Archive for August, 2019

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Julie Blacklow

A TV Legend

It was my real honor to work with Julie Blacklow when we were both reporters at Seattle’s KIRO 7 in the mid-90’s. Full disclosure: I’ve always been a fan of hers. In fact, she was one reason why as a young feature reporter, I had my sights set on the Seattle TV market. I just had to work in Seattle. I had to be here. If storytellers like KING 5’s Julie Blacklow and KOMO 4’s John Larson were here, that’s where I wanted to be too. Long before it was common to find women in the newsroom, Blacklow was a pioneer. She broke ground. There’s an old quote from Chicago humorist Finley Peter Dunn that embodies Julie Blacklow’s work, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Julie got exclusives. She got in your face. She won Emmys. Her reporting drew national attention and her career made national news. She’s interviewed everyone from Richard Nixon, to the Dalai Lama to Chuck Berry to Oprah Winfrey.  She out-hustled the competition and from time to time, gave news managers grief. After she was fired from KING 5 in 1986, she sued to get her job back and won. Julie Blacklow stood up for her principals and paid the price. She left the newsroom a few years ago to find new purpose. That’s why I wanted to talk to her for this blog. And because she’s a former journalist with new purpose and a new must-read book, “Fearless,” – Diary of a Badass Reporter that’s available now.

Recently, I dropped by Blacklow’s Issaquah home and talked to her about storytelling, her career in broadcasting and that new book. It is a revealing and surprisingly transparent account of a life well-lived with exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows. Julie’s the kind of reporter you always look up to, the kind you can safety call a legend. She broke barriers and left a wake that is still being felt across the media landscape of the Pacific Northwest. If you’re old enough, “Fearless” will make you remember.

John Yeager: Why this book and why now?

Julie Blacklow: Why now? Because I’m older and wanted to get these stories out of my head and my heart, on to paper and social media formats. And because I had been urged by so many people for so many years, to get busy and write it, and we’ve been hesitant. So, the question might also be, ‘Why not earlier?’

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Julie Blacklow KING 5 1981

And for me, I didn’t think my story was particularly unique, but I came to see that while everybody, and you know this as well as I do, everyone has stories, life stories, everyone has ups and downs. What I think set my life a little bit apart was that I felt the highs were higher and the lows were lower and so I have experienced extremes of unusual in depth, and height.

So I wanted to send a message. I wanted to convey a story of a survivor of someone who by the nature of the chosen profession and by choices as I made as a teenager, which is why some of those early stories are in there, to fight back to stand up and now more than ever, what’s more important than to stand up, be counted. Pick a side and try to overcome fear. Courage is just what you do when you are afraid, that’s the only time you can really show you have it.

JY: And yet, the name of the book is, “Fearless – Diary of a Badass Reporter.” And at various times throughout the book, you talk about how fear got into your head despite this demeanor. Here’s this gladiator and she’s not gonna take any crap but “Fearless” is moving past that. So that would be taking it to the next step.

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Julie Blacklow Today

Blacklow: Yes, I’ve been terrified at several junctures in my life. And you’ve read the book, so you know that I’ve been afraid and where those points were in my life but fearless to go on in spite of the fear. So that’s how I took it to that next step, and I knew in my career of almost 40 years that I had just kept going and never told “no” for an answer, rarely. And if there was gonna be a no, I was gonna say it.

And as a woman journalist in the first group of women in the country, in television news literally, that first generation, we had to fight and scrape just to keep the job and to tolerate a lot of sexual harassment. That word was not even in the vernacular, in 1972. so yes, fearless is just, I think courage in the face of fear, make sure that way and now given the political climate that we’re in and what’s going on in the world in America. It’s time for all of us to show courage.

JY: What do you hope people will take away from the book?

Blacklow: I hope they are inspired to be courageous.

Screen Shot 2019-07-17 at 10.08.48 AMJY: It felt like I was reading the screenplay for “Forest Gump.”

Blacklow: That’s what some others who read the book have said.

 

JY: You have been there at the eye of the hurricane for historical developments and news throughout your career. And why do you think it was important for you to tell us about the March on Washington and hearing the Beatles for the first time in 1964. It feels like you were a witness to history.  Why do you feel like that was important? 

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 2.49.11 PMBlacklow: I just had an insatiable curiosity. I was born with that, and it’s certainly developed as a teenager, but consider where I grew up in Washington D.C. in history, I was surrounded by it. And so, with all these events happening within 10 miles of my home, I wasn’t content to watch it on television. I didn’t correlate that behavior with the seeds of a budding journalist. I never expected to have the career I had, but it was clear to me that things are connected and that I was driven. I’ve always to see it up close myself and to find a way to be personally a witness. And so with the first Beatles concert I had to be there with the Martin Luther King March on Washington, it was literally 20 minutes from my house. Get off your ass and go experience life. You want it, go get it. That is the theme of my book. That’s how I was raised in a very, very political liberal East Coast Jewish family. I was raised to do the right thing. Yeah, I’m driven. I was clearly born to go get it.

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JY: You could have called the book, “Driven” too. There’s so many different titles that come to mind. You had a chance to work for “60 Minutes.” In light of everything that happened to you at KING TV, looking back, are you glad you stayed in Seattle at KING TV?

Blacklow: Oh, no question. I was a new mother, I was the mother of a baby boy who was about a year old, I had just convinced my parents to sell their home in Washington a to help me raise Jeremy. I do not have any regrets.

I think everything turns out exactly the way it’s supposed to.

And so for me, I was flattered that the president of CBS came and acknowledged the work and flattered me by saying, “If you ever want this, it’s there.” But I never wanted it. I wanted to go deep in a local place that I wanted. I didn’t feel like it really served the kind of do the kind of journalism I wanted to do which meant staying and creating roots in the community in which I lived.

JY: And yet KING TV uprooted you and led to a moment in the garage where it was just a friend who rang the doorbell that saved your life.

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Blacklow: I tried to kill myself. I had lost everything. I had spent 12 years building up my good name helping people by doing my job, doing it well and I received awards for my job. I never really put much status in those awards, but I knew that I had the good faith of the people of the Pacific Northwest and that they respected my work. So, I’d earned that. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

The response of the public that you are serving means everything. That’s the reward to me. I understand. I literally write this in the book, I said I understand fully the need not to want to live. A darkness descends on you, that’s indescribable I love words, but I had struggled to find the words to describe that.

It’s not depression. I mean it’s many degrees past that, and so yes, I attempted to kill myself with carbon monoxide poisoning in my car. In my garage and it was a good friend who just stopped by that day and wouldn’t stop knocking on the door, and so it wasn’t my time, nor was it my time on other occasions when I had various medical crises including cancer, and it just wasn’t my time, so I wrote the book, I thought, my time, what is my time best now, I was really to write it, I had reach an age where I didn’t really, I don’t care what people think, but you kind of reach a place in your life where this is my story, and this is my time to tell it. It was just the time. And so, as with everything else in my life, it was time.

JY: Yeah, so I don’t wanna give away too many of the things. I’m honored to have been able to read it first, and that can inform my questions, but your book talks about the depth that you reached and that despair, but it also talks about the small acts of kindness and support that you got from the community that I would suspect could serve as an inspiration to people. When they read it, they’re gonna say, “Oh yeah, I remember her, I remember what she meant to this TV market.” And it’s nice to be reminded.

Blacklow: People were incredibly kind, strangers, and friends, when I finally emerged from that very darkest place and to gradually get grey and then white again, lighter.  This is the powerful stuff. This to me is the core of spirituality and meaning of fullness in life. It’s right here, it’s with you. And right now, this to me is the most important. This is our life right now.

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And so I, for me, those acts of kindness, letters from many people some luminaries, some just plain folks, hundreds and hundreds of letters, some of which we’ve reproduced in the book, but there were 100. Now, I can cast them away because I never knew why I was saving everything, I was saving those pictures of me with Nixon. I was saving photographs with me with JFK Jr. I was saving letters from strangers from 30 years ago when I was fired. Why am I saving all this now? I know it would come to have meaning. And so for me, I wanted to share my life. I’m just like you.

My highs are higher, my lows, may be lower. There may have been more of them, but I saw them out. I’ve brought trouble on myself, and so I want people to say She did it. I can do it.

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JY: You left the news room for a horse farm.

Blacklow: I knew that the industry didn’t want me anymore, and I didn’t want it anymore, so it was time, to move on and a couple in 2001, invited me out to her house and I had loved horses all of my life and (to make a) long story short, I end up managing Pepper Schwartz’s horse ranch. I was still doing freelance work for the networks, but I segued out of that a over two to three year period and eventually took over managing this horse ranch. Not far from Seattle. Can you imagine a bigger career change then that? From broadcast news to horse ranch management, both are crazy, by the way. But it was humbling. Now I was in client-based lifestyle where I had to please people.

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I never had to do that before except the public, I was serving but people I was interviewing, or irritating or whatever, I didn’t have to make them happy, I wasn’t there to make people happy, but now I have. I was in a client-based business, but my job was in service to the animals, and now I was around some really magical creatures and having the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to own a horse, and it came to me quite unexpectedly. But the day I bought this little foal. She was six months old the day I bought her. I knew this was the beginning of the rest of my life that my life was gonna change, that day. I couldn’t have imagined how. And for 18 years I managed the ranch. I just recently, to use an appropriate metaphor, handed over the reins to manage it, but it’s in good hands. I still have my horse and I’m still helping manage but in a very, very background kind of way.

So it was magic, I was in nature, I was near water, and eagles, and the mountain and trees and horses and so it gave me time to think and look back at a… well, I hate that this sounds self-aggrandizing, but it is an extraordinary life. It was unusual to say the least.

JY: In this Repurposed Journalist blog I ask people, “How has what you’ve done prepared you for life after the newsroom?” I don’t think there’s a real clear cut answer that you could give me based on what happened to you.

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Blacklow’s Home Office – Issaquah

Blacklow: It’s always been my purpose in life to help people and be a good person, and inspire people and nothing has changed. It’s always been my purpose from the time I was a child when my I faked having polio in when I was five years old, to now and then through high school, when I just stood in defense of young black students who were being targeted.

No, my job now is to help people and I help the horses, I help their owners. I wanted to create a sanctuary. So for me, nothing’s really changed. Nothing. One of my favorite quotes from Joseph Campbell, is, “Can anything happen to you for which you are not ready?” So we’re being prepared at another level, sometimes for the things that happened to us. What prepared me to have kidney cancer? Tenacity, bravery. Now, we’re gonna need a lot of that. I had it. I was ready. Everything leads to the next thing.

JY: Alright, alright, so now journalism is under attack. Journalists have been called the “enemy of the people.” How does that make you feel?

Blacklow: Well, it’s infuriating. It’s wrong. It’s delusional. It’s misguided and that’s the nicest thing I can say about it, people who say these things are afraid. It’s coming from fear that they haven’t overcome. They’re not courageous. They’re not fearless. Now there are a lot of fearless journalists now are fighting back. Just today (July 16th, 2019), a journalist (Andrew Feinberg) at the White House was asked to declare his nationality when asking a question to a White House spokesperson (Kellyanne Conway), he was asked, “Where do you come from, what’s your nationality?” He’s a Jewish reporter. He was being asked this denigrating, insulting question but he fought back just like the young black women a couple days ago (July 14th, 2019) when Trump with his racist comments is spewing hate, fight back.

So what it does, what it is to me, is a call to stand up tougher than ever and fight back harder than ever and keep seeking, keep reporting, keep doing your work. There’s a quote in the book from Justice Douglas in the epilogue of my book, my favorite quote of all time, when Justice Douglas said in our constitutional regime, that, “There is no higher function than the First Amendment.” We’re being tested. We will pass it. This too shall pass. And journalism will reinvent itself. It’s always been there and it will continue to be there. And I kind of wish I was a part of it still to tell you the truth, because I would like to keep writing and punching and be the pugilist I am.

JY: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you feel like you’d like to add right now?

Blacklow: Well, I’d like to ask you a question. And I’m an author, I’m curious to know what did it touch in you that made you want to talk about it?

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Blacklow (right) interviewing Richard Nixon (year)

JY: I was blown away by your ability to recall detail. You brought me right in there. But the detail that you remember the small smile on Richard Nixon’s face when you ambushed him for an interview with your photographer. I related to so much of that. Because for most of my career when I wasn’t doing feature stories about people who wanted to talk to me, I was chasing people who didn’t. And I felt that I had a kindred spirit. Boy, she did it and and she lifted up my life, my work and what I did, and I thought, “She was okay, and you’ll be okay too.”

Blacklow: And you were okay. There’s life until there isn’t. There’s life until there isn’t. And even then, I’ll tell you, I think there’s life after life. I will tell you that during the course of writing this book which took four years to do and for complete re-writes, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than raising my son, and that inspires me, too, because sometimes when I write, and I look at it and I go, “What kind of crap is this that I just put on the page?” I should show you to the first edition which I’m saying, no, no, but not because I see it’s awful versus what I see now which is a tight as is moving.

JY: How do you make it fast-moving, emotional, and powerful? There’s a pace to your book, that’s just fun to read, but it moves me and it doesn’t slow down.

Blacklow: I remember what my mentor, Don McGaffin told me in 1972 when I was first starting in the business, (I was) a complete novice and he looked me in the eye and he said, “Don’t bore me.” So he hovered over me, while I was writing this book, and so, I kept re-writing and re-reading and getting rid of the extra stuff. Keep it moving, they tell us. Is their story interesting? And if you’re bored with it, you better clean it up to make it interesting to somebody else.

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I had to take out 10,000 adjectives. Pick better words, make it flow better. Then I reorganized the material, then pace the book. I did hundreds and hundreds of those stories, but I picked the five that I thought were revealing the evil of people. But for me, writing it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and I wanted to give up a hundred times, and just quit. But  then I reached a point where I couldn’t quit now, I had to finish it and it was onerous and it was awful and it was, as I said, harder than raising my child. I think of McGaffin’s words to me, “Don’t ever bore me.” And what he was saying is, “Don’t bore the viewers. Don’t waste my time.” So I hope the book is not a waste of time.

I hope they laugh and they’ll probably cry at some points in the book like I did. When it was recorded. I’m recording the narration now, I’m recording the audio version of the book and its several junctures during the reading. I broke down and I asked the engineers. I said, “I’ll stop, turn it off, let’s redo that.” And they said, “It’s in. This is real.” So I hope there’s a lot of emotion in it. What did you take away from reading the book?

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John Yeager (left) and Julie Blacklow in front of her Issaquah home

JY: That I have to fight for what’s right, that I really have to fight for, even if it’s a small victory. Sometimes I have to say what I feel and that I sometimes think to myself, “What would Julie Blacklow do in that situation?” I just needed to get inspired. And so I take away that inspiration and just that life is short and you just gotta grab it and not be afraid and do it anyway.

Blacklow: That’s why “fearless” to me is the best description because it says that to me. I was afraid. Sure I was afraid, and I did it anyway.

 

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