Q&A with Richard Engel, 124th Commencement Speaker

June 9, 2015, 12:18 p.m.
Richard Engel '96, next week's Commencement speaker, has put his International Relations degree to good use as NBC News' chief foreign correspondent. (Courtesy of Jamie Novogrod)
Richard Engel ’96, next week’s Commencement speaker, has put his International Relations degree to good use as NBC News’ chief foreign correspondent. (Courtesy of Jamie Novogrod)

Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent of NBC News, will be the commencement speaker for the Class of 2015. Engel graduated from Stanford in 1996 with a B.A. in International Relations. He began his career as a foreign correspondent in Egypt and began working for NBC in 2008.

Engel has reported on the Iraq War and Arab Spring extensively and won a 2014 Peabody Award for his work. In recent months, he has covered topics ranging from ISIS to April’s earthquake in Nepal. The Stanford Daily got a chance to speak with Engel last week as he worked on his commencement speech. Drawing from his own experiences on the Farm and in the field, Engel shared his advice to graduating Stanford students as well as budding journalists.


Stanford Daily (TSD): I’d like to start with your speech then. So you just started writing it now?

Richard Engel (RE): No, I’ve been working on it for the past couple of weeks, actually in Nepal a few weeks ago, and during a couple of the down days there toward the end I was working in a little coffee shop in Katmandu. I’m almost finished. I’m on draft number eleven. So, if it’s not good, it’s not from lack of trying. The concepts are the intersection between technology and geopolitics; that’s the overarching theme.

TSD: Is that something you studied at Stanford, or is that just something that’s been coming up in your work so far?

RE: I studied International Relations at Stanford, so I studied Poli Sci effectively and history. But, what I’ve been thinking about, especially as I’ve been watching the revolutions that have been happening, and the revolts that have been happening, and the wars that have been happening in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Ukraine, is that a big factor in all of these…is the advent of social media and the impact it’s having on war and peace. A lot of people think that social media influences how people communicate, how people share their personal experiences, how people share their wedding photos or their pet photos or their interests and hobbies. But, I’m seeing that it also has an impact on world events, issues of war and peace, and that’s what I want to talk about.

TSD: Beyond that, will you be chatting about the impression Stanford left on you and how that has worked itself into your career?

RE: I’ll be trying to, as well, talk about how people should take the ball and run with it, that Stanford is such a prestigious place, it has such an elite reputation, this is an elite segment of American society, and that they now have a responsibility to use that position to not just better themselves, but to try to better the planet that we’re living on. I think it’s the idea of using Stanford as a launching point. You’re there, you’ve graduated, you’ve got the degree, good job, now what are you going to do with it?

TSD: When you were graduating and just getting your degree and coming out of school, did you have a “what am I doing?” moment, or did you know that you wanted to go into journalism and be a foreign correspondent?

RE: No, I really didn’t have angst. I’ve been lucky; I’ve never really suffered from that malady. I knew what I wanted to do. I had a plan, and I had sort of an approach. Here’s what I did: I left Stanford, and I wanted to become a foreign correspondent. I think the first thing you need to do, and this is a piece of advice I would give to anyone, is look at the world that you’re approaching. I was looking at the world: it was 1996, and I wanted to be a foreign journalist. So, I sat back, and I said, “Ok, what does the world look like in 1996? What kinds of issues are going to be coming up?” Frankly — you as a young journalist, I would take heed to what I’m about to say because it impacts you directly if you want to be a journalist — in 1996, I looked the world and said “Ok, the Cold War is over, the Soviet Union has collapsed, there’s really only one remaining super power. The old order of events has been uprooted. What’s going to come next?” I thought the old religious and ethnic tensions in the Middle East were going to re-emerge as a major driving force now that the old systems had collapsed.

It was a gamble. It was a guess, but that’s what I thought was going to be the story of my generation. So, I moved out to the Middle East, and I’ve been living in the Middle East since. It turned out that the Middle East was an amazing place to be if you wanted to watch world events develop and continue to grow and die.

Now, we’re in 2015, and you will be graduating in 2018 if I’m not mistaken, so, what you need to do, and others in your position, is to look at the world, and say, “Ok, what does it look like? What’s coming around the corner that will be defining the world for the next 15, 20 years?” Then, you have to try and position yourself strategically to be there to document it. So, if you think the environment is going to become a major factor in world events — and I actually do think the environment is going to become an enormous factor in world events in coming years, I think urbanization is going to become an enormous factor in the years to come — but you really have to think about it, and others in your position, and of your generation, need to think about it, go off into the woods somewhere, and meditate, and think about what is coming. Because if you can answer that, you’re way ahead of the game.

This is not just for journalists, this is for anybody. If you can figure out what are going to be the defining issues for me in the next 10 to 15 years, then the business entrepreneurs will know where to invest their money and which industries to pursue, and the artists will know what are the salient issues that they should reflect upon and comment on. It will put any graduate in a good position to sit back and think the world strategically that they’re entering, and try to think about where it’s going, and make some guesses, and then pursue them. 

TSD: That’s great advice. So then, you saw that translating into being a foreign correspondent and going abroad. And now that you’ve been doing this for a few decades, what do you think it takes to be a really excellent foreign correspondent?

RE: So, I took this gamble. I looked back at the world and as I was sitting there in my chair at The Farm at graduation, I thought, “Ok, the Middle East is going to be the story of my generation,” and so I moved out to the Middle East, and I had a lot of patience. It’s taken 20 years. A lot of people are willing to take the risk, they’re willing to take chances, but if it doesn’t work out after 3 months, 6 months, they get depressed and throw in the towel. It takes time. It takes accepting that there will be bad days, bad months, bad years, and keep going, stick to your guns. I think to be a successful correspondent or anything else means first the plan, second the patience to see the plan through, and three, the willingness to make sacrifices, the willingness to stick with it even when things aren’t going well. Then, you have to hope your plan is right. If I had thought the story of my generation was going to be Ecuador, then I would have been in a different position. So, you have to hope that you’re right.

TSD: So then picking correctly and picking the Middle East, what has been the most difficult or challenging piece that you’ve had to report on in the past few decades?

RE: I would say Iraq was incredibly difficult because it went on, and on, and on. I remember in Iraq in 2003 there was a hot war going on, it was the invasion phase, and there was an impression — a wrong impression — that the war would be over fairly quickly. And then, when it went into year one, and two, and three, and four, and five, that was hard because you start to think this is endless. We have now entered into an endless conflict. That was difficult.

Recently, the problems that have rising up from the Arab Spring — of Syria, Egypt, and Libya. Both of these, Iraq and the Arab Spring, were incredibly rewarding to cover as a journalist, but also incredibly challenging, because [for Iraq] it was so long, and for [the Arab Spring] it was so immensely complicated.

TSD: I was actually interested reading about your Kobani coverage, about the Kurdish fighters and how you wove in the narrative of these Kurdish fighters. I was wondering what the role of human narrative is in your pieces, when you’re abroad and covering events, besides covering the statistics of war and carnage.

RE: I think you can tell the big story through a small story. You can tell the story of a war through one family, through one woman or group of women. In Kobani, we told the story of the fight against ISIS through that little town, the one little town that refused to give in, and uniquely, this one town where the fighters who were resisting ISIS were predominantly women. Incredibly strong, incredibly brave women. Just before I got on the phone with you, I did a story about how the Iraqi army ran away from Ramadi…The Iraqi army, a huge armed forces that the United States spent upwards of 20 billion dollars to train and equip, ran away. But, this little village in Kobani, women of the village were in the frontline and they were saying no, they were not giving up. I just thought that was so interesting, and poetic even. So, we did the story, and people seem to react well to it. Unfortunately, the main character of the story later died. She was killed not that long after we did the story.

TSD: From what you’ve been able to do so far in your ISIS coverage, what do you think has been successful, and what do you hope you can change or continue to do as you continue to cover this conflict?

RE: I think people think about [ISIS] tactically too much. I watch TV and watch the military analysts — I was just watching some a few minutes ago — and they talk about ISIS like it’s a problem that needs to be addressed very mechanically. We need more of this kind of weapon, we need more of this kind of surveillance, we need to do more of this specific thing, and I think the problem is bigger than just the tactics that are being employed. The problem is about a fundamental rearrangement of the Middle East that is going on. The current, modern Middle East was born after World War I. The Great Powers, Britain and France primarily, carved up the Middle East into little states. Orders that were opposed were always artificial. And now, because of changes in technology, changes in communications, the flow of weapons, just the evolution of modern political science, those nation states, those artificial boarders, are breaking down, disintegrating. We’re seeing more of the much older issues that were there, that were underneath, emerging to the surface. The ethnic tensions, the ethnic rivalries. Think of it like a house, and all the wallpaper and furnishings are now starting to crumble away, and you’re seeing the foundations, you’re seeing the older structure that is now starting to shine through as this artificial covering is fading away. I think that’s a fundamental issue that’s happening in the Middle East right now, globally even, in other parts of the Middle East, that is significant, and I think that’s part of the ISIS story.

TSD: What’s your next big story that you’ll be working on?

RE: We have a story coming up…It’ll air right after the commencement. It’s an hour-long special on Nepal, and it’ll focus on Mt. Everest. We went up to Mt. Everest base camp, which is the base camp [reached] before anyone tries to make an attempt to summit the mighty mountain. It’s at 17, 598 feet, and there was an avalanche there while the earthquake took place that devastated parts of Nepal. We went to base camp and spoke to people who survived the avalanche to tell the story of what happened in this base camp when the mountain started falling down, and the ice started raining down.

TSD: Could you tell me a bit about the writing and editing process, and what you exactly do in that?

RE: I work with a team, an excellent team. I don’t do everything by myself. I’m the one you see in front of the camera, but it doesn’t mean I do all of the work. I have a fantastic producer, his name is Ben Plesser; he’ll actually be coming out to Stanford with me, that’s how close we are, and we travel all the time. I have a cameraman named Randy Brown, and I have another member of the team, a producer, his name is Jamie Novelgrod. We travel together like a little band, a rock band. We go from place to place, and it’s like a rock band that just gets the worst gigs in the world: Somalia, Bagdad. Satan is our band manager. We just go from place to place, doing our thing, but it’s always the same people. We report stories together, we write them together, and then we find them and move onto the next one together.

TSD: I was curious about the article you published last month about your investigation into your kidnappers in 2012 and realizing they were not, in fact, Shia, that they were Sunni. Could you tell me a bit more about that investigation?

RE: That was a huge surprise. For two and a half years, I had thought one thing…Then we got a tip from another news organization that said the people who held you might not have been who you think they were. So, we started looking, and we started investigating and reexamining…opening these doors which we had closed — and quite frankly, happily closed — two and a half years ago to see where they might lead. It took us a month of going back and trying to piece this all together, which was really difficult because a lot of the people involved were dead or couldn’t be trusted, [or] had competing loyalties. After investigating and reinvestigating it, we came out with the updated story saying they were not who we thought they were, they were a different group pretending to be who were thought they were. So we updated the story; it was interesting. Brought back a lot of memories.

TSD: I’m sure that was extremely challenging. I wanted to ask about your Vanity Fair article [about your kidnapping], because I read that and thought it was an incredible narrative. What kind of work goes into that versus creating a segment for NBC?

RE: What was different about that is the Vanity Fair piece was totally first person. It was what I saw, and it was effectively a piece that was set in my mind. It was what I was thinking — because by the way, I was blindfolded much of the time — what I was thinking in the room with the kidnappers. In the article, you trace my, sometimes very frantic, train of consciousness as it is going through a terrible experience. That’s not the kind of thing you can effectively do on television. Television is about pictures, television is about other people’s stories. I’m happy everyday to be telling other people’s stories. The story on Everest, for example, has nothing to do with us. We were just there and were documenting their experiences and their trials and tribulations on this mountain. That article was more of a thought piece, where you can enter and follow along with what I was thinking as I went through and others on my team went through a very traumatic event. So, it was a completely different kind of exercise.

TSD: What would be your dream event or piece to cover, write about, or make a segment for?

RE: It wouldn’t be war. It would be something peaceful. I long for the day when I can cover more peaceful things. I cover war not because I like it; I cover war because it’s interesting, because it’s revealing. You know the atom smasher at the Stanford linear accelerator? They take particles, and they smash them into each other so that you can learn more about the component parts. From those interactions, you can learn more about the origins of the universe and space and time — I’m speaking out of qualification because I’ve never actually been there or smashed atoms, this is not my thing — but I get the idea that you’re smashing things together in order to find a revealing moment, right? War is very similar: you’re smashing societies together. When you watch them consistently, you can learn a great deal about the societies. But I long for the day when I don’t have to cover so much conflict. But I don’t think that day is coming anytime soon.


Contact Rebecca Aydin at raydin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Rebecca Aydin, a writer for the University/Local beat and a senior hailing from NYC, is pursuing a major in English and a minor in Psychology. She has written for the Chicago Tribune and Worldcrunch, a digital news magazine based in Paris. On campus, she is the editor-in-chief of MINT style and culture magazine. This is her fourth year writing for The Stanford Daily. Contact her at raydin ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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