the call? Or where’s the action?
Well to answer what is journalism’s role as a public service, I would boil that down to a soundbite or maybe better stated as a bumper sticker: Tell people the truth. Tell people the truth.
It doesn’t matter who that helps or hurts. It doesn’t matter whether people like what they hear or not. But in a world, especially now filled with misinformation and disinformation, filled with ideological demonizing and all the rest. People are confused, they’re angry, they’re polarized.
Journalism should be dedicated and committed to telling people the truth. Like a diamond, truth has many facets to it and telling people the truth, visiting those many facets, is not simple. The truth is not neat and tidy a lot of the time, so we’ve got to engage that.