Citizen of the World

Suzanne Kianpour 07OX 09C travels the globe as a BBC journalist

Jason Raish

Six years ago, I could be found roaming the halls of NBC’s Washington bureau—home of Meet the Press—dressed to what twenty-two-year-old me thought was the nines, living the dream, passing portraits of American journalism greats . . . and pushing a mail cart.

In 2009, I was a recent Emory graduate and an aspiring journalist, but the economy had tanked and times were tough. So I took a job in the mailroom to get my foot in the door. 

I had no idea I was on the verge of a career that eventually would span covering President Obama, living in Los Angeles and then Lebanon, working in war zones in the Middle East, covering tear-gas-filled antigovernment protests in Turkey and elections in Mexico, and having a front seat to US diplomatic history with Iran while traveling with US Secretary of State John Kerry. 

Before all that, I delivered the mail to the people who reported the news. As the country struggled to recover from financial crisis, any job was a blessing—especially one connected, even by a thread, to my chosen field. 

One producer I had interned for at an international network in Washington the summer after graduating told me, “You’ll never get a job in journalism.” She didn’t realize how powerful those words were. Come hell or high water, I would prove her wrong.

When I got the call to interview at NBC, I had just accepted a position as a producer and reporter for a newspaper that covered defense contracting in northern Virginia. I knew nothing about defense contracting, but I could shoot, edit, and report, thanks to the news video class I had taken at Emory.  

I wasn’t sure I could actually pull the whole international broadcast journalist thing off. How many people actually made it? Maybe I should just do something safe, like accounting? 

My first internship was in 2008 working for the website. My job was to write articles about lifestyle and interview celebrities. My first on-camera interview was with Kevin Costner, when I was twenty-one. Total dumb luck.

But it wasn’t the star-studded summer that made me overcome my reservations; it was the women I met at NBC News—most notably Savannah Guthrie. My conversation with her sealed the deal. I had taken news reporting, writing, and news video classes in my senior year. What I learned from Dean Foust and Sissel McCarthy was invaluable to the next half decade of my life.

Today, six years, three networks—NBC, Fox, and now BBC—and more than thirty foreign countries later, it’s the combination of the journalism and international studies classes
at Emory that helped me reach where I am. I remember sitting in Carrie Wickham’s Middle East Politics class, listening to her talk about her time in Egypt and teaching us the intricacies of Egypt’s politics. Two years later, I was covering the fall of the country’s long-serving dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and the implications of the wider Arab Spring
from Washington. 

While I was based in Beirut in summer 2014, I went to Cairo with Secretary Kerry as part of the US press corps. I saw firsthand Egypt’s struggle with its complicated role in the region as they attempted to broker a ceasefire between Hamas in Gaza and Israel. During this trip, I slipped off to Doha, Qatar, for an exclusive BBC interview with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Sitting in his upscale, over-air-conditioned tent, I remembered Kenneth Stein’s class where I’d first learned about this man.

Needless to say, being an American in the Middle East wasn’t always easy, especially in Jerusalem at the time. Living in Lebanon and covering the region meant being on the receiving end of US foreign policy. No single moment embodied this more than when I was in northern Iraq at a makeshift refugee camp near the Mosul Dam interviewing a Yezidi man whose entire family had been massacred by ISIS. His wife had been taken hostage, and he believed she was in Mosul—not too far from where we were standing, but completely inaccessible since ISIS had taken over. As he sobbed tears of sheer agony, the faint drone of US warplanes could be heard overhead preparing for airstrikes on ISIS positions around the dam. The intersection of my two worlds captured in one instance. 

That’s why I asked to be sent to the heart of it all; my education at Emory had me craving this kind of balance. I wanted to be able to experience the other point of view—to know what questions needed to be asked to understand and report on all sides of the story. The Middle East as a whole is, in many ways, misunderstood by the West, partly because a lot of the people making decisions about the region haven’t actually spent much time there.

After hopscotching around the world, countries start to blend together. It took so much traveling to realize that—regardless of language or customs—we’re really not all that different. 

Suzanne Kianpour is Capitol Hill/foreign affairs producer at BBC News in Washington, D.C.

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