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New York Times reporter honored with Lowell Thomas Award

This story was published on the website of the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists on August 5, 2009. Doing this story was fun learning about Helene with whom some friends and I went to dinner with after the event. She was laid back, funny, courteous and humble. She shared some of her stories traveling around the world, dangerous situations and meeting President Obama on Air Force One. I want the career she has.

New York Times reporter honored with Lowell Thomas Award

By Clayton Woullard

Lowell Thomas traveled to the deserts of the Middle East to follow Lawrence of Arabia during the First World War.

Helene Cooper traveled to the deserts of Iraq nearly a century later to follow the men and women hunting Saddam Hussein.

And both have been sent around the world and back to find and report the truth. That is why Helene Cooper was honored Tuesday with the Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists’ first Lowell Thomas Award, given to a journalist who embodies the spirit of the foreign correspondent.

“It’s really cool to be getting this first award,” she said. “I’m really happy to be talking to journalists…I travel a lot and no matter where I go I feel like can recognize reporters. Because we’re always sort of the dregs of society, we drink too much…but there’s always people like me.”

Cooper discussed her New York Times best-selling memoir The House At Sugar Beach and growing up in Liberia as a descendant of a freed slave who helped settle the country in 1822. In 1980 there was a bloody coup in which a group of noncommissioned army officers, led by Samuel Kanyon Doe, killed then-president William R. Tolbert, Jr. and overtook the government.

When the coup happened it was a shock, Cooper said.

“I was much more concentrated with my teenage things, growing up and going to school and playing with my friends and I didn’t really see what was simmering around me,” she said. “That sort of hit me like a truck. I felt like my whole world just exploded in one minute. I went from being an adolescent who was concerned about a crush that she had on a boy at school to being a terrified kid locked up in my mother’s bedroom while soldiers gang-raped my mother downstairs.”

Cooper and some of her family fled to the United States, where Cooper would go on to graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal taking her to Iceland, Britain, China and Iraq, then as diplomatic correspondent covering the State department for The New York Times and now she is covering the White House for the Times.

In an interview after the event, she described the process of writing her book.

“I did it chronologically and that took about nine months and then I turned it into my editor and she said, ‘Try again, there’s no emotion in here, you’re just giving me the facts’,” she said. “In a way it was a way of hiding from what I didn’t want to do…It was very therapeutic…There’s a lot of things I learned about myself.”

Her mother was initially cautious of her writing her memoir.

“My mother kept telling me…‘You’re only in your thirties, what do you mean you’re writing you’re memoirs?’” she said. In the end her family was supportive.

She said people often ask her why, after going through all that trauma, she would want to cover conflicts around the world like in the Middle East, Haiti and Cambodia.

“I never wanted to be surprised by that again,” she said. “I wanted to be aware of the world around me, I wanted to be aware of what was going on, I wanted to know things were happening and I wanted to know the why behind them.”

Moderator Ann Imse also asked Cooper about why women and girls in Africa are so often taken advantage of or abused.

“I think African women are probably the strongest women in the world,” Cooper said. “These women drive the economy, what little economy you have in a lot of these war-torn countries is driven by the market women…It’s hard for me to say why it is that an a relationship between an old man and a 17-year-old who has no prospects, who’s been living in a refuge camp has no food and no anything, no education and somehow is offered a place to sleep with a powerful man and somehow they say that relationship is consensual.”

She also dispelled the hype that the Obama administration is more open than the Bush administration.

“There’s plenty of friction with the Obama administration as well, they’re pretty secretive too. There’s a façade within this administration of openness,” she said. “They put a lot of stuff put up on their Web site but it’s very controlled…They really like to think they can control the message, control what gets out and sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.”

She said covering the White House is rewarding, but exhausting. Reporters on the White House go in shifts with one reporter each week of the month intensively covering the White House for seven days straight.

“You’re lurching from area to area to area,” she said. “When I’m glued to the White House I’m writing about anything so a lot of times I find myself writing about things I have no expertise in…So you end up with a certain knowledge, you become great at cocktail parties…You spend so much more time faking it than you normally do.”

She said covering the White House can often be surreal.

“You really do think once in a while, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this,’” she said.

Despite having been to war-torn and otherwise dangerous countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, one of her most nerve-racking moments was when she interviewed President Obama on Air Force One.

“I was so nervous because it was the president, but also because I knew I had to get a story out of it,” she said.

And she did. During the interview Obama admitted he would be willing to talk to the Taliban.

“I was like yes, yes, yes!” she said.

Cooper said she felt so honored to receive the Lowell Thomas Award, especially since it was from fellow journalists.

“I can’t tell you just how thrilled I am with this,” she said. “Something that comes from you peers I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel.”

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