Published on The Daily Femme – Monday, Oct. 18, 2010
Contributed by Annamarya
Iranian-American TV personality Rudabeh Shahbazi is a journalist with many hats. Joining Phoenix, Arizona’s ABC-15 as a multimedia journalist in March 2009, she reports, shoots, cuts and prints her own stories and web content, acting as interviewer, photographer, camera-person and editor all equally. Hers is a position starting to take shape at news stations across the country and signaling a shift in the way news is gathered. But for the 28-year-old, whose résumé includes a stint as an education reporter for eastern Washington’sKEPR/KIMA-TV where she interviewed then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, and time spent at KTVU in San Francisco, multimedia journalism(MMJ) —or TV, for that matter—wasn’t in her line of sight while earning her Bachelors in Journalism at Malibu’s Pepperdine University and her Masters at UC Berkeley. Still, Shahbazi, who was nominated for three Emmys and won one for her ABC-15 piece, “After the Storm,” has acclimated herself to multimedia journalism and is excelling in the field. In addition to local news and crime stories, her MMJ work include coverage of the “sweat lodge” deaths at Sedona, AZ’s Angel Valley Retreat Center; baby Gabriel, who was kidnapped and remained missing after the captor was arrested; and various pieces on the controversial Arizona SB1070 immigration law. The Daily Femme recently had the chance to chat with Shahbazi about the rewards and challenges of her award-winning career, what Arizona’s immigration law means for the state’s residents, and being an Iranian-American in TV.
What are the pros and cons of being a multimedia journalist?
The pros are that you have the skills that no one can ever take away from you – the skill set where you can go anywhere in the world and be by yourself and turn quality stories. You can also go in your story, so you’re not waiting around for anyone. You’re not having to make decisions with anyone else. You own the whole story and, at the end of the day, when it airs, and you’re competing with people in three-person crews, if you win awards or if you beat the competition, you can say you did it all on your own, competing against other people with more resources. The cons, I would say, are that…you have more of an instinct to do certain things [when you’re reporting] and kind of have to deviate from that instinct and put on different hats and say, “OK, now I have to get the shot that I want instead of going up and interviewing the people I want.” You have to make decisions all the time about how to handle [and] manage your time because you still have a deadline and you still have to turn a story that day. It feels like you can’t be as thorough in the reporting process or in the shooting process because you are doing everything by yourself instead of having someone else or another person on your team kind of help you out and cover those pieces. It’s taking the time to make that extra call or confirm the extra facts or the extra piece of web content. That can sometimes be a downfall.
Before this position, you were an education reporter for KEPR/KIMA-TV in Washington State. Tell me more about that and how that differs from your current job.
When I was in Washington, I was in a small market and it was like paying the dues. I went from San Francisco to eastern Washington State, which is like market 126. To give you some perspective, Phoenix is market 12. So I was in market 126. We didn’t really have a live truck that worked. I had to drive two hours a day to a different state to report my stories. I was an education reporter but it was a very small town reporter feel. I don’t regret it at all. It was really good for me to learn how to develop enterprise stories, how to work sources because it’s not one of the markets where you can go and open the paper and there are 10 million stories that you can just go to that day or you have five press releases about a crime. You really have to enterprise the story and talk to people and know your community and everything else. And schools can be hard to get into just in general, especially with video cameras. It was a good experience because it was doing all of the one-man band stuff but with even fewer resources. There was no assignment desk. There were only a handful of reporters. There were multiple shows to turn every day. Things would break and you couldn’t fix them. There just weren’t the resources and things just didn’t work. That was the real lesson in teaching me how to kind of survive and just get things to air and the show must go on…and being fast and turning quick stories. There were a lot of incidents like my car [broken down] on the side of the road one day when I was on an Indian reservation, in the middle of nowhere in [bad] weather and it took them like two hours to come and get me [laughs]. There were just a lot of things like that. A broken camera that costs like thousands of dollars. It was just a good learning experience for me as my first on-camera experience. It was really, really hard at times but…it gave me a thick skin and it taught me how to overcome a lot of challenges as I moved forward in my career.
So you believe in the traditional principle that everyone should pay their dues?
Yea and I think that’s what’s changing in the TV industry and a lot of industries in general. They’re hiring younger people who can do more things technically. It used to be the traditional route of paying your dues. It was something you had to do. You had to work in a small market, go to a medium market and large market, and really work your way to the market sizes in a system like that. I think now the workforce is going with younger people who are less expensive and can do more and I think that is good because it kind of rules out the people that won’t pick up the camera or who are not willing to take on an extra workload. But it also weighs against the fact that younger people don’t have the life experience. They might not have the ethics training. They might not know the laws as well. They might not have the background in the subjects they’re covering, so it’s a catch 22. It’s a good and a bad thing, I suppose.
Do you think that TV stations and even newspapers hiring younger people who have the technical background but not the education or experience can cause news coverage to suffer?
I think the younger people are hungry and they’re willing to work really hard and they’re willing to go out and get the story and stay up all night and turn out some multiple platforms. If you have that kind of passion and enthusiasm, I think you can learn really quickly but there is something to be said for life experience and for just knowing how to make ethical decisions and knowing how to ask good questions and how to have the background and the depth to go in and ask the politicians the tough questions and questions that are gonna make the public better informed. That said, I don’t think that all people who are young are bad at asking good questions or don’t have a breadth of knowledge. I work with a lot of young people whom I really respect, who are very knowledgeable about the beats they’re covering because they’ve been here, even though they’re only in the early 20s, they’ve been in this market since they’ve started college and have been young and hungry and well-researched. I guess it really just depends on the person. I think if the media was going to hire all young people and weed out everyone with experience, that would be a problem. But I think if they’re vetted and they’ve shown themselves to have knowledge in the topics they’re covering, I think that’s OK.
Speaking of experience, let’s talk about some of the news you’ve covered. Out of all the stories you’ve covered, which one makes you the most proud?
I would say [my story on] Iraqi refugees. I was getting my Masters at Berkeley at the time. On my spring break, I went to my advisor—this was kind of before the story broke that all these refugees were in Syria and Jordan and no one has really covered it at that point—and said, “I’m hearing that all these refugees are in Syria and Jordan. Can I go for my project?” He just looked at me and said, “No,” [laughs] and then I just went anyways. I bought the ticket and I was by myself. I’ve never been to Jordan. I don’t really speak Arabic. I mean, I can kind of understand it but didn’t speak Arabic. I just flew to Jordan with a camera, landed in Amman, began talking to people at the airport and actually ended up riding back from the airport into Amman in the back of a potato truck [laughs] with some random person that I met at the airport…The story was just so intense and it was such a powerful thing to see these people there and to know what they’ve been going through and to kind of see the ramifications. You see our troops sent off to war and you see on the news the combat and everything else, but then you go to this separate country and you see these people who are just suffering so much. It kind of makes you reexamine the reasons for war and the policy and what’s being affected. It was a population we don’t hear about because the American public really doesn’t have the demand for [news about] the Iraqi civilians. We want to hear about our troops and care about our troops that died and our troops who have been injured but we don’t hear very much about the other side of war: civilians who have been hurt in the battles and just the trickle-down effect the war is having on the whole entire region because now it’s affecting Jordan, it’s affecting Syria, it’s affecting Iran. As a journalist, it really was a defining moment in thickening my skin because I remember going back to my room every night and just crying because of what I’ve seen. You can’t have those emotions while you’re out on the field. I was proud of that story because I think it brought attention to that issue and I thought I got really good characters and told good stories and I did it on my own. It was also memorable because it was a beautiful country on top of it. I met great people there and all of the personal little mishaps that happened along the way that were really stressful at the time are now kind of funny. Like losing all of my money and not having anything; like the entire crew was waiting for me in the hotel lobby and they shut off the one credit card I took, even though I called the bank and I told them that I was going overseas. I had no money, no cash, nothing and the whole crew was waiting for me to try to get to the lobby…so I ended up calling my friend in Kuwait, who flew in and helped me out because I had done the same thing for him in Europe like ten years earlier. It was a really good experience and it kind of reaffirmed why I’m in this business. Sometimes, especially in the MMJ world, you can lose track of that when you’re in the daily grind and it feels like you’re doing everything else except focusing on the story.
When that story came out, what kind of reception did you and the piece receive?
Well, it was on the FRONTLINE/WORLD website, so it’s not the same audience as the one that watches the local news in Phoenix, and also the environment was Berkeley. It was really well-received. I got really good feedback on it. It wasn’t probably as widely-seen as some of the stories I do here in Phoenix, which is a completely different political and social environment. Like, for example, the immigration stories. You get a lot of negative feedback on both sides because it’s such a hot-button issue that both sides are constantly angry at you because you didn’t cover their side well enough or you didn’t express their side well enough. You really do try to cover your bases and get all sides of the story and still people are upset. But I guess that’s how you know when you’re doing a good job, when you have both sides mad at you.
Speaking of your Arizona immigration law stories, the website,24Ahead.com, criticized your piece, “Groups helps immigrants cross desert” about the organization, No More Deaths, which helps immigrants cross the desert safely, calling it a “puff piece” and saying the group “enables border deaths,” something they claim you didn’t call them on. Do they had valid points or are they making something out of nothing?
There’s a lot that goes on with the immigration stuff. This site in particular doesn’t produce their own content. They just rip apart everyone else’s content. So, that’s what they are. They are like a watchdog kind of thing. It’s clearly one-sided. My piece was a feature piece. There were a couple of things I didn’t really understand in the criticism. I didn’t understand why they thought I said that “lack of water creates hypothermia.” and didn’t understand where they got that this group is tied to the Mexican government. I did do a lot of research on this group and I had not seen that anywhere. Their point, I think, was that this group, No More Deaths, was actually encouraging illegal immigration because illegal immigrants in Mexico are gonna think there’s water in the desert so they’re going to be encouraged to come across the desert illegally. I don’t know anyone who, crossing over illegally from Central America or Mexico, is going to have seen this story and, because of it, think that it’s completely safe for them to cross because there’ll be water all along the way. Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion and people have really strong opinions about this issue. Also, the piece was widely circulated and even picked up by CNN. The criticism seemed to suggest that I had an agenda and I was on a campaign but, really, it was a [profile] piece: “This is what they’re doing. These are how many people are dying and here’s some insight into it.” I did ask the group how they felt about the fact that people might say they’re harboring illegal immigrants and actually compounding the problem. I also did mention the people who got in trouble with the law. I don’t regret how I covered that piece. I think I did as balanced a job as I could have and I did call Border Patrol to get their side and they’ve actually said they’ve appreciated the group’s efforts. I felt like I’ve covered my bases. You put yourself out there when you do stories like that and people are completely entitled to criticize the story. I can’t hate them for doing anything like that but I stand behind my piece and I think I did a fair job.
For those of us not living in Arizona, what don’t we know about the Arizona immigration law—about what led up to it and how it’s really affecting the residents?
I think the biggest thing right now is that [US District Judge Susan Bolton] struck down most of the key provisions of the law. The law is not what it was when it was passed but our governor, Jan Brewer, had overwhelming support from the people of Arizona when she signed it into law. Her ratings went up. People supported this bill because they are really frustrated. They feel like they’re spending too much tax payer money on this, on illegal immigrants in the social system and the education system. Also, the son of the person who sponsored this bill was shot by illegal immigrants and we had a serial rapist in the Phoenix area who was an illegal immigrant. So I think they’re saying, “We can’t check the people who are coming in. We don’t know if they’re criminals. A lot of them are criminals when they’re crossing the border.” There are a lot of reasons people have for this. That said, people on the other side are saying, “Even if you do have to be stopped for another crime, who’s to say we should trust the police all time? We should trust the authorities with this much power all the time? Because there have been Rodney King incidents and there have been racial profiling incidents and who’s to say that’s not going to happen again? And who’s to say I’m not going to be targeted because I look Hispanic or because I am Hispanic, even though I’m a citizen? Or because I have too many people in my car? Or because I have an accent?” So I think that both sides have valid points and I think it’s our responsibility to cover both sides. People are going to be mad about any story we do because it is such a divisive, controversial issue. I think that we’ve done a good job. We’ve made a conscious effort to cover both sides. We’ve done the cost of illegal immigrants and illegal immigrant crimes. We’ve done racial profiling. We’ve done both sides of the spectrum and I think a lot of the media around here felt the backlash from both sides. They would see one story on the air and they would think the story was biased, but the next day or the next hour or the next show, someone would be covering a topic they wanted. It’s a complex issue. It’s a really complicated law. But I think the interesting thing is that the majority of Americans actually supported this law and the majority of Arizona supported this law. Maybe this says more about the people and our frustration than it does about the actual legislation itself. I think that people were ready for any kind of drastic solution because they felt that this problem was so out-of-hand in Arizona.
Switching the gears of conversation, what is it like for you to be a woman in media?
I don’t really think of it as a challenge or anything different. There are a lot of women in media, so I don’t really ever think of the gender rule. I just think of us all playing on equal ground or trying to beat the competition whether it’s male or female. So I don’t think of it that much. But I will say, for example, that going to the Middle East, that’s when you could kind of realize you’re a woman because there are certain things you can’t do that men can do, you don’t have access to things that men can have access to. But I’m not saying you can’t do it because I think there’s always a way to do it, to make it happen and if you have to work harder to do that, you have to work harder to do that. But those are just things that are hassle, like wearing a hijab while eating a meal or something, or, when it’s really, really hot, not being able to wear a tank top. I don’t look at these things with a victim mentality, at all.
In an article in the July issue of Marie Claire article titled, “An American Honor Killing,” about the late Noor Alamleki, who was murdered allegedly by her father in an honor killing in Phoenix, you’re quoted as saying, “It’s hard to know what’s appropriate in both worlds. Are you too American or not American enough?” What’s your experience being an Iranian-American TV personality? Has it posed challenges for you? Have you faced discrimination based on your ethnicity?
Well, I have one example. At my last station, there was a nuclear waste plant called Hanford and I was really excited about covering that story because I thought it was kind of a big story but I was not allowed to cover it because I was Iranian. They didn’t beat around the bush. They just told me flat out, “You’re Iranian. You can’t cover this story. You can never step foot in Hanford.” That bummed me out, a lot, but I now think that being Iranian-American helps me in my reporting on issues that have to do with our Middle East policies because I understand the issues, I have the background, and the language skills. For example, when the honor killing story came up, I knew the culture and I knew the religion, so I could cover it and knew how to be respectful when I went to talk to the families. They didn’t talk to me but, like when I go to a Muslim community, I know how to act and things like that. Of course, there is the catty stuff from people in the business who say, “You only got this job because you look ethnic and you have an ethnic name. That’s why they picked you…” You hear things like that, but overall I don’t think that being Iranian-American has hurt me as a journalist, except for the Hanford situation, which is really the only thing I can remember.
What advice would you give to young women exploring journalism as a career, particularly TV journalism?
One of the hardest things for me in this business has been to develop that thick skin because, especially in TV, there are some shallow aspects such as appearance does matter. People are gonna see you. I think, especially with the advent of the Internet and anonymous postings, people post really weird, inappropriate, mean-spirited, hateful things all the time and you can basically count on that for every story you do, no matter what it is. You can talk about puppies being rescued and you can plan on someone saying something weird and mean-spirited and racist. Take it with a grain of salt because, no matter what you do, you’re putting yourself out there and you’re gonna get criticized. Paying your dues is really important, even if that’s for a year, going to a small market or small town. A lot of people may look at me and say, “Well, she didn’t really pay her dues because she was in a small market for a year.” But I got my Masters, so that’s paying your dues also. Also, I think that if you’re young and in college, it’s great to get involved in as many internships as you can and volunteer, write stuff for websites for free. Don’t be afraid to work for free just to get your clips on but don’t also sell yourself short. I worked for free for years, so [laughs]…You have to be willing to work really hard and you have to be willing to take very little pay because you love what you do. I think a lot of people expect TV to be glamorous and high-paying, kind of the show business aspect, but a lot of it is schlepping gear around and not sleeping and not getting paid well and not being able to afford rent in your first small market, having really tight deadlines and a lot of stress. If you love what you do and you love to tell stories, it’s worth it. Especially in TV, I think that’s why something like 40-50 percent of the people graduating off the second market don’t go on. They just leave the business because it’s a tough business. You have to be willing to go where other people aren’t. You have to see the crush of media and just think about that other angle that you can get that will set your story apart. You don’t want to miss anything but you want to be that person who gets that extra angle or gets that exclusive. Sometimes you have to think outside the box. It’s about working really hard and being OK with paying your dues and realizing you’re never going to be very highly-paid or have great hours or have holidays or anything like that. It can be tough on relationships. It really is one of those jobs where your job is your life. It’s a lifestyle. You always have to be on. You always have to be ready to go in the second. You always have to be willing to cancel that date [laughs]. Move into the sticks in the middle of nowhere. You have to be willing to do all that stuff.