Out of the Country|
NPR's Elizabeth Arnold began
her radio career in the Alaskan wilds
by James Leach
Majority leader Trent Lott was preparing for the last day of the US Senate's fall term when he looked up from the Senate floor and spied Elizabeth Arnold '82 in the press gallery.
"At least he gave me a little smile," said Arnold, who days earlier had grilled Lott at a press conference about fast-track legislation. Based at the Capitol, Arnold is the national political correspondent for National Public Radio.
As Lott and minority leader Tom Daschle negotiated the final day's agenda (including three appropriation bills, a decision on civil rights nominee Bill Lann Lee, and the fate of the Susan B. Anthony dollar), Arnold planned where she would be going for the recess: first to the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) in Vancouver, then to California and a handful of other states to get an early read on races for the House and a number of governor's mansions.
"This is a great job," says Arnold, who not too many years ago made her living fishing for salmon in Alaska. "It's a privilege to work here, but I also feel a responsibility. I get to go anywhere and ask anyone anything. But why should I have the chance to form these insights about the Senate, or Hilary Clinton, and keep them to myself?"
Public radio, with its longer news segments, allows Arnold the time to give her listeners some background. As she writes the news she has in mind the folks back in Alaska. "I think of my friend who lives in a cabin in Bethel with no running water, but with a radio. Or the people out fishing on boats. If I can't make these stories interesting or understandable to them, what's the point?"
So Arnold roams the halls of Congress as she has since 1991, digging out the stories behind the politics. And NPR broadcasts her reports to audiences from the beltway to Skagway on its host of radio news magazines. She is also a frequent contributor to Jim Lehrer's NewsHour on PBS, and to Washington Week in Review (where she shared the panel in one recent session with Gloria Borger '74 and Howard Fineman '70).
An English and fine arts major at Colgate, Arnold headed for Alaska's commercial fisheries after graduation to make enough money to get on her feet. She started on the docks that first season, and eventually was hired aboard a 32' gill netter, "working the nets and picking salmon. They were long, grueling hours, and not the safest conditions," but Arnold thrived on the work, liked the people, and returned for several seasons.
Her real interest, though, was in newspapering, and after that first tour in the waters off Alaska she traveled to Colorado and bicycled the state looking for a reporter's position. To land a job on a daily required experience, she soon learned. Then an ad in the Telluride Times alerted her to an opening at the weekly San Juan Examiner. "They needed a reporter/typesetter. When they asked me if I knew how to set type I said, 'Sure,' then spent the night learning how." Arnold was good enough, and the paper small enough, that she progressed from typesetter to managing editor in a month.
She moved to the Telluride paper later that winter, before heading back to Alaska for the beginning of the next fishing season. At season's end she went to work for the Tundra Drums, a weekly in the northern reaches. Her publisher's husband was a pilot who served the Yupiik Eskimo villages. Arnold would often fly along to cover stories such as sovereignty, or drug and alcohol abuse on the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta. "We would fly over the ice for hours before we landed at the site of a few shacks that made up a subsistence village."
Her experiences on fishing boats and in remote villages gave her a new appreciation for the importance of radio Ñ a state-wide lifeline in Alaska. Arnold recalls the type of messages that would be broadcast from Dillingham on a wide-reaching program called Message Drums: "To John C. on the Sophie D.: your wife just had a baby girl."
Arnold moved from Bethel to Juneau, hoping for a job on the daily Empire, but there were no openings. Instead she took a job at NPR member station KTOO, hosting the local segments of NPR's Morning Edition and covering local and regional stories, and occasionally filing with NPR an Alaskan story of national interest.
Arnold's reporting from Alaska caught the ear of Washington-based NPR and she was invited for a residency. During her first day in the position she covered a White House press briefing where the central topic was the Iran/Contra incident. But it was also the day of the Exxon Valdez spill and, as Arnold recalls, "There was oil in the front yards of fishermen I knew." With her "heart pounding," she pressed her question, got an answer, and a major story was launched and she began to establish her foothold.
From 1989 to 1990 Arnold was a contract reporter covering New England, Canada and upstate New York for NPR. She joined the Washington bureau full-time in 1991, and launched her political reporting career a year later cover-ing Bill Clinton's primary race before following President George Bush in his campaign for reelection. She contributed to NPR's award-winning coverage of the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, then spent all of 1996 covering the Republican presidential primaries, both national conventions, and Bob Dole's run for the Presidency from beginning to end.
Sense of tradition
When Congress is in session, most of Arnold's hours are spent roaming the halls of the Capitol, "trolling," she calls it, making calls, attending press conferences, picking up statements that give meaning to the day's legislation. As matter-of-fact as she is about getting the job done thoroughly, she also respects the heritage of the place and the institution it represents.
Cokie Roberts' introductory tour showed Arnold the route she still uses to make it from the House side of the Capitol to the Senate's chambers in two and a half minutes, but if a visitor is along she can't resist stopping to point out the senators' anterooms, or paus-ing under the magnificent dome to pass along a historic note, or stopping by a collection of statues provided by all the states, or reflecting on the historic proceedings that have been witnessed in the Senate Hearing Room (Water-gate, Iran/Contra, the Vietnam War, Clarence Thomas, the Titanic, Teapot Dome and the McCarthy hearings among them).
And when she leaves work at the end of the day she confesses that she often looks back and marvels at all the transpires in that historic place. "It's living history," says Elizabeth Arnold.