Louisville native Jeff Newton is an associate producer at “60 Minutes” who last year won a prestigious Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast and digital news.
Newton won the DuPont Award as producer of “A Relentless Enemy,” the September 2010 segment about a U.S. military outpost on the remote border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Surprise attacks.
Young men losing a leg, or a life.
A hardened officer choking up as he talked about the 21-year-old who stepped on a land mine.
“I’m a failure,” said the base commander, Capt. John Hintz, “because I didn’t bring him home.”
“Everybody knows that in war, you lose people,” Hintz told “60 Minutes,” as the camera closed in on his tear-filled eyes and catchy voice. “But you’re not supposed to lose your people.”
At the awards ceremony in New York, Newton likely would have thanked his reporter, Lara Logan, and his team of writers, editors, associates, sound engineer, cameramen and other producers.
He probably wouldn’t have thanked Betty Miles, his English teacher at Atherton High School.
But when he was in Louisville recently, to accept yet another honor – induction into the Atherton High School Hall of Fame – he did take the opportunity to honor his Louisville roots, acknowledging Miles and connecting the dots for me on how a mediocre student who only lived for the next hockey or football game becomes an accomplished, award-winning journalist.
If you’ve ever wondered how some of the adults you know chose journalism as a career path – over the more lucrative legal or medical or banking professions, or even over a more mainstream career as an accountant or computer technician or salesperson or auto mechanic – Newton’s story is instructive.
“Like so many other kids, sports was my life,” he told me during an extensive telephone conversation we had earlier this month. “I only thought about the next game. I didn’t care about school. I didn’t love math. Science didn’t turn me on. Sports defined my self-worth for me. It was ‘my job.’ ”
Then he discovered The Atherton Aerial. “I started to do some writing and found I enjoyed the process of talking to people and telling their stories.”
It also, Newtown said, gave him some self-worth and a view of what his life could be beyond playground sports. And he began to absorb, in his new outlook, the things he’d been learning in Miles’ classroom. But that was to coalesce a bit later in his life.
After high school came Eastern Kentucky University – more journalism and more introspection. “I was always sort of antsy in the classroom, but when I began working at The Eastern Progress, I found a home. I didn’t have to be desk-bound, I didn’t have to do the same thing over and over. As a reporter, I could challenge authority. In fact, I was supposed to challenge authority!”
Newspaper reporting was also competitive – fighting for an interview, figuring out how to get a scoop, making people tell you things they didn’t think they were going to tell you.
“Sports had given me a competitive edge. Journalism, too, was about fighting and winning – intellectual winning. It’s a great outlet for rebellious kids who have a lot of energy.”
Newton also started hanging out in the college library, and found out, “smart kids were fun, they were interesting, they knew stuff! It was okay to be intellectual.”
During college summers, Newton honed his craft with internships at The Citizen Voice & Times in Irvine (Estill County, Kentucky) and The Richmond Register in Richmond., Kentucky. As a senior, he was editor of The Progress. After graduation, he did what graduates in all professions used to do – he took a job. His path was the traditional, straight career path; writer becomes editor becomes executive.
His path was about to veer.
“I was working for U, The National College Magazine, and doing fine, being promoted, on an editing track, but getting bored sitting behind a desk.”
The magazine did a feature on a group of recent graduates from University of California, Santa Barbara, who’d gone to Eastern Europe and started a weekly newspaper for American tourists who were visiting Prague.
“The Berlin Wall had just fallen, Communism was tumbling, all these Iron Curtain countries were in flux,” recalled Newton. “I realized I needed to be there, seeing the world change, being a part of that.”
So he headed for Prague and took a job with the newspaper. In 1992, he was sent to Bosnia, where Bosnians, Serbians and Croatians – Muslims, Catholics and Greek Orthodox – were beginning to fight over the crumbs left by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia:
You learn, or you die. You learn how to travel safely, how to communicate with people who don’t speak your language, how to assess risk, how to ask for advice and pay attention to experienced journalists, how to evaluate your translators, even know which cars it’s okay to travel in. Every move you made, every town you went into, every person you talked to was a constant challenge to make the right choices and stay alive.
But it was also exciting, and a bit familiar, like playing the sports that had preoccupied his youth.
“Covering wars is a lot like sports,” Newton said. “Athletes learn to use their competitive instincts, to be aware and concentrate. I found I could concentrate with bullets flying around me.
“You can’t train your brain to think like that unless you’ve played sports, where you shut out everything but the immediate objective.”
And as he prowled these towns, trying to estimate who was his friend and who might throw him in jail or put a bullet in his forehead, his mind wandered back to high school English.
“It was like sitting in Betty Miles’ class, learning about man versus man and man versus nature. We always thought of that in literary terms, now I was seeing it in actuality. I got hooked on war reporting. It was the fundamental human condition.
“After that, I found it difficult reporting on anything else.”
But it ground him down, too. So after a year and a half, Newton left Bosnia and came home to The Elizabethtown News-Enterprise, covering Fort Knox.
“I was working my way up the ladder, like minor league baseball, hoping for a call-up one day from The New York Times or Washington Post.”
In 1996, he moved from Class A to Class AA at The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, covering Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune and Pope Air Force Base, and going abroad for international stories a couple times a year.
Then came 9/11, the U.S. went into Afghanistan and Newton got a freelance contract to cover the war for Reuters. He also got some advice from a veteran journalist: Get out of newspapers, they’re folding. Get out of print journalism entirely.
“So I bought a camera, started shooting videos and selling them as packages to the TV networks.” He also learned a new and different way of telling a story.
On the first anniversary of 9/11, “all the reporters were calling the public relations officers at Bagram Air Base to see what events were going on.” They were told there would be ceremonies, flag-raisings and speeches, all to show the world how successfully we were suppressing the Taliban – what Newton calls “monkey news.”
“I was out on the eastern border of Afghanistan in a firefight between U.S. Special Forces and the Taliban.” Taliban suppressed? Not so much!
There was, he recalls, an NBC crew there as well, but when the fighting started they were all trapped in the bathrooms at Chapman Air Base and he had the story to himself.
“Back at Bagram, I found myself in a bidding war. All the networks wanted my footage. I ended up selling it to Lara Logan and CBS for $3,500 – roughly what I made a month from Reuters. I thought, ‘It is time to get out of print. I can be good at this.’
“I was just an okay photographer, but the quality was acceptable. And I found I’d become good at working the system, navigating the terrain, getting where I wanted to get, getting exclusive access to people and information.”
In 2002, Logan was hired to work at “60 Minutes II” – the mid-week, prime-time version of the Sunday magazine show – and asked Newton to come work with her. In 2004, Dan Rather’s misreporting of the George W. Bush/National Guard rumor spelled the demise of “60 Minutes II” and Logan and Newton were among those promoted to Sunday night.
The DuPont Award could be the capstone of any journalist’s career, but Newton has also won Emmys, the Edward R. Murrow Award from the Radio & Television News Directors Association and The David Kaplan Award for overseas war reporting from the Overseas Press Club of America.
And now the Atherton Hall of Fame, in a ceremony that also inducted:
■ Garland Allen (class of 1953), “widely recognized as a leading authority on genetics, eugenics and evolution, and currently the professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis”;
■ Bonnie Blake (1970), a former actress and now “one of only two female camera operators in Los Angeles”;
■ Fred Joseph (1961), formerly the Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney, Assistant Counsel for the Committee on Judiciary at the U.S. House of Representatives and law clerk for the Office of General Counsel for the Executive Office of the President;
■ Tom Miller (1972), commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Revenue;
■ Harry Mobley (1971), former leader of Atherton’s state soccer league champion and now chairman of the Department of Biology at the University of Michigan;
■ John Schenkenfelder (1970), former arbitrator for FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), the regulatory organization of the U.S. securities industry – and the inventor of the games Acrue and Rip Tag;
■ Lewis Fred Schloemer (1968), an expert on emotionally and developmentally challenged youth, human sexuality issues, people with AIDS/HIV and people struggling with family relationships and addictions, and a member of task forces formed by Kentucky Gov. Martha Lane Collins on prison overcrowding and Sec. Grady Stumbo on the needs of the chronically mentally ill;
■ Kenneth Walker (1985), Atherton’s football and track coach and a 23-year member of the U.S. Army;
■ Hon. Tom Wine (1973), formerly the prosecutor in the Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney’s Office and the Kentucky Office of the Attorney General; and
■ Stuart Yudofsky (1962), formerly professor and chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at Baylor University, chairman of the American Psychiatric Association’s Task Force on Traumatic Brain Injury, past president of the American Neuropsychiatric Association and founding editor and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences.
Fast company for the indifferent student.
“I’d been a poor student,” said Newton (class of 1987) about his Louisville boyhood. “I realized I needed to start focusing. I didn’t want to be a screw-up. It’s easy to be a screw-up when you’re 18 or 19, unless you focus.
“I also realized sports wasn’t something I’d be doing professionally, but this – this writing, this reporting – was something I could do, and do well.
“It gave me some academic self-worth.”