Cook: From WDEF to CNN and back again

Cook: From WDEF to CNN and back again

September 3rd, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

For many years, Dan Lothian was the chronicler of America -- our best and worst.

"Every major shooting, every major storm, every major fire," he said.

As a top correspondent for CNN, he was there in New Orleans nine years ago, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. When President Obama traveled to Egypt to speak in 2009, Lothian left the official press bubble to sit in a Cairo shop, watching Egyptians as they watched this new American president on their cafe TV.

He was there for the funeral of Rosa Parks, the 50th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the violence of Columbine. He's interviewed four presidents, and was part of the White House press corps for the last two. Few American journalists are as decorated and experienced.

Know where he got his start?

"I went to college [in Chattanooga] at Tennessee Temple," he said.

Know his first job?

A general assignment reporter for WDEF-News 12, sharing air space with you-know-who.

"Luther," he said.

Now, he's coming back. Later this month, Lothian will begin a two-year series of guest lectures at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for the Communication Department.

"I am thrilled," said department head Betsy Alderman. "Dan will come to UTC four times each year to give guest lectures and presentations and will come one other time each year, bringing a panel of eminent journalists to discuss world, national or international news stories."

On Sept. 22, Lothian will speak about the Obama administration, transparency and his own life story. (The event will be at 11 a.m. in the University Center Auditorium and is open to the public.)

For Lothian, speaking to up-and-coming students is a way to look back at his former self.

"I can't forget what it was like to be there, dreaming to get a better job, a bigger job, and experience more things. It's a wonderful full circle to come back where it began and share my experience with young people," he said.

Lothian has since left CNN to begin a consulting business (Dan Lothian Media.) We spoke by phone earlier this week; he had just gotten in from a run.

What journalism students need to hear: "Sometimes, kids sell themselves short. Getting to the [next] network, covering the White House, getting to a top 10 market, they see it as a daunting mountain and they can never reach the peak. I'm not there to preach prosperity, that everyone's going to make it to their top job. But if you set high goals, there are so many things you can achieve along the way."

Studying journalism in the age of new media: "You have the Internet. While we may have written for the local school paper, now you can actually do a blog where a number of people can actually read it, not just the kids in your class. That is the good thing about this business: There are so many more opportunities for young people to get engaged in very early on."

The dark side of journalism: "It chews up your personal life. It's very competitive. There are a lot of ugly people in this business. Every step you make forward they will try to trip you up. It's a difficult road, but if you love it, you'll keep going."

How media becomes spectacle: "It's leaning more and more to entertainment or info-tainment. Before, it was respectable if you were the vanilla cardboard kind of reporter who went out and worked hard and broke stories. You could move ahead. Now, they want to see you [at] the center of the story instead of letting the subjects of your stories be the stars.

"There is a lot of pressure to provide an aspect of entertainment to everyday reportering. I heard a lot at CNN and other networks: Put an edge to it. Give me some edge. Give me some attitude.

"They are looking for that one thing that will attract the audience. There is the sense that the audience won't sit and watch old-school journalism. We are moving further and further away from what a reporter is: going out and telling somebody else's story."

Covering Katrina: "Seeing people on rooftops and bodies hanging from trees, that was pretty impactful. It was difficult for people going through it but also for reporters covering it. Reporters were having a very difficult time with it."

On the goodness of American people: "When you travel around the country you find real people, wonderful people who get up in the morning, make an honest living, love their country, their military, their neighbors ... That is one of the things I learned. When we're going into situations, it is because something really horrible is happening. And that is when I am seeing the best in American people all across the country."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.