I am honored to have Jim Bittermann, senior foreign correspondent for CNN as my Parisian of the Month. Please enjoy this fascinating and revealing interview as much as I did.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
Joliet, Illinois, but I grew up (from age 2) in Waukegan, Illinois…about 40 miles north of Chicago and 40 miles south of Milwaukee.
Did you go to journalism school and what was your first job in journalism?
I started out in electrical engineering (as my father wanted!) but hit a brick wall with calculus. I started in journalism at the Waukegan News Sun (owned at that point by Author Ward Just's family) in my senior year in high school …1965…so next year will mark my 50th year in journalism. (Prior to that I had been a newspaper boy and nighttime switchboard operator at the News-Sun). I also began working part time late in my freshman year at Bradley University at WMBD-TV (Peoria, Illinois)
What was the transition from print news to broadcasting like?
Easy, the newspaper had a radio station (WKRS) so in between my sophomore and junior year in university (by that time I had transferred to Southern Illinois University, Carbondale Illinois) I was working more for the radio station than the newspaper. I also worked part time during my junior and senior years at WCIL radio in Carbondale and WJPF radio in Herrin, Illinois. When I graduated, I was lucky enough to land a job with WTMJ in Milwaukee, which is a radio-TV combination. I started out in radio and writing for TV…but within about three months I was reporting on TV and by the end of the first year was anchoring the weekend news.
What was your first European assignment?
From 1970 to 1975 I worked at TV operations in Pittsburgh and Cleveland and then went to the CBC in Canada. There the magazine program for which I worked sent me to Germany and Italy for reports on the Red Brigades and Baader Meinhoff terrorists. In 1978, NBC asked me if I wanted to take a job overseas…Johannesburg, Tokyo or Rome. I picked Rome and arrived one month before Pope Paul VI died. It was the year of the three popes…Paul the VI, John Paul I and John Paul II so I was on the air constantly with Vatican stories as well as the beginnings of the Iranian revolution and the civil war in Lebanon. For a foreign correspondent, it was a great launch to career. In 1980 I moved to Paris and have been here ever since, reporting for NBC, ABC and CNN.
Are there differences in the way Europeans report news and the U.S.?
Definitely. For one thing the laws, rules and regulations are very different. France has very strict privacy and libel laws for instance, and in France, Britain and other countries there is no Freedom of Information Act. Access to information is in many instances restricted. My first job back at the Waukegan News Sun was to go to the police station every morning to go through the police reports looking for tidbits…that kind of access is unthinkable in France.
How did the job at CNN come to you?
It was kind of a response to mutual need. After my late wife and longtime producer Pat Thompson and I left ABC in 1996, she wanted to start a production company and someone had to pay the rent while she got it up and running. So I went to CNN to see if they needed someone in Paris. They did. And they have thankfully kept renewing my contract ever since!
What are some of the stories that most personally touched you?
I guess all journalists are witness to a lot of sad, ecstatic and moving moments. I think, like many of my colleagues, that the most memorable stories are those where you have contributed to making a tiny bit of difference. For me I suppose one of those was the famine and civil war in the Sudan. It was heart breaking to witness people dying from starvation in the filth and dust at the rate of 100 per day. I prepared a series of reports for NBC, which later won an Emmy. But more important personally was that months later I found out from a friend in the state department that my reports led directly to a change in the U.S. AID policy in the Sudan.
What are some of the stories and interviews that totally surprised you?
The best part of the journalism business is that it is constantly surprising. Stories like the Concorde crash and the death of Princess Diana were great illustrations of how lives can turn on a dime—not only of the victims, but of those who cover their stories. Probably the most surprising interview (and I show this to my journalism students) was one that never got on the air. I had been dispatched to interview Princess Margaret of Great Britain about Olympics problems (she was on the International Olympic Committee at the time), about the foibles and follies of the Royal family, etc. She only wanted to talk about her charities. But I persistently continued asking my questions…and after a few minutes of her saying "I am NOT going to talk about that." she gave me an icy stare and said "Which bit of the word 'No' do you not understand?" That concluded the interview!
You teach journalism at The American University of Paris. What are some of the important pointers you tell your students who are currently going into journalism, as I guess the television journalism field is different today than when you started.
It is constantly changing, so the most important priority for a young journalist is to remain flexible and aware of all the changes that are taking place…how best to use social media for example…to use, or not use, video…when to get involved and not get involved in the story telling. After that, I think young people these days have got to have an entrepreneurial spirit. There may not be one employer who can establish your brand identity the way NBC, ABC and CNN did mine. So you have to make your own brand. It is a good thing, by the way, to take a few business, accounting and law survey courses…because an independent journalist will not have the resources to hire accountants and lawyers.
You won The French Legion of Honor in 2009. What was that experience like?
Wonderful. A great honor. Then Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made a wonderfully generous speech…and in return, I demonstrated to the assembled crowd that I have not lost my American accent!
What are some of the most interesting stories you covered in France?
It would be easier to list the uninteresting ones! I find this country constantly fascinating…just when you think you have it figured out, something new and surprising happens. It has been a privilege to witness the nation change over the years…shedding but at the same time maintaining tradition, watching political masters like Francois Mitterrand at work, being part of the endless debate here about how to refine and polish life to make it better. Recent years have not been so kind to the French, socially, economically or politically. And it is, from a journalist's perspective, equally interesting to watch the country try to deal with it.
What do you prefer about Paris?
On the coldest, rainiest, cloudiest, most miserable dark day…it remains a joy to walk down the street!
New! Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes
I am happy to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Cooking Classes. Come take an ethnic culinary journey with me and chef and caterer Charlotte Puckette, co-author of the bestseller The Ethnic Paris Cookbook (with Olivia Kiang-Snaije). First we will shop at a Paris green-market for the freshest ingredients and then return to Charlotte's professional kitchen near the Eiffel Tower to cook a three-course lunch. After, we will indulge in the delicious feast we prepared along with hand-selected wines.
Cost: 185 euros per person (about $240)
Time: 9:30AM- 2PM (approximately 4 1/2 hours)
Location: We will meet by a metro station close to the market
Class days: Tuesday,Wednesday, Thursday,Friday, Saturday, and Sunday
Minimum of 2 students, maximum 6 students.
Click here to sign up for the next class or for more info.
I am pleased as punch to announce the launch of Eye Prefer Paris Tours, which are 3-hour walking tours I will personally be leading. The Eye Prefer Paris Tour includes many of the places I have written about such as small museums & galleries, restaurants, cafes & food markets, secret addresses, fashion & home boutiques, parks, and much more.
Tours cost 210 euros for up to 3 people, and 70 euros for each additional person. I look forward to meeting you on my tours and it will be my pleasure and delight to show you my insiders Paris.
Check it out at www.eyepreferparistours.com
Click here to watch a video of our famous Marais tour