Three Years after she departed NBC News, and five and a half years after she signed off as a Today host, Ann Curry is back on television.
Curry is the host and executive producer of We’ll Meet Again, which debuts Jan. 23 on PBS. The series looks at colossal events in history, such as World War II, the civil rights fight and the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and how each event tore individuals apart.
Though she was hesitant to look back, Curry was at the white hot center of her own news drama in 2012, after being forced out at Today, followed by a ratings drop, amidst a rivalry with Matt Lauer, who was fired Nov. 29 after an investigation into a complaint of “inappropriate sexual relations” with female colleagues. It was one of multiple such incidents involving Lauer to surface.
In her first appearance on TV since her abrupt and highly publicized departure, Curry told CBS This Morning hosts Jan. 17 when asked about Lauer: “You know, I’m trying to do no harm in these conversations. I can tell you that I — I am not surprised by the allegations.” She added, “I can say that I would be surprised if many women did not understand that there was a climate of verbal harassment that existed.”
Her main focus now is We’ll Meet Again. The premiere episode depicts a Japanese-American girl shunned by classmates after Pearl Harbor was bombed, except for one little girl who stayed by her side. The two are reunited on the show, some 75 years after the Japanese-American was sent to an internment camp.
Curry describes We’ll Meet Again as human history from the point of view of everyday folks. She likens the show to “shopping for a gift for someone I love, and waiting to see what they feel when they open the gift. My gut tells me they might feel something powerful.”
Curry spoke with B&C about We’ll Meet Again, the state of news today, and what TV journalism might look like down the road. An edited transcript follows.
Where did the concept for the show come from?
It came from a woman named Justine Kershaw, who runs Blink Films. She came to me, and PBS got involved. It has evolved from this trilogy of women, Kershaw, [PBS chief programming executive/general manager] Beth Hoppe and me. It’s a hard idea to come up with, reuniting people who’ve been separated by major world events. How do you tell the story, using a major world event as the spine of your narrative? How do you weave two different people’s experiences together and follow that timeline?
Then the idea came: What if we document their efforts to find this other person, and can they actually be reunited? There have been reunion stories before, there have been historical narratives. There have been finding your roots stories, and trying to trace another person. Weaving them the way we do, we felt like we were building a road.
Is there one story that you keep coming back to, thinking about?
Probably the Mount St. Helens one. [That episode shows a survivor of the volcano eruption seeking out the helicopter pilot who saved her.]
I didn’t think I could do the 9/11 episode. I covered 9/11 and it was very, very tough emotionally. The story we did is about goodness, kindness, courage and beauty, and it kind of reframed how I feel about 9/11. I’ve since been able to go to the [September 11 Memorial and] Museum.
All of them have really great moments, but if I were to pick one, the Mount St. Helens one, simply because I’m moved by stories of heroism and there is certainly a hero story there.
Why was PBS right for the show?
PBS has been a wonderful partner because, as we have moved step by step through the process, every time I wanted to make sure we dealt with a problem or an issue in a way that would be most responsible journalistically, they were absolutely on board. When we do these stories, you’re unpacking a memory, often a traumatic memory. In the World War II piece, I asked Peter why he cared about Fritz and Stella all these years later. [It’s about a boy who fled the Nazis with his parents, and bonded with a different family after relocating to Shanghai.] I asked him several times until he finally came to it — that Fritz was like a surrogate father to him. That was a revelation to hear; he’d never put those words together.
We wanted to make sure we take care of these people, we handle the stories responsibly. You want to do the stories in a way that’s caring and thoughtful as well as asking the hard questions. PBS has been an awesome partner on all those levels.
Do you miss working in morning news?
I love sleeping in, you have no idea! I sleep until 7 o’clock in the morning and sometimes even later. It’s unbelievable!
I used to get up at 2:45, or 3:45 later on. You’re up in the middle of the night. It’s so hard physically; I feel such empathy for people with jobs like that, because I did it for so many years. Getting a normal night’s rest, it’s a huge joy. I look at my alarm clock at 7 and say, ‘Woo! Yay!’ Who does that?
I’ve done so many great, in my view, stories, and had great experiences. I miss that. I miss some of the people I [worked with], especially behind the scenes. You foster these really deep connections.
I actually am as happy as I’ve ever been. I’m soaring in my new life, having started my own venture, working on a number of projects, being my own boss and setting my own hours. I think oftentimes when you work independently you can actually work more easily on things you really believe in, do the things you feel will be useful for others. I feel very alive, very in the moment.
Do you envision getting back to a regular anchor role?
I’m always open to something that would be what the public wants and what I can contribute depth and value to. I’m lucky enough to have been reached out to and offered things. So far, nothing really resonated as much as this series.
There was a moment during one of our [We’ll Meet Again] reunions, in a war veterans museum. The man with the key to the museum, who let us shoot in the building, was a retired general. After watching what we were shooting, he told me, ‘These are the kinds of stories we really need to hear right now. Thank you so much.’ To me, that said we are living in a time when it’s easy to forget how much we mean to each other, how much more we are connected than not. It’s easy to forget to listen to one another. That’s what these stories remind us of.
What is your reaction when you hear the president talk about fake news?
I know there is wonderful journalism occurring now. I believe journalism is becoming better and stronger and smarter. I see more investigative reporting being supported. I see people recognizing journalism as important. To me it’s as important as food. We need it in a democracy or we will not have a democracy. I think there’s an awakening there.
The current president is not the first one to attack journalism. The messenger is always attacked. I would say it is not our job, it’s never our job, to be popular. It’s our job to be accurate. That in itself is enough of a challenge. Journalism is not like mathematics, where you come up with the final answer and it is absolutely the right answer under all circumstances. A degree of it depends on the quality of the journalist, what facts he or she decides to include or not include. Did you have enough resources to interview the right people, were you able to spend enough time thinking about perspective, not just the where, what, when, but also the how and why? All of these questions are part of what makes journalism.
Anyone who is a perfectionist will go mad trying to be a journalist.
I may be old-fashioned but dammit, I’m gonna stay old-fashioned in saying, objective journalism is a way to build trust. Truth is not subjective. It is generally arrived at with objective analysis. Objective analysis is an ability you develop over time. You don’t get it coming out of J school, and you certainly don’t get it spending a lot of time telling people what you think, and not giving people what they need to know so they can decide what they think.
Do you watch much morning news?
Sometimes I turn on to flip around, but it’s hard not to get your news on the phone. Most of the good stuff that’s on in the morning will be on our phones. Because I’m moving around, traveling, it’s almost like you’re carrying it all with you. My TV is my iPad. If I need to see something, I just turn on my iPad and that’s my television set.
What does TV news look like 10 years down the road?
One thing we know about life is that all things change. The extreme polarization we are witnessing today won’t exist forever. At some point it becomes less polarized, then maybe becomes more polarized again. It’s just a constant wave.
I think the highly opinionated cable coverage may fall depending on what people are willing to spend time consuming. I don’t know what it’s going to look like in 10 years. What I hope is that the journalism part of broadcasting will offer more news and less regurgitation. More actual stories that people haven’t heard, or interviews people need to hear, and less opinion-based analysis. I think that’s a little bit of a waste of my time. I don’t know why I should care what a journalist thinks. I care what an expert thinks. If you know a lot about something, you’ve written books on it or you’re a professor, you have some expertise, I care about what you think. But I don’t know that people should give journalists, just because they’re journalists, should give their opinions any more weight than anyone else’s.
My father used to watch Walter Cronkite. The big events of that time were also polarizing — Watergate, women’s liberation, civil rights, the Vietnam War. If someone filled in for Walter, my dad would get so angry. He’d listen for any verb or adjective that felt pejorative. He’d raise his finger to the TV set and say, ‘Stop telling me what to think! See what he’s doing, using that word to try to persuade us? That’s propaganda! Just tell me what I need to know, I’ll make up my own mind!’
That’s what I think journalism should do. Do your job, get the information, let the viewer make up their own mind. Stop telling them what to think. Respect them and give them what they need to know. It’s cheaper and easier to present your opinion. It’s much harder, more time consuming and expensive to fall back to shoe-leather journalism, working your sources, getting that tidbit of information, which leads you to another tidbit you can report as something that moves the story forward.
It takes a lot more time, energy and resources. But that’s what the public deserves.