Dialogue with Tom Blair
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THE DAUGHTER OF TWO San Diego State University professors, Kyra Phillips grew up in San Diego and showed an early aptitude for journalism and acting——a solid footing for a future network anchorwoman. After high school graduation, she attended the University of Southern California, where she earned a B.A. in journalism. After a brief, post-college internship at KGTV Channel 10, she climbed the ladder of local TV news in five markets before joining CNN in 1999, where she’s co-anchor of the afternoon desk. In addition to her anchor duties, reporting assignments have taken her to the Antarctic, New Orleans (to cover Hurricane Katrina), Europe and the Middle East (five times) to cover the war in Iraq. She’s won four Emmys and two Edward R. Murrow Awards for investigative reporting and was named Reporter of the Year in 1997 by Associated Press.
TOM BLAIR: You’re a San Diego native, correct?
KYRA PHILLIPS: Well, I was born in small-town Illinois, but I came to San Diego in the fourth grade. I grew up here mostly around San Diego State University, where my mom was a professor of deaf education and my dad taught Spanish.
TB: Where did you go to school?
KP: I went to elementary school as part of the magnet integration program, when they first started mandatory busing. I was going to all-black elementary schools, Fulton and Valencia Park. So as a kid I was already involved in diversity and integration issues. And it was tough. This was the first time in San Diego that black students had whites coming to their schools, and it was a fascinating dynamic.
TB: Was it ultimately good for you?
KP: Unbelievable. The whole experience for a kid was horrendous, because you’re getting beat up; you have to learn to protect yourself and try to figure out how to get along with other races.
TB: Perfect for someone going into journalism.
KP: You have no idea. But yeah, 100 percent. Like here [at CNN], everybody knows, if a story has anything to do with civil rights or diversity issues, I’m on it.
TB: So then you went to USC and journalism school. Did you know in college exactly what you wanted to do when you graduated? Was it always going to be television reporting and anchoring?
KP: I knew in elementary school at Fulton; I started a school newspaper there. And I was involved in Junior Theatre at Balboa Park. Dr. Seuss was my very first interview for the newspaper. My friend had told me her dad was a piano tuner, and he had tuned a piano for Ted [Dr. Seuss] Geisel. So I told her I wanted his phone number. We went to her house, her dad wasn’t there, and so, like any enterprising investigative reporter would do, we went through her dad’s Rolodex, looking for Dr. Seuss. Of course, it took us a while to figure out he was Ted Geisel, but we found the number. So I called him up; said I was doing a story for my elementary school newspaper. He was not happy. Not friendly to me. But I told him, “I love your books; this is going to be my first interview.” And I talked him into it. He gave me about six minutes——and my career was off and running.
TB: After college, you worked in TV news all over the map——KCBS in Los Angeles; New Orleans; Green Bay, Wisconsin; Lubbock, Texas. Did you ever work in San Diego television?
KP: I was an intern at Channel 10. And as an intern, I got an interview with Mother Teresa.
TB: Your first two interviews are Dr. Seuss and Mother Teresa? You start at the top. How did you get an interview with Mother Teresa?
KP: My dad was a Spanish professor, so I had some background in Spanish. Reporter Leonard Villareal and I connected at Channel 10, and I had told him, “Any time you’re going out on a story, I want to go.” So one day he tells me we’re going to Tijuana to cover Mother Teresa. I was a born-again Christian, very religious. I just knew I had to go on that assignment. And he was so generous with me. He just said, “Go ahead, Kyra, ask your questions.” He probably has no idea what he did for me, but that is the most memorable moment of my life. Mother Teresa put her hand on my head and blessed me. She gave me a rosary, and to this day it hangs in my office.