Our Top Story Tonight'

November/December 1996

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Most Americans get their news from television. But there is TV news and then there's public TV news, whose flagship is The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer . For 20 years, the show's trademark depth and fairness have made it a favorite of policy-heads and news addicts from the White House to Hoover Tower. After a decade as a correspondent for the show, Elizabeth Farnsworth, MA '66, this year became chief correspondent and principal substitute anchor. Associate editor Mark Robinson talked with Farnsworth about politics, TV news and the celebrity that comes with face time on that little box. Excerpts:

Stanford: How did you get started in the news business?

Farnsworth: I was an old-fashioned wife after I left Stanford, following my husband [attorney Charles Farnsworth, LLB '66]. When we moved to Delano [Calif.], where he was with the United Farm Workers, I worked on the Farm Worker newspaper.

Stanford: You studied Latin American history at Stanford, lived in Peru for a year and covered Latin America as a freelance journalist; but as a full-time correspondent for the NewsHour , you spent a lot of time in Asia. What was it like to go into that part of the world cold?

Farnsworth: I could read the current books and learn as much as possible, but it wasn't the same as having studied the region. I loved being in Latin America and covering it, but to change at that age--I was already in my upper 40s--to go to a whole different part of the world and learn about it was a challenge. I recognized that I was abysmally ignorant, and I tried to learn as much as I could. It was just fascinating.

Stanford: What role do you think the media should be playing in politics?

Farnsworth: Well, there was a big debate about that at the political conventions. We felt the conventions were in themselves important, even if they were "scripted," which some in the media complained about. American voters are pretty intelligent. They can decide on their own whether they think it's too scripted or whether it's representative. We wanted to show as much as we could what was happening. And then we also wanted to provide analysis. That would sum up the NewsHour 's philosophy.

Stanford: Is there a big difference between covering foreign and domestic politics?

Farnsworth: I have to say that one brings the same sets of skills. Journalism is a craft, and you're figuring out the questions to ask in any situation. I think that that craft works for domestic and foreign coverage. But if you're working in, say, Peru--where I've lived, so I know it better than other foreign countries--you have a different methodology. You may need to go through certain people to get to other people in a way that you don't in this country. You can't just call somebody up directly. There are ways in that culture of reaching people, getting their confidence and letting them know that you're somebody that they can trust.

Stanford: What was your most challenging overseas assignment?

Farnsworth: Just for satisfaction of learning and contributing and seeing something that I'd never seen before, it would be the 1990 documentary in Vietnam. We told the story of a young Vietnamese man named Pham Thanh, whose entire family had been killed in a little village about an hour south of Da Nang. We had to hike every day into this village. We were the first Americans to be there since the war. American troops had wiped out the village, killed Thanh's family, then rescued him and saved his life. He'd been adopted and taken to America. He'd been back before, but he was going back this time to be married. It was an incredibly beautiful place. The rice fields were just in their brightest green stage, and the people of the village received us even though every family had lost perhaps up to half their relatives in the war. They received us with such grace and generosity that it was quite an amazing experience.

Stanford: Now that you're the main substitute anchor for the NewsHour , you do a lot more interviewing in the studio. How do you get these skilled Washington pols to stay on the point and answer your questions?

Farnsworth: I've learned a lot watching Robin and Jim. I remember once Robin MacNeil was interviewing somebody, and she would not answer the question. This was a government official, and he repeated the question four times. He said, "Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. Perhaps you didn't hear me." That's one thing to do. I haven't had to do that, strangely enough. Not yet, anyway. But I've certainly repeated a question a couple of times.

Stanford: As a PBS personality, do you get recognized on the street?

Farnsworth: I don't want to overstate this, but yes, I do. I'm very grateful for the number of people who watch and the people who say that they like the show. I don't think it's equivalent to somebody who's on the networks, but we do get recognized.

Stanford: So you're not a rock star yet.

Farnsworth: Not a rock star.

Stanford: If you weren't in the news business, what do you think you'd want to do?

Farnsworth: I think if I hadn't gone into journalism I was certainly headed toward being a professor. I probably would have gone that direction. If right at this moment I wasn't able to work in the news business, I think I'd go to work for Save the Children or something like that. I think I'd want to work internationally and in some kind of a humanitarian organization. But I'm just not sure. It's so funny, I like what I do so much, I just almost never think about doing something else.

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