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So What Do You Do, Campbell Brown

The co-host of NBC’s Weekend Today talks about Iraq, the 2008 elections, and how the Web has transformed the news business

By Diane Clehane - February 26, 2007
Campbell From her perch at NBC's Studio 1A, Campbell Brown is at ease chatting with the steady stream of newsmakers and celebutantes who visit Weekend Today shilling their latest projects to sleepy weekend viewers.

But, get her talking off-camera, and it's clear one of her greatest passion is politics. Her worldview has been shaped by a career that was first ignited by her desire to see the world. "When I graduated from college, I had no idea what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to travel," she says. "So much was happening in what was Eastern Europe at the time -- it was the summer the wall came down. I moved to what was Czechoslovakia, and lived in Prague and taught English. The very first foreign minister was one of my students. That gave me the bug. I loved politics -- I've always been a political junkie."

Brown found a role model in a future colleague.

"My dream job was to be Andrea Mitchell, who was the White House correspondent at the time," she says. "So I took several internships in Washington with local NBC affiliates to put a tape together. I sent out 200 tapes all over the country, and the NBC affiliate in Topeka, Kansas, KSNT-TV, called me and offered me their political reporter job covering the capital. That's how I got my start."

Name: Campbell Brown "Here's the real story: Campbell is my mother's maiden name. My full name is Alma Dale Campbell Brown. My great grandmother was named Alma, and she married John Dale. My grandmother was then named Alma Dale, and she married Richard Campbel. My mother was named Alma Dale Campbell, and then she married a Brown. I'm the fourth in a generation. It's so Southern. Everyone thinks I made it up for television. The story is too ridiculous to make up."
Position: Co-anchor, NBC's Weekend Today, and correspondent for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Resumé: Before joining Weekend Today in September 2003, she served as NBC News White House correspondent for three years, while also reporting for Today and MSNBC. Brown covered the 2000 presidential election, and traveled with the Bush campaign. She joined NBC News in 1996 as a correspondent for the NBC News Channel.
Birthdate: June 14, 1968
Hometown: Ferriday, Louisiana. "Hometown of Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mickey Gilley. Is that good company or what?"
Education: B.A. in Political Science, Regis College
Marital status: Married last April to Dan Senor, private equity advisor and Fox News Analyst.
Favorite television show: "I feel under pressure to say an NBC show, and a year ago I couldn't answer that, but I can now say Friday Night Lights. I love that show! I hate football, but I'm in love with the show. I hope they don't kill it."
Last book read: Prisoners: A Muslim and A Jew Across the Middle East Divide, by Jeffrey Goldberg.
Guilty Pleasure: Créme brulée
First section of the Sunday Times: The front page. Sadly, it's not the most exciting answer, but it's true.
What is the most interesting news story out there right now?
The most important story is Iraq. There's no question about it. It's consuming all of us as journalists and as Americans. If you look at all the polls, the country has been telling the members of Congress and the administration that they don't want them to deal with anything else until they deal with Iraq. There's just no escaping that. We're spending a lot of time on it here. The stories that I'm most deeply affected by now are the stories about these vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and hearing what they're going through right now, and the impact this has had on so many families in this country.

In conjunction with that, when I think about what I would like to be covering, probably the most interesting interview would be with Syrian president Bashar Assad because Syria, in tandem with Iran, is a direct conduit for so much of the instability in the region.

How has the war in Iraq changed the way the White House has been covered?
I was NBC's White House correspondent when Bush was elected, through 9/11 and through the start of the war. In the wake of 9/11 -- I don't want to say 'free pass,' but journalists were in the same boat as so many Americans in wanting to support a wartime president. There was an undercurrent of that, and that's certainly turned. What is frustrating for me when you try to think where you go from here, is that you can't look at the war in Iraq or our options on how to deal with the war right now without politics playing a role. It would be impossible for any administration to make decisions without having to weigh those considerations.

Political considerations are so important, given 2008 is a wide-open field. You can't look at this problem in a vacuum. It's all about 2008. We're all craving wisdom -- someone who can truly lead us out of this mess, whether that means staying there or bringing our troops home. It's hard to find that in this political environment.

How do you see the coverage of the 2008 election shaping up?
In terms of the nitty-gritty, I hope to be able to do more big-picture stuff. I have covered a presidential campaign in the so-called "bubble," where you're with the candidate 24/7. I picked up and moved my life to Austin, Texas. It's fascinating for a reporter, but it gives you a limited perspective because you're so in that world that you're incapable of seeing the big picture.

What are the best and worst parts of traveling with a presidential candidate?
To have that access -- to see this person who could be the most powerful person in the world up close, and see their strengths and weaknesses up close. It's fascinating. As much as the candidate tries to control their environment, you do get a sense of what is authentic by just being there every day. The downside: is I could never leave my husband for that long now. I would not want to do daily campaign coverage again, not as a newlywed. Once was enough.

Because viewers have so many choices, I think all the players are being held to standards they've never been held to before -- which is a good thing. The downside is that we have to guard against is the blurring of the line between news and opinion.

To what extent do you think the cult of personality is going to affect 2008?
Name recognition matters in a way it never has before, because [the race] is starting so early. You also have primaries and caucuses that are bunched together at the very beginning. Nevada, New Hampshire, and Iowa are happening much earlier. California is talking about moving their primary up. In many ways, the nomination process could be over much sooner. You can make a pretty strong case that it's over before most of the country has even tuned in to the process, which means that big money and name recognition become huge factors. It's the Obamas and the Hillarys.

In national polls, Hillary is polling well ahead of Obama, and Edwards, and other competitors. There are really two campaigns going on right now. Edwards has spent the last year practically living in Iowa. If you look at the Iowa polls, he's running ahead of everybody, versus the national polls where Hillary has a huge jump because she has name recognition.

With media stars like Obama and Hillary, can we expect to see the campaign covered differently -- say, the candidates on entertainment shows?
This goes to the big issues that we're all struggling with in how our industry has changed. It's become so fragmented. I think you will see politicians on Entertainment Tonight, and doing interviews with InStyle and People, as much as they're doing [them] with Newsweek and Time.

Why is that?
To reach a different generation that isn't tied to the traditional format. Everything is about the Internet. You don't have to be a technology wizard to make this observation about the transformation that's taking place. We all have to adapt to it. We, in television, are far more subject to viewer feedback because it is such an interactive process, with email and the Internet. People aren't just watching us, they're dialoguing with us. Politicians know that. It's not a fluke that Obama and Hillary both announced [their candidacy for president] on their Web sites rather than at a press conference or on a television show. I struggle with what it means for us and how we have to make editorial decisions now.

Do you have your own blog?
I don't. We all file for Brian's [Williams] blog. He's definitely leading the charge on that. It's amazing the extent to which that has become such a huge outlet for all of us. Anybody who doesn't embrace it is making a huge mistake. You can't hold on to the good old days. When I first started working at NBC, the emphasis was almost solely on the Nightly News -- you'd have all day to debate and discuss what was going to go into those 22 minutes, triple-check facts and sources. Nobody has that luxury today.

With those time constraints, the A.D.D. nature of the media and the audience, are we losing anything?
There is intense pressure to be first with a story, and I do worry that our need for immediacy may compromise accuracy at times. To go beyond that, there's a major transformation taking place in the news business -- unlike anything that's ever happened before in my career. The good news is that it's clear that consumers are hungry for information, but they are also hungry for transparency. They want us to tell them not just what the news of the day is, but how it's gathered and, probably most importantly, what informs our editorial decisions.

Because viewers have so many choices, I think all the players are being held to standards they've never been held to before -- which is a good thing. The downside is that we have to guard against is the blurring of the line between news and opinion.

We should expect that there is truth in advertising. People who are in the opinion business are a critical part of the dialogue, but it's equally critical they make it clear they're about opinion, just as it's equally important that people in the news business be clear that they're there to provide news. We have an obligation to bring some clarity by defining our roles; otherwise our roles will be defined for us because of the interactive nature of it all.

What do you consider your best on-air interview?
Recently, I did a fascinating interview with President Clinton. I traveled to Rwanda [with him], and given all that's happening in Dafur right now, hearing a president openly admit that he made the wrong decision choosing not to intervene in Rwanda, and how that decision was one of his greatest regrets, was pretty powerful.

What you role do you think he'll play in Hillary's campaign?
I think they'll be very careful how they use President Clinton. I don't think you're going to see them together. At Coretta Scott King's funeral, Hillary gave a speech that was perfectly acceptable in that moment, then he followed her with an extraordinary speech and it so outshone Hillary. At the time, it was written as a lesson learned for the campaign in terms of how to best use him.

If you could do one interview over, which one would it be?
Sometimes the toughest interviews are the ones that you don't expect to be difficult. Often on Weekend Today, when people have experienced an unusual event -- like a lottery winner will come on. They've never been on TV, they're overwhelmed by the experience, and they clam up. I can't tell you how many interviews I've done where it doesn't matter what you ask or how you ask the question -- you will get nothing but one-word answers. I can think of a million times where we'll throw to commercial and [co-anchor] Lester [Holt] will just look at me and say, 'I so feel your pain right now.' Those are by far the toughest.

What's more fun: running around Washington or sitting on the Today show couch?
My passion has always been hard news. That's how I cut my teeth in this business. Those are the stories I get most excited covering. All the highs in my career have been when I've been out there covering major news events, be it Hurricane Katrina or the first Iraqi election -- to be there experiencing it on the ground: There's nothing like it.

What's your dream job?
Right now, I have it. It is a near-perfect job. I have a co-host I adore. We have a great time on the weekend. The show gives us an incredible platform to do interesting projects, but I also have the freedom during the week to go out and cover stories for Nightly News. For the moment, I'm pretty happy.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

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