Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Soup Cans Interview: Lynne Russell

The Washington Post pretty much summed up how scores of people felt (ourselves included) when Lynne Russell left CNN Headline News in 2001 after 18 years at that network's anchor desk. “We are, frankly, devastated by the news… Lynne Russell is leaving…the future seems a little sadder” said the Post. Since her departure from CNN, Lynne's been keeping herself busy (as always) selling her own brand of silk lampshades, hawking real estate and hosting her own radio talk show. Soup Cans recently caught up with Lynne to talk about her professional and personal life as well as her new adopted home of Canada.

What are the biggest differences between anchoring a news desk in the US and anchoring one in Canada?  

Good question. First, let me say that I wouldn’t trade anything for the people I’ve worked with in the broadcasting industry in Canada. I have made some very dear friends. It’s interesting that there is a flow both ways across the border. As you know, there are many Canadians on the air in the States… although I might be the first American, and probably the last, to anchor the CBC (more on that in a minute). After nearly two decades with CNN - and then 5 years traveling and writing - I went back to TV news here in Canada, because it’s a hard habit to break. I did not expect it to be the same, and it wasn’t.

It’s actually difficult to compare the networks I know first-hand, since CNN is an American commercial network that’s all about immediacy, and CBC is Canadian government-run, without a breaking news approach. It is the BBC in a hockey sweater. Here are a couple of differences:

American networks do not promote themselves as lending a particular nationalistic viewpoint to the news (whatever one might think actually happens!). Yet CBC “Newsworld” promotes itself as providing “news with a Canadian perspective.” To me this is an astonishing admission, a disservice to the viewing public and exactly the opposite of what it should be. A journalist’s job – privilege and responsibility – is to tell the story, explain why it’s important, and then shut up and allow the public to draw their own conclusions. I have faith that they are very capable of this.

Then there’s breaking news as a priority: Even at small local stations, there will be at least a reporter on call in the evenings, to chase down facts and interviews when news happens. At the CBC that was not the case, as a large staff focused attention on the late evening program (which left me tap dancing around stories, and left the public uninformed unless they tuned to the other networks, which were indeed airing more information). That late evening program is the network’s “showcase”, an hour-long, slow-moving compilation with a documentary feel, that runs several more times in the course of a day. It’s very nicely done – some of it is brilliantly produced – but just don’t call it news.

Most telling, I suppose, was the day in 2006 when a Canadian was tragically killed in an American friendly-fire accident in Afghanistan, and I was abruptly replaced on my scheduled newscast by, well, by a Canadian. I wondered why there were two of us sitting in Makeup…

So yes, it was an experience. As they say in Jersey (and my family does), what’re you gonna do?

Read on to find out what Lynne has to say about The Patriot Act, Chuck Roberts, the legendary Jane Russell and the current state of TV news. We've also included a picture she kindly sent us of her most recent hairdo (we were in awe of her ever-changing hair in the 90's. So sue us.).

 
What are your feelings on the state of television news today? Do you miss it?

Sometimes I have an almost overwhelming urge to grab a news photographer and go right some wrong. That will always be there. I continue to feel a real dedication to the people’s right to know. As I speak to journalism classes at a college here, I keep hammering home that the exchange of information is the basis of a free society, and no contribution is too small. I know that sounds corny, but it’s the truth, and it isn’t something that changes over time.

And I continue to be optimistic about television news reporting (and anchoring, which, when it’s done right, is simply reporting from the set), although there should be less “I” in the copy. When you’re telling me about my world today, I don’t care what you think, what you want after the break, or who you talked with last week. Skip the self-promotion and show biz. Get to the news.
 
Not many people pursue their interests with as much fervor as you do. To name just a few, you are a licensed private detective, sheriff's deputy, a black belt in Choi Kwang Do and design lampshades. How does someone acquire the focus and drive to do so many different things with such passion?

That’s very flattering. Maybe it’s a lack of focus, ever think of that?! It’s just that we should not let other people place limits on what we think we can accomplish in our lives. When we realize that we can actually try the things that interest us… and we understand that discontinuing them is not a sign of weakness or failure, that just having the guts to sample something new is an accomplishment… then we’re free to have some fun! You use the word “passion”, and you’re right. That’s the key.

 
Why did you decide to get involved in real estate?

In the States, I enjoyed buying, leasing out, and selling houses. There – and here –  I was exposed to the good, the bad and the ugly. I always thought that if I had the chance, I’d like to be the agent I wished I’d had, on more than one occasion. So voila.
 
What kind of similarities do you see between news and real estate?

In both cases, you have to take the initiative. Reminds me of an important lesson I learned from a Secret Service agent, when I worked for a Honolulu station. As a visiting dignitary was making his way through a crowd and getting into his limo, I yelled to the agent, “What are the odds he’ll slow down so I can talk to him?” (okay, I was hoping he’d help me out with that) and the agent shouted back, “Make your own odds, Lynne!”  So I did, and I got the interview. Same thing with the rest of life, including real estate. The opportunities are there, but you’ve got to make them yours.
 
You and Chuck Roberts were the king and queen of Headline News in the 1990's. What was your relationship with him like? Do the two of you still talk?

We’re still in touch. Chuck is my hero, and should be running the place. He did the very first Headline News-cast. He’s kind, intelligent, experienced and even-tempered. We’ll always be friends. I have a photo in my living room of the two of us on one of our many General Election nights. He always did the politics (which he totally gets… amazing, since he doesn’t play politics, himself. This is a compliment.) and I did the rest of the world. His was more interesting.
 
How do you feel about news anchors also being viewed as sex symbols?

Smoke it if you’ve got it.
 
In your book, How to Win Friends, Kick Ass and Influence People, you talk about the possibility about you and your friend Jane Russell being related. Have you ever confirmed that to be true?

Jane sent me lots of family information and photos, which my mom misplaced. Jane’s dear late husband, John, thought we were related, and got us together. She’s the original glamour girl, so I hope it’s true. Whenever I write, I sign it ‘the other Russell”. She’s so gracious, she told me that I should re-take the picture on the back cover of How to Win Friends, Kick Ass and Influence People using the same haystack pose she made famous in The Outlaw. To me, that was the ultimate compliment.
 
In the past you've said you couldn't reveal which celebrities you've been a bodyguard to because it would "blow (your) cover." Do you still work as a bodyguard? If not, can you now reveal who you've worked for?

That’s right, had to pass up being on Tom Snyder’s last week of talk shows (he was my favorite interviewer, ever) because I couldn’t reveal clients. Unfortunately, I still can’t, just a matter of keeping to the word of the contract. Haven’t done much body guarding, lately. Legal guns are so hard to come by up here, it wouldn’t be as much fun anyway!
 
Your first book was such a fun read. Do you plan to write another?

Thanks. Back in 2005, I was nearly finished with “Enemy of the State: the state of personal liberties in post 9/11 America” when I realized three things: my co-author cared more about his tennis game, publishers either didn’t care or didn’t dare to take up the issue, and Americans sadly weren’t willing to consider that their daily lives, their privacy, their liberty and their well-being were in jeopardy at the hands of their own government (especially the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act). Much of what the book demonstrated as a clever but sad set of circumstances for one fictitious family, became commonplace fact. We weren’t willing to ask enough questions, so in a sense we got what we deserved.

And, yes, I did put my money where my mouth is. After I left CNN, I was asked to do some instructional videos for the federal government, to train local police to operate according to federal requirements, and I had to say that I could not in good conscience do it. The way things were going, I had no idea how my contribution might adversely affect individual rights.

At present, I’m having fun with a quick-read novel about (how original) a television reporter who is also a private detective. It’s very much based in fact. Yet there are so many similarities with some of Janet Evanovich’s details, I’m changing mine. She, of course, has nothing to worry about anyway!
 
You currently have your own talk show on Newstalk 1010 in Toronto. How does it feel to be more candid about what you have to say on the air?

Took some getting used to. Being a professional question mark for so long requires that you see both sides of absolutely everything, and honestly it’s hard to stop. But for those two hours, I’ve got it goin’ and there’s no turning back. Where but on talk radio could you say that Sarah Palin would be a vice president who winks like she’s turning tricks?

8 comments:

Mark said...

We still miss you Miss Russell.

Allan said...

Our own reaction.

Charles said...

Lynne remains the sexiest anchorwoman in the history of television!!!

Jennifer said...

I am interested by Lynne Russell's assertion that "A journalist’s job – privilege and responsibility – is to tell the story, explain why it’s important, and then shut up and allow the public to draw their own conclusions."

Sorry to bore, but I have this discussion every time I talk about media and journalism with reporters from the United States.

Being an American, Lynne has fallen into the same intellectual trap that most Americans, journalist or not, also get snagged in: the belief that the only correct philosophy is the American philosophy.

Her definition of a journalist is an American definition, one that dovetails with an American psyche molded in American schools, taught in the American context of a country founded on revolution that has a national constitution that unofficially appoints journalists as society's watchdogs over the well-being of America.

However, although they are often noteworthy and commendable, the ideals of America are not necessarily the ideals of every other English-speaking culture. Please note that this extends not only to action and policy, but also to psychology, perspective and world view of how other people should think and what values they should hold dear.

Just because an American declares something to be a universal truth doesn't make it so.

There are many other definitions of journalism that are held to be valid in the context of a non-American culture: for example, many nations believe that an important goal of journalism is to help make the national society better. This bias would not fit an American model of journalism, but being "different" doesn't make it "wrong."

Every philosophy has a blind spot, and Lynne has had a collision with something in hers. America's concept of journalism definitely does reflect a national bias: did many U.S. journalists ask during the recent national elections, "Is this cumbersome democracy thing really the best way to run a large nation?"

No, they didn't. And why not? Because as the American writer Mark Twain put it, "If the man doesn't believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it."

Anonymous said...

In the past we always heard one of the news commentators say before the evening news "thanks for letting us into your home". This remark is so true when you have a newscaster who appears to be talking to just you as Ms Russell did.
I had an experience during the early 90's that required I do a year+ project in the boondocks of Alabama on a Paper Mill Expansion. These were 12 hours work days and seven days a week many times. When I came back to my place at night the hour I spent listening to Ms Russell seemed to keep thngs going and I've always thought of her as an inspiration that kept things going that many newscasters do not realize they project.
Good Luck to her

Anonymous said...

In case any of you Lynne Fans are not aware of this Lynne Russell Yahoo! group (est. 1999), here's the link:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/lynnerussell/

Lots of photos and vidcaps!

Lynne Fan

Anonymous said...

Jennifer said:

"Being an American, Lynne has fallen into the same intellectual trap that most Americans, journalist or not, also get snagged in: the belief that the only correct philosophy is the American philosophy."

You are SO correct! Such belief is very arrogant, close-minded and condescending.

Lynne Fan

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