Flying into Baghdad is an unforgettable experience.
The plane, a Fokker jet flown by a South African crew, flies over Baghdad at 30,000 feet, then points its nose straight down and goes into what’s known as a “spiral descent” to avoid drawing missile fire in a gradual descent landing.
The first time I experienced this, in 2004, I was flying into Baghdad on a reporting assignment. I nearly lost my breakfast and was spooked out of my mind, but managed to write a few stories while on the ground. That trip turned into a two-and-a-half year odyssey in Iraq and the Middle East as the Baghdad Bureau Chief for USA TODAY. I was covering the biggest story of our lifetime – the U.S. occupation of Iraq – for one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers. The experience delivered: It was the most frightening, challenging, frustrating, fulfilling and exhilarating span of my journalistic career.
It’s an experience that never would have occurred without the support and enthusiasm of the Chips Quinn Scholars program. That program was just a weekend – class of 1993 – followed by a summer internship at The Tennessean in Nashville. But the skills and passion for the profession passed on by the people in the program – writing coach Dick Thien, veteran journalist and corporate recruiter Reginald Stuart, John Seigenthaler, founder of the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center, and CQS program co-founder John C. Quinn, to name a fraction of them – lasted a lifetime.
My connection with CQS continued for more than a decade as I returned several times over the years as a guest speaker or just a friend passing through town. I’ve swapped personal letters with John Quinn that have motivated me and pushed me to new levels. I still keep those typed letters safely in a box at home.
As this industry convulses under the strain of smartphones, social media and short attention spans, I feel proud to still be a part of it. Like an old friend, I don’t mind if it keeps changing clothes, so long as it’s essentially the same person underneath.
Today, I’m a national correspondent for USA TODAY, based in Austin, Texas. It’s a far cry (thankfully) from the car bombs and jihadists of Baghdad. But it’s still a fascinating place to be. And I could thank Dick and John and the others for allowing me to see that.
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