Campus News

Judy Fortin '83 Shares the Not-So-Glamorous Side of TV News at Common Hour

Story posted October 08, 1999

News broadcasting, even in the big time, is not all about coifed hair and make-up artists. Often, itís about standing in a field of pig dung.

Judy Fortin í83 burst that bubble at this weekís Common Hour, returning to campus from her job as a weekend anchor at CNN. Her talk was about the not-so-glamorous side of TV news.

"Maybe the top 10 people in this business, like Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings, have drivers and people who pick out their clothes," she said. "Thatís not my life, Iím sorry."

"I covered the unveiling of the Elvis stamp at Graceland; that was pretty exciting. And the opening of the Rock Ďn Roll Hall of Fame was good, if you like rock Ďn roll. I covered a heat wave in Phoenix where it was 122 degrees and the soles of my sneakers started to melt. That was pretty glamorous!"

And for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Fortin was dispatched to Paris, a seemingly exotic assignment. But all the reporters were sent to the "media village," a field outside Paris that the French government had commandeered from a farmer. The farmer was so mad he spread pig manure all over the field.

"Our trailer stunk to high heaven," Fortin said.

Fortin got her unofficial start in journalism right after graduating from Bowdoin. She spent a year working for Richard Mersereau, now secretary of the college, as a news intern in Bowdoinís public affairs office.

"That taught me that I wanted to go in the other direction," she said. That realization led her to a job as a radio announcer, then a television news reporter in New Hampshire.

She started at WMUR in New Hampshire in January 1986. Less than a month later, she covered one of the biggest stories of her career: the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe, one of the teachers from Fortinís home town.

"It was a shocking story," she said. "There was no way to prepare for it, and I was only 25 years old. But it made me think about being more sensitive on the job, considering whether someone would want a camera or a microphone stuck in their face."

Four years later, Fortin was hired at CNN. Her first live broadcast: The launch of a shuttle. Launches turned into one of her favorite things to cover.

Fortin said one of the hardest things for a reporter to control is the impulse to take sides or get involved in a disaster. She and her co-workers won an Emmy for their coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing; but at some point during the coverage, she could no longer even look at the building: "I was too frightened to think of my own daughter, and the children that were killed in the daycare center on the second floor."

In 1998, Fortin went to Cuba to cover the Popeís visit. It was exciting, she said, to see a person few people get to see, and to go someplace most Americans are not allowed to visit. But by then, she had two children and was tiring of the travel and the time away. So she negotiated a job as an anchor.

"I got the anchor hair going, I dress nicely. Itís a very focused job, but I donít do most of the work. I rely on the writers."

Being behind a desk doesnít spare her the gory details of the news, however. Several students asked her about the blood and violence on television news, and Fortin agreed that it is sometimes overdone. But she conceded that news is a business, and sometimes graphic depictions of events draw more viewers.

"I sit on the other side of the camera," she said. "I try not to look at some of that stuff."

"One of the hardest things is not to tell what you think of the news," she said. "You look at the refugees in Kosovo or the school shootings, and what I want to do is cry and walk away. But you donít; you do your job."

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