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So What Do You Do, Ann Curry, News Anchor, The Today Show?

Known for landing coveted interviews with everyone from Angelina Jolie to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the broadcast vet dishes on her decades on the air

- December 30, 2009
During her 12 years at Today, Ann Curry has been game for anything the producers could dream up, from climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro (she made it within striking distance of the top but had to turn back when her team began suffering the effects of altitude sickness) to bungee jumping off the landmark Transporter Bridge in England to raise money for charity. At the time, she said, "I was really thinking, 'I hope this does some good.' If you're going to do something as crazy as that, you want some good to come out of it."

While Curry has always good naturedly participated in Today show stunts like dressing up for Halloween and hot air ballooning into a viewer's backyard, it is her deep desire to do "meaningful work" that has sustained her throughout her broadcast career. Earlier this year, she traveled to Iran when she landed the first interview with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad after the June elections on the eve of his visit to the United Nations. She was the first network news anchor to report from war-torn Kosovo, the first on the ground from the Southeast Asia tsunami zone and the first to document the genocide in Darfur. While hard news is Curry's "first love," she's also managed to land the big celebrity gets, too. When Brangelina was sequestered in Africa preparing for the birth of their twins, Angelina Jolie spoke only to Curry.

The self-described "army brat" and eldest of five children born to a Japanese mother and Caucasian father was the first in her family to graduate from college and still marvels that she landed on Today. "I never imagined that anyone who looked like me would have a place here." But she makes no bones about what it takes to stay there. "I've come to a point where I've gained a terrific opportunity to do the work that means the most to me and the work, in the end, I'll always be grateful I did. I work really, really hard," says Curry.

Name: Ann Curry
Position: News anchor, Today; anchor, Dateline NBC
Resume: Began her television career as an intern in 1978 at KTVL in Medford, Ore., where she later became the station's first female news reporter. Went on to report and anchor for KCBS in Los Angeles and KGW in Portland. Joined NBC News in 1990 as Chicago-based correspondent; named anchor of NBC News at Sunrise in 1992. Helped launch MSNBC and joined Today in March 1997. Named co-anchor of Dateline NBC in May 2005. Substitute anchor on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Birthdate: November 19
Hometown: Ashland, Ore.
Education: University of Oregon, B.A. in journalism
Marital status: Married to software entrepreneur Brian Ross, with two children, daughter MacKenzie and son Walker.
First section of the Sunday Times: "The front page."
Favorite TV show: "The Office. I love Steve Carell. I like House, as well."
Guilty pleasure: "Sometimes I feel guilty about going to yoga. To take time out to exercise, breathe and think about your own health makes you feel guilty. But it's what you should be doing all the time."

You've been at NBC for 19 years -- coming up on 13 with Today. What is the secret to your longevity?
There are two things. I aspire to be valuable. I try not to lean on too many other people. I try not to have other people do my work. The other thing is trying to keep a sense of humility and trying to always remember to be grateful for this opportunity and proceed in that way. The loss of humility is a disease of this profession for a lot of reasons. I don't want to catch that disease.

You've been part of the mix of so many different personalities on Today. How has that affected the way you do your job?
I've been grateful to have the ear of the managers of this network who have trusted me to do the stories that I am most proud of. That's not the work that involves sitting on any couch or being in front of a camera on a live broadcast. It's about being in the field. That's really something I intend to continue to pursue. This was not something I ever figured out how to do when I first began at NBC and the Today show. But I've figured it out, and it's working so far.

I can work on the nightly news broadcast, the Today show, MSNBC and, and I'm still exploring ways of getting information out. I'm a serious photographer now, and it's another way of getting the story out. That's my motivation: to get these voices heard and get these stories out because I know they're important to do.

"The loss of humility is a disease of this profession for a lot of reasons. I don't want to catch that disease."

Did you want Katie Couric's job when she left? If you had gotten it, it's unlikely you would have been able to do the type of work you just described.
I did think about that job. The one great thing about that job is you have the opportunity to interview newsmakers and have access to major stories. I would have been a fool to not want that job, but the thing about life is that sometimes not getting what you think you want has a silver lining. Had I gotten that job, I might never have been able to go to Darfur four times. I might never have gotten to do what some have said was a transformation hour on Iran and the interview with Ahmadinejad or gone to Congo and brought attention to the crimes against women there. That's just the short list.

I think people are often disappointed by not getting exactly what they want. I think the secret is [to] keep your eyes open and not to blink, because you need to see that what is possible is something you may not be paying attention to. It's interesting that you sometimes get a chance to do exactly what you should be doing because you didn't get what you wanted. I would have loved that job and I would have relished it, but you're right, I wouldn't have been able to do this other work.

You have personally witnessed so much of the world's devastation. Is there one event that you could say has affected you the deepest?
It's difficult for me to compare them. Kosovo was the first one where I recognized there was nothing I could do to stop what I was witnessing. I will say I'm proud to say that our reporting in Kosovo was an early part of the wave that did bring change. It was transformative to see these people stuck in these camps crying without food or milk for their babies. In Darfur, I was face to face with an elderly woman who tried to save her husband from the burning house where a thatched roof fell on top of him. He was an invalid and she was in her 80s. I found her in a hospital a few days later with her whole body covered in third-degree burns, and her husband was dead. How do you compare that to anything? When I went to Congo, I met a girl who saw her parents killed right in front of her, and she ran away. She was caught by the same men who killed her parents and then chained up and raped for months. She became pregnant and when she delivered her baby, everything inside her was broken. I found her on an operating table having surgery so she could go to the bathroom normally. When I asked her if she wanted revenge, she said to me, 'All I want is to rise from this bed and thank the people who helped me and work for God.'

I see all of these events as one. That's the one thing I've come away with -- I recognize that every one of those lives matter. There is no life that is less precious than another. There is no culture that is less important than another, and when we allow these kinds of crimes against humanity to continue, we are hurting our human family.

You've also managed to get unprecedented access to the tabloid couple of the decade, having scored a number of exclusives with both Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. How did you establish such a good rapport with the both of them?
I think it's based on mutual respect. I first interviewed Angelina a long, long time ago when she was first emerging as an actress. Even then, I could see the depth of her wish to be useful. A lot people didn't see her for who she was, but because I had this opportunity to sit and talk to her, I could see she was far more than people realized. I really don't know why we were able to hit it off except that I have a lot of respect for her work and I think she might have some respect for mine.

Did you find that she knew a lot about you when you met?
Not the first time I interviewed her, but certainly in subsequent interviews it was clear that she knew about my efforts. As she became a force for humanitarian work, I understood her efforts and motivation, and my respect grew for her. Brad is very much like that, as well. He has got a sense of altruism and a sense of justice. He's really old-fashioned and delightful. Maybe it's a surprise to some people, but he's serious about the injustice that has lingered for so many people in New Orleans. He's not only talked about it, but he's done something about it. Some people actually want to elect him mayor, although he's not planning to run. I respect that. I respect people who stand up for what they believe in and do something. I think they are people who get it.

"I'm the girl who wasn't even supposed to go to college, raised by a woman with a thick immigrant's accent, and grew up mispronouncing words as a result. How the hell did I get on national television?"

Today has always mined the lives of the show's key players in order to connect to the audience on a personal level. Have you grown more comfortable with that over the years?
I'm a little more comfortable, but I still am pretty largely uncomfortable with stories about us because I think the story should be on everybody else but us. I recognize that there is an interest. The first time we did it, the response was so enormous. It was surprising because people responded not just to us, but about how they felt about their own experience through us. That's made me feel a little more comfortable. If someone can feel something about his or her parents because you've been honest about your own experience about losing a parent -- if you can help them in their grief -- then that has value. I think that the broadcast is a soup-to-dessert broadcast. It's going to have all that stuff, but balance is the key.

I just did an interview with a woman who is dying of breast cancer and for the first few moments she said, 'I just can't believe I'm actually sitting with you.' It didn't take me that long, but it did take me a minute to have her stop thinking about that and start thinking about what I really wanted to talk to her about. That's not good. It was an interesting kind of situation, but I don't want it to bleed over into the work, and I struggle against that.

What's the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you about working in television news?
I'm not sure it's advice, but early on, I realized I don't work for my bosses; I work for the people who watch, and that has been my best guide. If I do the best job for the people who watch and they're happy, my bosses are happy, but making my bosses happy without taking care of the viewer is not the life I want. There is one bit of advice someone gave me: 'A lot of people give advice. Only listen to the advice that rings true in your gut and even then, make sure you double-check before you make changes. If you watch yourself on television and something doesn't feel right or look right, it's not right. Listen to your own instincts.' I would say that's the best advice I ever got.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
I don't know. I'm as surprised as anyone. If I can get to where I am, anyone can. I'm the girl who wasn't even supposed to go to college, raised by a woman with a thick immigrant's accent, and grew up mispronouncing words as a result. How the hell did I get on national television? I want so much to be a journalist that meets the needs of this time. I keep trying to be good enough, and I think it's the effort. I'm never satisfied.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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