One On 1 Profile: Campbell Brown Transitions from Journalist to Education Reform Advocate
Campbell Brown burst onto the public stage as a journalist with NBC and CNN. Today, she is in an education reform advocate, and a controversial one at that. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following report.
Campbell Brown has undergone quite an evolution, from sitting in the anchor chair and covering stories around the world to advocating for dramatic education reforms, especially in the area of teacher job protections. She became a lightning rod in the process.
"Not everybody needs that in their life, a mission or a calling. I do," Brown says. "And so I think when journalism stopped being that for me, with the path I was on, I was a little lost until I figured out what the next step was, and how I could re-engage and do something that mattered."
Like her reform efforts or not, Brown is definitely engaged. In July, Brown launched The Seventy Four, a website with a self-described mission to promote debate and challenge the status quo in public education. One month later, she hosted a forum on education in New Hampshire for many of the Republican presidential hopefuls.
Brown was schooled in the journalism of presenting both sides of a story, but that paradigm no longer works for her.
"Sometimes, you stare at a problem and you have to say, 'I'm sorry, both sides do not have merit.' And when the lives of children are literally hanging in the balance, you can't play referee," she says.
She says her foray into education reform resulted from her having her own children and reading a Daily News story about the city's difficulty in punishing teachers accused of sexual misconduct.
"It was so shocking. I couldn't believe the system was that broken," she says. "It made me think about the whole reason I went into journalism to begin with, this whole idealistic notion that a journalist is an advocate for people who don't have a voice."
She eventually formed the Parents Transparency Project to highlight the issue, and the Partnership for Educational Justice to fight tenure and union protections that Brown believes make it difficult to fire abusive or incompetent teachers.
Critics see Brown as part of an effort to weaken teacher's unions and dismantle tenure, which they see as a safeguard against what they call "unfair firing."
Fighting for what she thinks is right started early for Brown, in Louisiana.
"If a teacher said something, and I didn't think it was right or I disagreed, I would certainly challenge them, and I ended up in the principal’s office a lot. I was not like the perfect student perfect child by any means," she says. "And honestly, I think had I not found journalism, which is the one profession that rewards that behavior, I would have been in real trouble."
She found her calling while interning at a newsroom in Washington. Her career choice was also influenced by her father’s job, a politician in Louisiana.
"I mean, Louisiana politics? There you go. All I have to say is Louisiana politics, and you react the way you react, right? I got to see that up close," Brown says. "I think the reason the reporter aspect of it appealed to me as opposed to going into politics was because I thought, 'Wow, somebody needs to keep an eye on these people.'"
After local TV jobs in places like Topeka and Baltimore, Brown landed at NBC, quickly climbed the ladder and covered the Bush white house during the September 11th attacks.
"To be able to tell that story is really powerful," she says.
Her professional life seemed set: mid-30s, anchor on the weekend Today Show. But Brown wondered if she would ever get married and have a family. She says her NBC colleague Matt Lauer set her up on a blind date.
Brown: We were planning to go that Saturday night, and I had to cancel, because NBC said, "We need you to go to Baghdad."
Mishkin: I've used the 'I have to break this date, I'm going to Baghdad' line. Didn't work out so great, no.
She ended up meeting her husband, Dan Senor, on that trip to baghdad, where he was serving as the the chief spokesman for the Bush administration at the beginning of the Iraq War.
Senor is Jewish. Brown has converted to Judaism. One issue to be resolved? Food.
Brown: He doesn't eat shellfish or pork. He keeps kosher now in how he eats, and I'm like, 'Wait a minute, I'm giving up shellfish and pork? Those are the only foods I eat.
Mishkin: What was the resolution? Now we're getting to the good stuff.
Brown: At home is one thing, but I can have my crawfish etouffee when I go home. I mean, you can't expect a Louisiana girl to give up crawfish etouffee.
Mishkin: It's out of your hands.
Brown: It's not possible.
In 2007, a year after she got married, Brown became the host of her own nightly primetime show on CNN. She could analyze her ratings on a minute-by-minute basis, and her passion for cable news journalism began to wane.
"Celebrity scandal or crime, you'd get a spike. And if I talked about education, it would plummet. So how can you not go, 'Well, if we just did a little more celebrity scandal tonight, that would really get our number up,'" she says.
Now with two young children, she left CNN in 2010. Her children attend a private religious school, but that doesn't stop Brown from engaging in the public school debate.
"Because my kids go to private school, I need to be in the fight," she says. "Because I have a choice. I need to make sure everyone else gets a choice, too."
Brown sees herself as an advocate and a journalist. She says a reporter inserting personal opinions makes for a more honest story. What she calls the "old mentality about journalism" no longer applies in the new tech-social media world.
"Can you keep an audience when you play that role of, 'This side says this, this side says this?' People know better. They're not going to buy it," she says.
Mishkin: If people don't buy it, does that necessarily mean that it's wrong?
Brown: I just don't think it's effective. I don't think you're going to find an audience or connect with people.
Brown suggested that even a profile series like this would benefit from the reporter - me - being more open about my opinions.
Brown: I as the viewer would go, "Huh, they disagree on that, but look how respectful he is being about other viewpoints, even though he doesn't share it." I might find that to be a more interesting interview.
Mishkin: I got to go back and re-do all 350 of these profiles?
Such laughter is rare in the vitriolic debate over education. Brown, though, is quite comfortable with the role she's carved out for herself.
"I couldn't have done this in my 30s. Would not have had confidence and maturity to embrace my own views."
"If you're passionate about a story and go after it, and make a difference, make an impact with it where you don't have to worry about clicks, where you don't have to worry about ratings, and you can find your voice. And hopefully, that's what we are going to achieve."
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