John Towriss, CNN’s former Deputy Washington Bureau Chief writes about the Lou Dobbs he knew. Towriss spent 22 years at CNN, departing in 2002.
I’ve been gone from CNN for a half dozen years but during my 21 years there and as another CNN original like Lou Dobbs I had chance to interact with Lou several times during my career and have stayed in occasional touch with Lou since leaving CNN. I’m no different than many both inside and outside CNN who have winced at some of the things Lou has said in recent years as he has become increasingly more opinionated on the air. The move towards opinion journalism has become a tide that few news executives — including CNN’s current top guy — Jon Klein — seem able to stop. Some news execs have encouraged it, especially as FOX News ratings have soared. Phil Griffin (another former colleague) at MSNBC has embraced it in prime time. As an admitted journalism “purist” I don’t like it but it has washed over almost everything in news today making much news coverage barely distinguishable from blogs, commentary or anyone with a Twitter account (my view and understand if some would disagree).
Interestingly, like most things with Lou, he saw it before most of the others did and rode the front of the wave not the back. Even Lou’s critics would have to admit that Lou is a “leading edge” guy not a “trailing indicator” guy. I’ve listened to and read many of Lou’s critics — who are having a field day since Wednesday night’s announcement that he was leaving — and some make salient points. But I have to square that criticism with the Lou Dobbs I know personally, from places many of his critics are unaware, will never be and wouldn’t know how to find anyway.
I’m talking about the factory floor where news is made, the boots-on-the-ground, journalism where actual news stories are usually discovered. This is where I knew and interacted with Lou Dobbs. Not opinionated Anchor Lou Dobbs, but the hands-in-the-dirt journalist Lou Dobbs. The one that has been awarded more than a few times for his coverage of hard news. It’s a different view and with the gush of grist on Lou it is a perspective I think is worth being heard. I can sum it up in one anecdote.
1990 Gulf War. The allied forces had just pushed Saddam’s Iraqi soldiers out of Kuwait. As they were doing so, I was among a group of journalists trying every way possible to get out of the desert of Saudi Arabia and into Kuwait to see what was happening. Our CNN team was one of the first in country and with no power, no fuel and no place to go you had to make do. We eventually squatted in a closed hotel lounge in which we just sort of took over for several months as the base for CNN before being thrown out when the hotel re-opened. It required daily bartering to find food for our team and fuel for our vehicles. Our best bartering tool was a call on our satellite phone…the same satellite phone that rang me up after a couple of weeks to tell me that Lou Dobbs and his producer (now correspondent) Bill Tucker would be arriving. I was told to accommodate him — with what I wondered? We were living like bums on the street, pan-handling food which was scarce while we searched for news which was in abundance. A few of my staff had forced their way into hotel rooms in the still closed hotel and I asked a couple of them to give up their rooms for Lou and his producer. That’s tough for a squatter to do but they agreed. Yet when Lou arrived, he would have nothing of it. He said he would make do and he did. He slept on the floor of the lounge in a sleeping bag where he stayed for about a week while covering stories related to financial scope of the war. Lou actively participated in story discussions and it was there that I realized more than ever that Lou is a real news man with incredible news instincts and how to shape a story. In fact, the biggest break of news we got during the period in Kuwait came from Lou.
Lou and his crew were out doing a story on the oil well fires in the north of Kuwait when he overheard conversations between allied officials that as part of the truce being negotiated, thousands of Kuwaiti men who had been taken to Iraq and imprisoned would be returned to Kuwait as early as that night. There was no cell phone infrastructure working in the country so Lou had no way to communicate with me back in Kuwait City other than to do the one thing he could. He broke off his story and took his crew back to Kuwait City to tell me the news. It would require that we take a night time trip to the border with Iraq which was still a dodgy proposition in those days. Lou offered to go do the story but I told him to stay electing to take a fresh crew and correspondent with me. We got to the border literally minutes before a caravan of buses bringing the hostages back home to Kuwait arrived. We were able to get our satellite dish up and operating and transmitted the pictures live while we interviewed the stream of happy former hostages. It was a full journalistic coup…CNN was the only one on the story. By first light, when we were packing up, vans from BBC, NBC and the New York Times came screaming into the border area all speaking of nasty wake-up calls from their bosses who had seen the live coverage on CNN and told their troops to move to the border. It was a great moment for CNN and an important story at the time. However, none of it would have happened had it not been for the unselfish news instincts of Lou Dobbs.
I don’t want to overstate this and say that one anecdote has made me blind to any criticism of Lou. However, it did show me convincing proof that when you peel away all the layers of opinion around Lou there is a hell of a journalist in there that we can all learn from. I did. During my years at CNN there were more than a few stories of Lou’s toughness with staff being unwilling to accept anything but the best for his show. I’ve seen some of his staff reduced to tears after a problem show. But what is interesting is how many of that staff has remained loyal to Lou. Being from Indiana, I see some similarities with Bobby Knight — a polarizing figure, with some public flaws and easy to find something to dislike from a distance. But much like Knight, the closer you get the more you see redeeming qualities. Knight’s players loved him and he graduated almost all of them. Dobbs staff stays with him and he has tutored some fine journalists (like Tucker).
I’m sure we haven’t heard the last of Lou Dobbs and I’ll be the first to say I personally don’t agree with some of his positions and statements of recent years. But don’t come at me with some argument that Lou is not a journalist, doesn’t know news or can’t do a compelling news show. I’ll take you to task on that one. Lou is not asking for any votes and I’m not writing this to offer one but I think in the rush to judgment all perspectives should be there to consider.