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Former CNN anchor back on the air, in the classroom


September 05, 2008
Aaron Brown may be back on television, but his heart is still in the classroom.

The former CNN anchor returned to the airwaves this year as host of Wide Angle, a weekly PBS series of documentaries covering little-reported stories happening throughout the world. He tapes the show during the summer and returns to teaching at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication during the school year.

“PBS feels like a natural home to me,” Brown says. “There’s also something quite magical about walking into the classroom and seeing 20 faces staring back at you.”

Brown, who made his mark in broadcast history when he tirelessly covered the 9/11 attacks, is now responsible for a series of documentaries that examine global issues such as the war in Darfur and Japan’s emerging military.

“I’ve enjoyed working in front of a PBS audience. They are more demanding,” he says. “They get that good journalism matters.”

Making an international story interesting is a process of good storytelling and relevance, he adds. Covering the story of two million Iraqi refugees is something that has obvious implications in this country, considering that the United States took in 450 Iraqi refugees last year, while Sweden took in 40,000.

“These are two million people who are hopeless and without homes,” he says.

In the classroom, Brown examines pivotal moments in television news history from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 when “television news was born” to coverage of the Vietnam war.

He said he tries to cover overarching themes of how TV changes events, how events change TV and how technology changes both.

“Because the fall class will be right in the guts of the presidential campaign, we’ll probably spend more time on TV and politics,” he says.

Brown also makes a point of engaging each student and finding out what they want to get out of the class.

“It matters a great deal to me that I know every young man and women in the class, that I know how they think, what drives them and where they want to go,” he says. “Getting to know them helps me to teach them.”

Samuel Burke works with Brown as his teaching assistant.

“Aaron runs his classroom much in the way someone would anchor a newscast or run a newsroom. In other words, he breaks the college professor mold,” Burke says. “Aaron relies heavily on video content and uses that as a launching pad to engage the class and begin the discussions. Aaron knows all of the students’ names by the second week, and he does that because the thing he values most in the class is participation.”

Burke has parlayed working with Brown into a stint at CNN.

“Nothing could have prepared me for that more than working with Aaron last semester. The classroom preparation is almost identical to how a newsroom assembles a newscast,” Burke says.

Brown says he draws heavily on his 30 years of television experience to teach his students.

“My sense is everything I’ve done in my life prepared me for what I do at the university. It gave me an enormous set of experiences,” he says.

Brown tells his students that technology and media outlets are changing so fast it’s not easy to predict how news will be delivered in the years to come. But one thing never changes: the time-honored tradition of telling a good story.

“The essential job of reporting will be unchanged. Regardless of the medium, they’re going to need to find good stories with good characters that are well reported. That’s the nature of storytelling,” he says.

Students will be entering a market that is suffering from a downturn in advertising – and that affects budget and pay. But most journalists aren’t in it for the money, Brown says. They like reporting and watching history unfold from a front-row seat.

“You figuratively and literally get the best seat in the house,” he says.

Brown has had that seat for many years. He has covered disasters, presidents and wars. Among the most memorable stories he has covered were watching a democracy unfold in South Africa, traveling to the Middle East to report on Iraqi refugees with his daughter and updating the nation during and after the 9/11 attacks.

“People will always associate me with 9/11,” he says. “It’s a great honor to be one of the people to tell the most important story of our lives.”

Lauren Proper, who took Brown’s class during the spring 2008 semester, recalls learning about Brown’s role that pivotal day.

“It was really emotional for everyone, but most of all Aaron. He would stop the tapes and explain to us what was going on in his head, what was happening and how everyone was dealing with piecing together the information. It was cathartic,” Proper said.

Brown considers it an honor to teach some of the brightest students in journalism and hold them to the highest standards.

“I tell my students every day: “Go be great. Good doesn’t mean anything. Anyone can be good.”