Reporting Back

Twelve years after stepping away from TV news for good, Nick Clooney stepped into the middle of one of the biggest stories of his life: the atrocities in Darfur.

The anchorman isn’t quite ready to go. It’s a Wednesday in mid-June, and he takes a seat on the couch in his living room in Augusta, Kentucky, for one last run through his notes. He’s 72 now and while that may qualify as “old,” he doesn’t look it. Yes, his famous head of thick gray hair has gone white and thinned out some, but his face barely offers up a wrinkle and he’s still got the same trim, ramrod straight, six-foot frame he had when he was the face of Channel 12’s newscast in the 1970s and ’80s. In a matter of hours he’ll be at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, where he’ll speak about his nine-day excursion in April to the African countries of Chad and Sudan. The speech, along with a short film on the journey, will mark the kick-off to a month-long exhibition showcasing his interviews with victims of the horrific three-year civil war in the western Sudanese region of Darfur.

It was a journey in which potential peril was not in short supply. For starters, Chad was still dealing with the remnants of a short-lived coup attempt. Then there were scorching temperatures and the long, bumpy ride in a single engine plane into a war-torn region that lies beyond the beyond, with tense visits to remote villages and a refugee camp to record the stories of some 200 Darfuris forced to flee their homeland. By the time he’d returned to the U.S., news of his independent news-gathering trip with his son George had landed both of them on all the major TV network news programs, as well as Oprah and The Today Show, and in a heap of newspapers.

So Nick Clooney has a good idea of what he’s going to talk about. But he wants to be sure. That’s why, just a few minutes before he’s due to make the hour-long drive north with Nina, his wife of 47 years, he’s sitting in front of a large glass-top coffee table shuffling through a series of columns he wrote for the Cincinnati Post about the trip. As he leans forward, his jacket off, his red tie loosened a bit, a pair of rectangular reading glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, he looks very much like an anchor getting ready for a newscast—though tonight’s audience of around 350 people will be decidedly smaller than the 80,000 he used to regularly pull in for the 6 o’clock news. He quickly scans each column, keeping a reporter’s notebook at his side so he can jot something down. “What was his last name?” he asks out loud, referring to an interpreter. He riffles through his columns. “Schole. That’s right, Charles Schole.”

An hour later, Clooney strides through the front doors of the Freedom Center—shirt buttoned, tie tied, navy blue suit looking especially crisp—and is whisked to the second floor by Greg Landsman, the center’s director of special projects, for a preview of his Darfur exhibition. As they walk, Landsman goes over the evening’s schedule: First they’ll show the film, then Nick will give a short speech, followed by questions from the audience, and a cocktail hour.

Clooney pauses to look at five tall panels that carry heavy-handed titles (“Courage,” “Hope,” “Cooperation”) and include snapshots from Darfur. “Good, good, good,” he repeats, inspecting each one. Next, he takes a seat in the Harriet Tubman Theater for his first look at a five-minute film the museum assembled from the hours of raw footage he and George shot in Africa, along with a separate interview Nick did at the Freedom Center after he returned. It’s a sleek production that toggles between interviews with refugees and an aid worker, and sweeping shots of the African landscape. Through it all, Clooney’s deep, commanding voice sounds strangely somber and optimistic at the same time. “These folks have nothing,” he intones. “They don’t have a government. They have no property…. What we can give them is life and then we can give them hope.”

When the film concludes, Clooney stares blankly at the screen for several seconds before finally turning to go.

“It’s good,” he says in almost a whisper. His eyes are small slits and look as though they could water at any moment. “It’s good.”

Nick Clooney is a rare media hybrid. He’s the father of a Hollywood celebrity (George) and the younger brother of another (Rosemary, the late singer), and over the years he’s worked as a radio deejay, a TV talk show host, and a presenter for American Movie Classics, so he knows a little something about that business called show. Yet it’s the news business that’s defined him. Not just delivering the news but covering it—the kind of shoe-leather journalism that requires venturing out, interviewing people, unearthing the facts, and filling up his notebooks with the stuff that goes into “getting the story and getting it right.” No surprise, then, that when you ask him what he does for a living, he immediately responds, “Reporter, and a damn good one.”

“When he found himself in a hard news environment he dug into it,” says Denny Connor, a producer who worked with Clooney for two years at Channel 12. “He knew how he felt the story should be, and he wanted to be thorough about everything.”

Clooney quit TV news for good in 1994, but he hasn’t quit being a newshound. His hands give that away. When he talks about something important, they chop the air to drive a point home. And when he talks about Darfur, he uses his hands a lot. He came to it late, he admits. He’d read the occasional wire reports and saw television newscasts, but it wasn’t until last fall, when George faxed his father some pieces on the conflict, including a series of columns by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, that he began paying close attention. In a family where the nightly news was always on during dinner and current events were a regular part of the conversation, Darfur soon became a popular topic between father and son. The level of violence astounded them, as did the lack of coverage by the American media.

It’s certainly not as though journalists weren’t familiar with Sudan. Africa’s largest country had been embroiled in an on-again, off-again civil war between the largely Arab north, home to Khartoum, the seat of government, and the politically and economically marginalized south ever since England granted it independence in 1956. In early 2003, under the auspices of the United States, the two warring regions agreed to a peace deal. But soon after, Khartoum’s forces began dealing with attacks by a different group of rebels from an even more neglected region of the country: Darfur.

At the time, the southwestern provinces of South, North, and West Darfur, which together are roughly the size of France, were home to some 7 million black African Muslims, many of them residing in small farming villages that dotted the region. Motivated in part by a desire to secure some of the same political and economic concessions the south had recently won, the newly formed Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) began attacking military posts inside Darfur in April 2003. The battles unleashed a furious response from President Omar Hassan Ahmad-al Bashir, who used his air force to bomb villages and a horse-riding nomadic militia, known as the Janjaweed, to wreak havoc on the ground. Since then an estimated 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and 2 million others displaced. Three years after the fighting began, it’s become less a war to subdue a group of rebels, experts say, and more a systematic effort on the part of the Khartoum government to annihilate Darfur’s black African population.

The more Nick and his son talked about it, the more fired up they got. “I understood the pot was boiling in other places, but this seemed like an urgent story,” says Clooney. “I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t getting any traction.” The Clooneys continued to follow events closely, speculating on what might be done to bring attention to the crisis. Then in March, after George won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actorin the film Syriana, he called his father with an idea. “Pop, I’m never going to have as much juice as I have now,” he told his father. “‘Why don’t we just go?’”

“I thought it was great,” Clooney says. “What a chance. What a great story. We weren’t going to come back with a story that was more complete than anyone else’s. What was different about this was that it would involve George, who has a huge international celebrity. And my going there was useful because I have the journalist background to frame what was happening.” His hands go up in the air. “We were going to come back with stories! We were going to come back with actual columns! We were going to come back with packages! There may even be a chance to change things.”

Talk to enough people who’ve worked with Clooney over the years and their allegiance to him becomes immediately apparent. Mike Herron, a former colleague at Channel 12, jokingly calls it “the cult of Clooney.” It begins with his personality, that easygoing manner matched by a certain air of authority. As an anchor he was both a father figure and a boss, a demanding but not overbearing newsroom leader who was known to many simply as “the Cloo.”

“There’s a lot of talk about quality in my business,” says Edie Magnus, a correspondent for NBC’s Dateline who worked with Clooney at Channel 12 in the early 1980s. “But many times what that really means is what sells with an audience. With Nick it was always about the quality of the work. We never discussed ratings. Not once.”

The reverence also has its roots in Clooney’s modesty. He and Nina, a former TV producer, don’t live a flamboyant life. They don’t own a computer (Clooney writes on one of four typewriters) or a car with less than 150,000 miles on it. Their house, a rambling century-old green Victorian in downtown Augusta, which they purchased in 1974, is a cross between family museum and library. Clooney claims to own more than 3,500 books, a portion of which sit in four large floor-to-ceiling shelves in the downstairs study. The walls along the stairway are lined with framed concert programs from Rosemary’s career, awards, newspaper stories, and promotional pieces. “Nick Clooney is News in Los Angeles!” trumpets a full-page ad in The Los Angeles Times, from his two-year stint anchoring the NBC affiliate there. In the back of the house, Nina has plastered the walls and ceiling of a small bar room with hundreds of pictures of her husband that span his career. Nick with Denver Pyle! Nick with Ira Joe Fisher! Nick with Bill Clinton! “I look around here and watch myself age,” he says.

Born in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1934, Clooney got his start as a TV anchor in the early 1960s, heading up the weekend news at a Lexington station. In 1976, a decade after moving Nina and their two young children, Ada and George, to Cincinnati, where he weathered different incarnations of his TV variety program, The Nick Clooney Show, he was hired to head up the fledgling Channel 12 newscast. “I don’t know what we were doing before Nick got here,” says reporter Deborah Dixon, a 32-year veteran of Channel 12. “We were playing news. We were playing newsroom.”

Six years later Clooney’s news division was number one in the city, a rise that stemmed in part from the anchor’s commitment to the broadcast. Clooney’s willingness to walk out when locking horns with management over staff restructuring or a perceived lack of investment in the news division brought him respect from his news colleagues, even as it bedeviled his bosses. In May 1977, he actually did quit (albeit for 24 hours) when executives dragged their feet about making the station’s new live truck operational. A day later, when a devastating fire ripped through the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, leaving 165 people dead, Clooney’s stand proved to be not only prescient but a smart investment. The Channel 12 news team got the jump on their rivals at the local NBC and CBS affiliates and their coverage of that grim event kick-started Clooney’s march up the ratings.

He took that attitude with him to Los Angeles when he became co-anchor at KNBC in March 1984. But in that much-larger market, KNBC’s station management wasn’t keen to have Clooney leave the anchor chair to report, and he chafed under the pressure to incorporate more Hollywood news into his broadcast. It didn’t take long for a major blow-up to occur. When his bosses directed him to lead an evening show with a story about Michael Jackson’s hair catching fire during the filming of a Pepsi commercial, Clooney balked and threatened to sit in silence. “I have a $200-a-month mortgage in Kentucky and I’ll go back and flip burgers,” he told them. Two years later, KNBC refused to renew his contract.

After he left KNBC in 1986, Clooney returned to Channel 12 for another two years, then bounced around, taking anchoring jobs in Salt Lake City and Buffalo. He finally left TV news in 1994, but as his daughter Ada says, “He’s a newsman. He likes to stay busy.”

And so he has. In the last decade he’s presented films on the American Movie Classics channel, continued to write a column for the Cincinnati Post, and published two books, one on the movies and another a compilation of his columns. Three years ago, Clooney changed course yet again to run for Ken Lucas’s seat in Congress, representing Kentucky’s staunchly conservative 4th district. Lucas, a three-term representative and the only Democrat in the last 36 years to hold the seat, told Clooney he was the “only one in the world who had a chance to win” the election.

For a while, he appeared to be right. Clooney had name recognition, and with help from George’s Hollywood connections—Kevin Costner, Michael Douglas, and Paul Newman were just a few of the star donors—he set a campaign record for the district by raising $500,000 in the first quarter. He thrived at the standard grin-and-greet sessions on the campaign trail and relished the give-and-take of ideas at town-hall meetings. His approach was more newsman than politician. “You start off talking to make [people] feel comfortable and then you shut up,” he told reporters.

It worked—at first. Clooney racked up an early 15-point lead over his Republican opponent, Geoff Davis. Then the GOP started hitting hard. The Davis team did their homework, mining Clooney’s 15 years of Post columns for fodder and recasting the election as a choice between “Hollywood versus the heartland,” lumping the son’s liberal politics with the father’s. Invoking the moniker “Looney Clooney,” the Davis campaign portrayed him as out of touch. To the frustration of his team, Clooney refused to return fire. “He definitely wanted to take the higher ground,” says Patrick Crowley, a longtime political reporter for the Kentucky Enquirer. “He hated the fact that politics is so much about just going at each other and about money. He wanted it to be a debate about the issues. Who the hell doesn’t? But that’s not how it works.”

The problem was compounded by Clooney’s methodical approach to campaigning. “He wanted to spend some time mulling over what he should do rather than just sort of taking your word for it,” says his former campaign manager, BJ Neidhardt. “Nick wasn’t cut out to run for political office.”

Clooney contends he’s moved on, but there’s still a trace of hurt in his voice when he talks about the campaign and the mud slung by Davis. Sitting in his living room, his gaze hardens as he speaks, and he chooses his words carefully. “I was terrible at politics,” he admits. “The only thing that surprised me was that the people who knew me best—folks, people who voted—believed them.”

When Clooney talks about his run for office, he speaks less like a man who was on a quest for power than someone who sincerely believes he could have “made a difference.” A slight case of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Perhaps, if not for the fact that his public consciousness has long dictated his approach to work. Even in the business of news, an industry that relishes stamping out idealism, Clooney has maintained a sense that wrongs could be righted, as long as you were willing to work hard enough to make it happen. “He’s always going to side with the little guy,” says Don North, a close friend who worked with Clooney for eight years at Channel 12.

The situation in Darfur tapped into Clooney’s long held belief that by shedding light on a problem he could help bring an end to it. But for a journalist who’d been out of the game for a number of years there were some nerves to overcome. “Somewhere back there I wondered if I could still put a package together,” he says. “I hadn’t done one since ’94.”

The plan was to return home with footage in time to make an appearance at a planned rally for Darfur on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on April 30, so time was a factor. So was exposure. If any other media outlet found out about George and his dad traipsing to Darfur for a look-see, it could easily be perceived as a Brangelina-esque attention-grabbing ploy. Then there were questions of access and safety. Khartoum has barred numerous news organizations and foreign officials from the region, including Jan Egeland, undersecretary-general of the United Nations. As Clooney made calls to contacts in the State Department and the U.N. about securing a visa, he kept getting the same response: We can’t be responsible for you.

As it happens, Clooney was talking with a cousin in San Diego about an upcoming family reunion when she mentioned that her nephew, a New York civil and human rights attorney named David Pressman, had just spent three months as a volunteer lawyer in Darfur. Pressman had only been home for three days when he got a call from Clooney asking first for help, and second if he wanted to go along. Pressman, who was only vaguely aware of his relationship to the Clooneys at that point, let Nick know what they’d be up against. “There’s going to be no air-conditioning,” he told him. “There are no hospitals. No water that [you] can drink. It’s going to be scorching hot. And you’re going to hear things that are really disturbing. Do you want to do this?” He did.

Pressman remained glued to his cell phone for the next week, working out a plan with the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization that has worked in Sudan since 1982. With the help of the IRC and other organizations, the group—Nick, George, Pressman, and Nick’s old colleague Mike Herron—would fly via a chartered plane from New Jersey into the Chadian capital of Ndjamena and from there, travel north to an IRC camp housing 29,000 refugees near the Darfur border.

On April 11, four days before they were scheduled to leave, the Clooneys and Pressman had a conference call with senior IRC officials, including emergency communications coordinator Melissa Winkler, who would be traveling with the group, and John Keys, vice president of international programs. One of the major topics discussed was the fact that Ndjamena was under siege by rebels; flying into Chad seemed less of an option. The day before the group left, it was agreed they would have to reroute their flight through the Kenyan capital of Nairobi and make their way into Sudan from there. The issue of safety was something of particular concern to Pressman, especially after a friend playfully warned him of the fallout should the Clooneys get hurt on his watch. “If anything happens to them,” she told him, “you will have committed the gravest error to womankind ever.”

Getting to the southern Sudanese town of Jaac from Nairobi isn’t easy. To begin with, there’s a bumpy seven and a half hour flight on a cramped, 20-year-old single-engine plane that requires a couple of stops for refueling. After a night in a thatched-roof hut at the IRC base in the small Sudanese village of Malual Kon, there’s a second flight to an even tinier village, followed by a three-hour drive through scrub forest and savannah on routes that barely qualify as roads. And in April, you’re doing this in 112-degree heat.

Jaac had been largely abandoned during the second stage of the civil war in the 1980s. But in the wake of the north-south peace agreement, many of its former residents, who had taken refuge in Darfur, started returning. Today, Jaac, which the IRC services through a mobile medical lab, is a village of 6,000 residents and roughly 500 Darfuri refugees. The latter live about a half-mile east of the center of town, very often with no or little shelter and the kind of access to water that entails waiting in line for hours at the main wells in the village.

When they arrived, the Clooneys, Pressman, and Herron, who traveled with several other IRC officials, set up inside a large hut in the center of Jaac. Their equipment was bare bones: three small Panasonic video cameras and several boxes of blank tape. Nick’s working materials included 10 reporter’s notebooks (seven of which he filled) and a Sears electric typewriter that he installed in his hut back in Malual Kon.

As he interviewed a mix of elders and midwives, Clooney, dressed in dark slacks and a light blue shirt, clutched a microphone in one hand and a notebook in the other. (“My days of cataloging everything in my head and writing it down at night are over,” he said later.) While his father worked, George, who would later donate $100,000 to the IRC for plastic sheeting, cooking pots, and water buckets for the people of Jaac, moved around shooting footage with the camera at his waist. At one point during the group’s three hours in Jaac, Nick knelt in front of several older men clad in white robes and asked about their escape.

“Back in Darfur did you personally lose any relatives or friends in the insurgency that was mounted against you?” Clooney said through an interpreter, extending his microphone out toward a slender, dark-skinned man with a graying goatee.

“For me personally, I lost nine from my immediate family members,” the man said.

“Nine dead,” Clooney said, sounding a bit taken aback. “From your family?” As Clooney moved to interview another refugee, the man he’d just finished talking to buried his face in his hands.

For the rest of the afternoon, Clooney heard much the same thing. Elders reporting how many relatives they’d lost. Women describing how they awoke in the middle of the night to the sounds of gunshots and ran for their lives, only to return the next day to find family and friends dead. The thing that struck Clooney was how matter-of-fact these people were about the horrors they’d endured. “They were all very dignified and careful about what they said,” he explains, “but they said it.”

From Jaac, the group retraced its steps to Nairobi, with the plane making a stop to refuel in the southern city of Rumbek, a provisional capital during the civil war. While they were waiting in a compound near the tarmac, George, who was filming the scene, was approached by a boyish looking 22-year-old soldier in full fatigues carrying a rifle. With the camera running, the soldier reached out and nonchalantly ejected the tape, slipping it into his pocket. Nick, who had just returned from a tour of the city, did the first thing he could think of: he interviewed the soldier. The man claimed to have been in the military for 11 years, which prompted Nick to remark that at least the north and south had forged some semblance of peace. “We are not at peace,” the soldier said, flashing a cold look. “This is only a cease-fire.”

“It was one of the most chilling things I heard,” Clooney says.

When they got back to Nairobi it was decided that Herron, who was suffering from severe heatstroke, should fly home, taking the six hours of tape they’d shot so far with him. And there was one other casualty: Clooney’s prized typewriter, which failed to survive the bumpy flight from south Sudan. (“It was a sad moment for Nick,” says Pressman, “but a happy moment for the rest of us because we wouldn’t be lugging it around anymore.”) Meanwhile, tension in Chad had cooled, making it safe enough for the group to fly to Ndjamena and then Bahai, a small village in the northeast section of the country that lies just 15 miles from Oure Cassoni, a sprawling IRC camp that serves as the temporary home to 29,000 Darfuri refugees.

Sleeping in huts in Bahai, Nick, George, and David, who was now filling in as cameraman after getting a quick tutorial from George, spent two days at the camp. The differences between Jaac and Oure Cassoni were striking. The land was flatter and hotter, and the residents, many of whom had lived at the camp for more than a year, were much more eager to return to their homes in Darfur. But their tales were just as harrowing. In one instance, a young mother explained the choice she had to make as she tried to escape her village with her three children. “She could carry her 2-year-old and her 13-year-old could keep up with her, but her 6-year-old was too heavy and not fast enough,” Clooney recalls. It was the last she saw of him.

These stories clearly moved Clooney, as the footage reveals. “Hope is stubborn, even in a place like this,” he says, standing in front of several sand-beaten tents as George shoots him delivering a wrap-up segment. “There are scores of Oure Cassonis on both sides of the border. Two million people away from their own homes.” He lets the number hang in the air, staring at the camera. “Time is running out.”

When Herron saw this footage, he had a hard time believing Clooney ever wondered if he could do it again. “He’s the same with everybody,” Herron says. “It doesn’t matter if he’s in Covington or Sudan. I went up to him afterwards and said, ‘Hey man, it’s great to see you back in action.’”

The second time Clooney views his Darfur reportage at the Freedom Center, the theater is packed. It’s a largely white crowd, and as Clooney steps to the podium afterwards, more than a few are wiping back tears. He clutches a reporter’s notebook with the few sentences he’d scribbled in his living room earlier that afternoon, but during the course of his 20-minute talk, he rarely looks at it.

For one more time, at least, Nick Clooney is delivering the news. He’s got a polished, off-the-cuff style that rarely leaves him at a loss for words. He’s funny—“I’m a reporter, which by definition means I’m not an expert on anything”—and poignant. “We can stop this,” he tells the audience. “We can stop this genocide. We couldn’t do anything about the Holocaust. There was Cambodia, I was around for that. All those piles of skulls. Then there was Rwanda. I remember that one. Bosnia. Terrible. We couldn’t stop it.” His voice lowers. “But we can stop this one.”

When he finishes, there’s a pause—one of those almost-stunned moments when it’s evident that people are still trying to absorb what they’ve just heard. Then the audience is on its feet for a standing ovation. As they file out of the theater, people make their way to a table run by the Save Darfur Coalition; the information sheets, bracelets, and buttons prove to be almost as popular as the free cake and hors d’oeuvres.

Clooney stations himself near the exhibit panels, answering questions, taking requests for speaking engagements, and greeting acquaintances. It’s nonstop, so much so that he doesn’t even have a chance to crack open the bottle of water he’s holding. One man comes up just to tell him that he saw his son George on Larry King Live. “I’m a convert,” the man says. “I’m not usually star-struck.”

After an hour of handshakes and a short interview with Channel 12, the crowd has thinned out and Clooney looks both drained and exhilarated.

About a month later, Clooney is back at his home in Augusta. He and Nina have recently returned from a three-week vacation, which included a visit with George at his villa on Lake Como in Italy. In a week, Clooney will be back to speaking about Darfur, first at Northern Hills Synagogue in Deerfield Township and then a few days later at a Buddhist temple in Bloomington, Indiana. Sprawled across the coffee table in his living room are several shots from his trip to Africa. As he pores over the photos, I ask him how he might have handled the story when he was younger.

“My reporting skills are such that I probably could have done it,” he says, leaning back in his red leather chair. “But would I have been an advocate? That would have been less likely. When I would go out and report things, I would attempt and often succeed in empathizing with the subject, but it was momentary and it was over when the story was over. Covering the early AIDS crisis [in L.A.], the Beverly Hills Supper Club, this one—these are life-changing stories because they got inside me. I’ll have dreams about this until I die.”

Photograph by Jim Callaway
Originally published in the September 2006 issue.

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