Keeping Her Wits About Her

 

by E. Todd Wilson

Of covering the White House, CNN reporter Elaine Quijano says, “In a sense, I’m telling the story of one man who happens to be the president of the United States. … If I can continually step back and think about the pressures facing him, I’m still able to inject an element of humanity.”

Dateline: CRAWFORD, TEXAS
Elaine Quijano Cagas ’95 COM is sitting in the press filing center with other journalists from around the world. She awaits her next opportunity to report on the comings and goings, actions and utterances of President Bush for her employer, the Cable News Network (CNN).

The president is spending the long 2005 Thanksgiving weekend at his ranch, so White House correspondents, like Quijano, have converged on this town of 700. The press filing center is the elementary school gymnasium. A neighbor’s yard is the backdrop for Quijano’s live reports. In the hurry-up-and-wait of traveling with the president, Quijano finds time to reflect on a meteoric career that has carried her into one of the most exciting jobs in journalism.

“I couldn’t have planned this career path when I entered the University of Illinois,” she said.

Quijano, 33, entered Illinois’ College of Engineering in 1991. In Morton Grove and Skokie, where she grew up, she had excelled in math and science, and a number of her family members work in science-related fields.

“But I figured out pretty quickly that an engineering major wasn’t for me,” Quijano said. “So then I was searching.”

She found much to explore at Illinois. Curiosity led her to enroll in the Introduction to Broadcast Journalism class taught by Robin Neal Kaler ’83 COM, MS ’92 COM, MBA ’04 (now the associate chancellor for public affairs at the Urbana campus). So began a career that has taken Quijano around the world and to the highest levels of broadcast journalism.

“I remember Robin’s class vividly because she had so much enthusiasm,” Quijano said. “One time she staged a mock crime. In the middle of a lecture, someone ran in and grabbed her purse, and Robin ran out after him. We were just stunned. And I was so naive – I had no idea it was a ruse. But Robin came back in and said, ‘You were all just eyewitnesses to a crime.’ It was a test of our powers of observation.”

Quijano realized then that journalism would place her in exciting, real-life situations – but not as a casual observer.

“You have to have your wits about you,” she said. “That’s when I knew that journalism, being an eyewitness for the public, is important. That lesson helped me decide on this career.”

Kaler remembers Quijano as a “really sweet girl.”

“But with the sweet kids,” Kaler continued, “you wonder whether they’ll be tough enough to make it in what can be a brutal field.”

By the end of the semester, Kaler knew that Quijano, though small in stature, had everything she would need – the intelligence, empathy, work ethic and toughness – to succeed.

Quijano was still an undergraduate when she landed an internship in 1994 at WCIA Television in Champaign. Former news director Dave Shaul ’63 COM recognized her potential and offered her a reporting job. Quijano worked in Champaign (as Elaine Cagas) until 1998, then moved to WFTS in Tampa, Fla., and two years later moved again to CNN.

“I remember when I went to CNN, and my relatives in the Philippines could watch me on TV,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is much different than being in Champaign.’ But in some ways, storytelling is storytelling. You employ the same principles: Find the characters; find the story, whether it’s national politics or a house fire. You’re still trying to tell stories about how people are affected by the news.”

Dateline: D.C., N.C., PA., HOUSTON
Over the years, Quijano has told some of the nation’s most important stories to viewers across America. As a general assignment reporter for CNN, she reported on the inauguration of the second President Bush and Hurricane Isabel’s terrible landing on the North Carolina coast. Quijano has been there for the good (the rescue of the Pennsylvania miners in 2002) and the bad (the tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia, which in 2003 burned up upon re-entry).

The tragic stories pose the greater challenge to journalists.

“It’s hard. Individual stories can be heartbreaking,” she said. “I can think back to some local stories that were profoundly sad. But something like the Columbia explosion – such a highly visible moment for the nation. …”

“Sometimes, to keep your head in the game you have to – I don’t want to say ‘detach’ because it sounds too cold – but sometimes it is necessary to take a step back from these stories that are tragedies. You can’t allow them to consume you.”

9/11 was something completely different.

“I remember coming in to work that morning, and when I got off the elevator, everyone was crowded around the television monitors,” Quijano recalled. “The World Trade Center towers had been hit.”

Like everyone else in America, the people in the CNN newsroom were shocked and searching for answers about exactly what was going on. “We had to switch into work mode and begin to piece together this story,” she said.

Quijano was assigned to go to New York with a team that would get on-the-ground reaction to the towers being hit. Before the group could leave Washington, D.C., the Pentagon was hit by a third airliner. That crash paralyzed the capital. Traffic was standing still. You couldn’t get a cab.

“You have an impression of Washington, D.C., as an orderly place,” she said. “This is the place where the nation’s best and brightest are supposed to be in control. But on that day, all kinds of rumors were flying around. No one knew what would happen next. People were just standing on the sidewalk, looking up in the sky because – who knows? – there might be another plane coming in.”

With other sad stories, the heartbreak would dissipate quickly. The grief of 9/11, in contrast, seemed unrelenting.

“I didn’t lose anyone close to me in that tragedy, thank God,” Quijano said. “But like a lot of journalists covering that story nonstop and living in the area … you didn’t escape it on the drive home from work. There wasn’t any transition. I’d go home, and there would be people in mourning. On the public metro system, you’d see the people in uniform, and you knew they probably worked at the Pentagon. It was a very difficult time.”

Dateline: KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT
In the spring of 2003, Quijano was sent to Kuwait City to cover the war in Iraq for a month.

“We flew into Kuwait,” she said. “We had been given war training before we went, so we knew that we were within reach of Saddam’s missiles. But at the same time, we didn’t know what he was capable of. We were very much on edge.”

The Kuwait assignment was one of the most frightening she had ever faced.

“There were sirens and alarms all hours of the day and night, and each time we’d have to evacuate with our chemical and biological sets with gas masks and all this gear,” Quijano said. “So we’d lug all this stuff down flights of stairs to the basement, and someone would test the air. That’s frightening – these guys sniffing the air to find out if we were breathing chemicals.

“But at the same time, you had to be mindful that the residents of the city might not have the equipment we had. They might be in much greater danger.”

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.
In mid-2004, with a presidential election rapidly approaching, Quijano was asked to help on the campaign trail covering President Bush. When he won a second term, she accepted her current assignment as a White House correspondent.

Naturally, she was a bit awestruck, not just at being in the White House but also with the people – the stars of politics and journalism. Quijano remembered the old lesson: Keep your wits about you.

“When I was on my … trip [to Vietnam for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperative seminar in November 2006] – this is one of those times when I had to pinch myself,” she said. “We had a break, and the White House press corps went out to dinner, and so I’m sitting there with [reporter] Bill Plant of CBS. One of his stories started off, ‘The one conversation I had with [famed journalist Edward R.] Murrow was …’

“I said, ‘Wait a minute. Stop.’ I just had to revel in that. Plant is such a veteran. This was his sixth or seventh time in Vietnam. To have someone like that as one of your colleagues is just amazing.”

The conversation with Plant and the other correspondents turned to how much the profession of journalism has changed, which can be summarized in two words: cable and BlackBerry.

Cable television has dramatically increased the number of news outlets and created 24-hour coverage. The BlackBerry, a handheld, wireless device, means journalists are never without e-mail.

Quijano said those advancements have increased the pace of covering the capital, occasionally to near-frantic.

“The second something breaks, there is pressure to match and to get reaction,” she said. “It can be overwhelming, especially during campaigns when the rhetoric is flying, and the attack-counterattack cycle is going. It’s like a pingpong match.”

These same advances in technology have changed the expectations of the White House staff. Day or night, administration officials need to be accessible. On this topic, as in all others, Quijano is tough but fair.

“The White House staff work tremendously long days and nights” and try to make themselves available to journalists, she said. As the president’s decisions affect millions of people, Quijano said White House personnel “understand their obligation to keep us informed and explain the decision-making processes. This relationship [between staff and journalists] is necessary to cover this beat.”

Inevitably, White House correspondents will occasionally feel they’re being “handled,” and that can be frustrating.

“We have to maintain a constant balance between trying to get information and trying to ensure that we continue to have access. It doesn’t mean that I’m not going to ask tough questions. I don’t shy away from that sort of thing. I have no hesitation in calling people up three or four or five times if I don’t feel as though they’re giving us what we need. It can be tense, and it is a naturally adversarial relationship. But we have mutual respect.”

Dateline: THE FUTURE
With the 2006 midterm elections shifting the majorities in both houses of Congress, it’s clear that the stories coming out of the White House will be different over the next two years.

White House correspondents expected the election to signal a dramatic, predictable change.

“But then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned on the day after the election,” Quijano said. “That was the way the administration really took control of the story line. The headlines were no longer ‘The Democrats took Congress.’ Sharing space with that was the headline of the resignation announcement.”

Of keeping up with the changes, Quijano said, “I always tell people that a year in television is measured like dog years. It’s a lot of fun, but it’s intense – especially in the White House.”

How long does she think she can continue to work in such a strenuous environment?

“I’ll keep doing broadcast journalism until I don’t find it fun or interesting any more,” Quijano said. “You have to have an intense passion for this. The day that it stops being fun and interesting, I’ll know it’s time to go.”

And how might she follow such a meteoric journalism career?

“I didn’t get here because I was looking down the road to get here,” Quijano said. “I don’t know what’s in store for me; I just take the opportunities that I’m given and try to do as much as I can with them.

“Whatever comes my way I’m going to be ready for.”

Wilson, MS ’03 COM, is the coordinator of special projects at the University’s Office of Public Affairs. In 1991, journalism instructor Robin Kaler asked him to run into her classroom to “steal” her purse. Wilson later worked with Quijano when he served as assignment editor at WCIA Television in Champaign.

Photos courtesy of CNN

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