Richard Engel is widely regarded as one ofAmerica’s leading foreign correspondents for his coverage of wars, revolutions and political transitions around the world over the last 15 years. Fun times there. He’ll be joining the cast of characters to report for overseas…
Richard Engel: Fun times there! Yahoo!
Larry Olson: He’ll be joining NBCs new show Rock Center with Brian Williams. Hello there, Richard.
Richard Engel: Fun times in the revolution and political transition business.
Larry Olson: So, Richard, you’re a smart guy. Amongst the reasons we know you’re a smart guy you went to Stanford, for crying out loud. Why in the hell then would you choose a job in which they place you at work and they’re shooting at you?
Richard Engel: Well, it’s a long philosophical question in which I like what I do. I don’t want to get hurt as a result of it, but if you like what you do and you truly believe in what you’re doing…and I like the travel. I like looking at new things. I like meeting new people. I like being challenged…then, yeah, and if you really believe in it, then you are willing to risk your life for it. We’re all risking our lives everyday, you know. People get killed anyway and get mowed down by buses. At least if you’re going to go, you may as well be doing something you love.
Larry Olson: I like that attitude. You know, I was watching the last broadcast of Andy Rooney for 60 Minutes and he was talking about his time writing for Stars and Stripes during WWII and he said reporting on a war is exciting. Is that what you say? Would you say that?
Richard Engel: Yeah. Of course it’s exciting. I mean it’s…I despise war. I think war is horrible. It’s the worst most brutal act that a society can inflict upon another society. Sometimes it’s necessary when atrocities are being carried out or national security is threatened, but it’s not something you ever want to see, but when it happens, it does happen, it reveals so much about human nature, about the true nature of a particular parties involved in that conflict and it is ultimately revealing, frankly.
Larry Olson: So you graduated Stanford and immediately jump on a plane toEgyptto be a freelance reporter. How did you get a job?
Richard Engel: Well, I was a freelance reporter so I was just writing for local magazines, some of which never paid me. Starting stringing newspaper articles for newspapers back home; this was before websites. You had to call them up, which was very expensive, and say, “Hey, you guys want a story on…,” whatever was going on in Egypt or the broader Middle East and they would say yes or no and you would write it and they would pay you by the word and usually maybe you got a $100 or $150 for an article. If you did enough of those, you could survive. That’s what I did for years.
Larry Olson: So part of the reason you’re so good at what you do in theMiddle Eastis because you speak fluent Arabic. What happens when you go up to a person on the street in the Middle East and you’re working on a story and you go up and start speaking to someone, are they stunned or maybe they’re scared because they think you work for the CIA or something?
Richard Engel: Well, that…I get a lot of the CIA, but the…no, people are generally happy that I speak Arabic. It takes time to learn. It’s not that hard. I mean, 200 million people speak it, so how hard can it be? It just takes time. It’s just…I think they’re flattered that you took the time to go through the grammar book and get the verbs down and make the effort. When people are flattered, there’s a natural [inaudible 0:03:39] and they want to talk to you and you don’t have to go through a translator and you can then develop friendships that goes beyond just reporting. So you can develop a real flavor for the region. You know, you listen to the music and you eat the food and you know the people and I think that goes a long way to covering the place.
Larry Olson: So when you go to work and theoretically people are shooting at you…
Richard Engel: I don’t go to work. I don’t have a job where I go to work. I sort of live at work. You know, I don’t go into an office and say, “Okay, now I’m at work.” People call me, it’s much more organic that. Luckily, I don’t have to go in an office and turn on lights and, okay, now I’m at work from 9-5. Some days I’m working all the time and 24-hours a day and other days maybe somebody sends me an email or I have to write a story. It’s not as regimented as that.
Larry Olson: So when you’re at some of these war zones, I’m assuming there’s lots of adrenaline that comes with that.
Richard Engel: Yes.
Larry Olson: Do you just learn to deal with that adrenaline and you just essentially just become better at those high-pressure situations?
Richard Engel: It sounds like you’ve read one of my books. I talk a lot about this. I think from these questions, I think you have. Yes. I think managing adrenaline and managing fear is incredibly important and you have to learn how to deal with it. Almost like…I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a fight or been in a boxer.
Larry Olson: Yeah.
Richard Engel: Let’s say, you know, you’re in the ring and somebody’s standing there and trying to push your nose to the back of your head and naturally you’re frightened and you can either accept that you’re going to get hit and it’s going to hurt and internalize some of that fear and continue boxing or you can just collapse and turn and do bad things. Well, you have to make that mental leap that, yes, I’m in a dangerous situation. Something bad could happen, but I’m going to have to continue to function. That does take some time. You know, like the first time you got into a ring and somebody punches you in the nose, you never want to get back, but then if you realize, you do it awhile and eventually you’re a boxer.
Larry Olson: NBC Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel joining us on the JOB. When you’re with the troop…
Richard Engel: I was a terrible boxer, by the way. If someone punched me in the nose, I never wanted to get back in there. I boxed a little bit in college. It was horrible.
Larry Olson: Well, you did go to Stanford, so of course. [LAUGHS] So when you’re with the American troops in a warzone, what do they want to talk to you about or do they even care that you’re around or what do they want to know from you?
Richard Engel: Well, a lot of times conflict can be really boring. A lot of times you’re sitting around on a base and nothing is going on. You go on a patrol and you’re walking around and you don’t see anything. Okay. Then a conflict will happen and then there’s no time for conversation. Conflict is…war is 80%, 90% sitting around and then 10% of total fear and panic and adrenaline and game on. So when you’re waiting to go on a patrol or you’re back on the base after patrol and people are washing their socks and talking and doing whatever that is that they do, you hang out with the soldiers. You learn about them. You learn about their wives and their girlfriends and what they are and who they are and what they think about the world. I mean soldiers have a lot of time to think about their position in the world. So I’ve had very interesting conversations over the years with soldiers. Yeah and I’ve had a lot of filthy locker room conversations, too. I would say those are probably the majority.
Larry Olson: So you’ve got a mom and a dad. What do they say every time that you…when you were getting going, were heading off to one of these warzones, what did they say to you?
Richard Engel: You know, be safe. They understand it by now. I think they would be more surprised if I told my mother, “Look, I’ve decided I’m going to go to law school and I want to…I really want to do corporate law and I want to do contracts for a living.” I think they would be more surprised by that at this stage.
Larry Olson: Okay. Before we get to your piece for Rock Center, a couple of real quick…or I could talk to you all day. Favorite thing to eat inAfghanistan?
Richard Engel: The bread.Afghanistan, there’s sort of an inverse rule that the poorer the country is, the better the bread is. I don’t know why it is in society, but that inverse rule tends to apply inAfghanistanhas probably the best bread in the world.
Larry Olson: Longest you’ve gone without a shower?
RE: Maybe a month.
Larry Olson: Okay. That’s it? Not six weeks? A month.
Richard Engel: That’s it. Maybe it was six weeks? I don’t know. Unless you have information I don’t have. Maybe it was…I don’t…I can be a bit grubby at times. I don’t really…a week doesn’t bother me at all.
Larry Olson: There you have it. Richard’s people took him away from NBC and he didn’t have a chance to tell us about his part in NBCs new show Rock Center with Brian Williams. You can see that on Monday nights on the peacock network.