Saturday, October 1, 2022

‘It Was Total Chaos.’ How Are You Today, Rebecca Wright… On Being A Journalist In Trump’s America & Her Mental Health ‘Game Changer’

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In our story series ‘How Are You Today?’, we have a meandering, mental-health focused chat with some of our most well-known New Zealanders. Check out previous chats with people like Hayley HoltRoseanne Liang and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Today, we chat to Rebecca Wright.

Rebecca has been one of the most familiar faces on our nightly news programmes for many, many years and now she’s the host of Newshub Live at 8pm on eden. Rebecca talks to Capsule about the ‘chaos’ of being the US correspondent in Trump’s America, how to balance big career moves with family life and why it’s so important to be objective both in news and in life.

Hi Rebecca, how are you today?
I’m really good today – I’m feeling happy and relaxed; the show has just slotted into place about three minutes ago, which is always a nice feeling. I always try and make Thursday my day where I take a little breath and so I went for a massage this morning. That’s always a great way to start the day.

I love this – I feel like massage as a tool for wellbeing isn’t talked about enough.
It became necessary for me as a way to switch off when I was working in the US. I would be going into the field for a week at a time and I would be up all night and then filming during the day, so it was really exhausting work – even though I really enjoyed the challenge – but I would get back to New York and I would need to find a way to totally switch off. There was a Chinese massage place on the corner of my block and I started becoming a regular there. Then I found that when I let myself totally switch off and gave myself that time, I had some of my best ideas. It really allowed my creativity to come back.

One of the good parts of being a journalist is that every day is different and you never know what’s going to happen but the flip side of that is that it does feel like you’re permanently in chaos.
Yes, yes, yes. And there’s also pressure in our job, right? A pressure to be following the news, to be getting the stories; there’s time pressure, we have deadlines, we have a deadline at 8pm every night and I kind of love that. It’s highly motivating. But it is also necessary to carve out times where you allow yourself not to feel that pressure. Because otherwise it’s not a very fun life. I love my job, but I’m not my job. So, making that separation is really important.

So, you were the US correspondent for New Zealand from 2017 to 2020, is that right?
Yes, that’s right.

Well, that’s an insane time to be in America.
[Laughs] Very, very mad. None of us knew what that time was going to be like in America: the politics, Trump’s presidency, the #MeToo movement had a spike around that time… I had no idea that that’s what it was going to be like when I got there and maybe that’s a good thing, because naivety can sometimes be a good thing! But it also taught me an important thing because I was just one person there and I was working remotely, in so many different places that I didn’t have that collegiality that I have in a newsroom here. But you find your networks, you find your support systems and there are always other journalists in the field with you… so by the end, when I left, I’d got my rhythm a little bit better and was able to manage it a whole lot more.

“It was completely mad. Sometimes I look back and I think “When was that? When did that happen?”

But it was mad. It was completely mad. Sometimes I look back and I think “When was that? When did that happen? Where was that place?” It’s all a blur. This is a weird memory but I can remember this waffle place we stopped at, one time, and it was like a scene from a movie – and I still have no idea where that was. It could have been Washington DC, it could have been Ohio. It’s all a blur.

But god, it was a great time to be there. I learned so much, It felt like cramming for an exam, every day. So many issues came up; the Supreme Court, abortion law, immigration… then there would be a natural disaster. Things would pass so quickly that it was total chaos.

So when in 2020 did you move back to NZ?
Early on… after [Trump’s] first impeachment… also, can I just say, I learned so much about the American political process which was brilliant – I studied politics – just because of the number of things that were happening, the amount of investigations he was subject to. But I moved back at the end of January 2020 and – again, couldn’t have known it then – that was a really great time to have returned to New Zealand.

There were a couple of cases of Covid-19 in LA – and we were flying through LA, so I was aware of ‘this thing called Coronavirus’. I wouldn’t have wanted to put myself through that two years in New York – trying to work remotely. I have a six-year-old daughter; there was no school there for 18 months, there was no childcare for nine months. It would have been a disaster, personally. That’s a lot to cope with.

When it came to saying yes to that big job in New York, saying yes to this role in Newshub Live at 8pm, how do you balance the excitement of a big opportunity with the balance of your family life? How do you not get overwhelmed?
I’m sure that it’s something that lots of people have to deal with; for me… you have to do what’s right for you and I have a really strong self-belief that I can do hard things and that I can do them in a way that’s kind to myself and also to my family. And that’s personal growth, for me, and it’s vital. That is the stuff of life. For me, personally – if I’m not growing, my feet start to get a little itchy and so I’m always looking for opportunities for growth. Like moving my one-year-old to New York and knowing that it would require travelling a lot but you always find a way.

I have a really strong self-belief that I can do hard things and that I can do them in a way that’s kind to myself

And mostly it’s about setting yourself up – for me personally – with great support. I’m lucky to have that here – I have grandparents I can call on; I have an amazing nanny who is a wonderful part of our family. And also, you have to try and make it work but also, if it’s not working – that’s okay too. Things might not work out and that’s okay. A fear of failure shouldn’t stop you from giving it a go. You can’t let everything ride on one opportunity or one piece of your life.

When you were in the US, you talked about the importance of interviewing a wide range of people – like, we may not agree with Trump voters but it’s important to try and understand where they’re coming from. Why is it important to be objective and show all the opinions?
I think it’s vital not just in journalism but it’s vital in life. I interviewed Madeleine Albright, who was just a genius and an icon, and I asked her ‘what have the democrats learned from the last election? How are you reaching out to those people?’ Because it seemed really clear to me that there’s a huge divide and so what’s being done to build bridges across it. and she fudged it – elegantly – but [her answer] was sort of like ‘nothing,’ and it was surprising, because we’re all human, at the end of the day, and they’re just opinions – we don’t have to hold onto them so forcefully.

Being open-minded, non-judgemental and being able to listen to other people, that’s essentially what my job is. I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who I’ve interviewed, or done a story on, who I haven’t been able to relate to, in some way. I don’t have the answers – I’m not perfect, and I don’t expect perfection in other people. Being able to listen, while holding your own opinion respectfully, that’s everything to me. There are exceptions – people do heinous things all the time; mass shootings, things like that are impossible to understand. But when it comes to how we live our lives and the things that we discuss, then it’s absolutely not only my job to seek out those voices but to let other people hear them.

You covered the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017. How was it covering an event – a crime scene – like that?
it’s really hard to explain because when you’re there, there’s a lot of process around it. Like you’re there and when you look around, you see the windows that have been smashed out and there’s shoes in the street and you can see the aftermath, but there’s also lots of cops, there are press conferences happening, there are hundreds of journalists. For me it brought home, for the first time, America’s toxic gun problem; I lived in New York and New York is typically safer in terms of guns. So that was a real eye opener.

We get to go along and become part of someone’s lives, usually at the most devastating point of someone’s life, right?

But the thing that stands out for me is that the whole place was on edge – it was empty, but even though it was a town and a place in shock, and you felt that everywhere, there’s a huge outpouring of emotion after that from the people there. And that’s a very empowering thing to see – the human response is always very profound to see. And that’s really helpful when you’re reporting on such devastating events. There’s a strange solidarity that comes out in those times.

It’s one of the things that I love most about this job – we get to go along and become part of someone’s lives, usually at the most devastating point of someone’s life, right? Like if I’m turning up on your doorstep, something’s gone really wrong for you, probably. But when you are able to walk alongside people in those moments, it’s a real – and I hate this word – but it’s a real privilege. And if you’re not moved by people’s stories, and you don’t develop that relationship with them, then I don’t think you’re doing the job right.

How have you found the switch from being on the ground to the presenting role you now have with Newshub Live at 8pm?
The transition from reporting to presenting is like a whole new performance thing, it’s like ‘oh, I’m live for a full programme and when the lights go on, it’s just me standing there.’ I’m no longer the cog in the system, I’m the wheel! And that has been really interesting for me, in terms of having to prepare and build up rituals around the show, like the timings of when I do things.

I do some breathing exercises beforehand, just to get my body into a good state. I have a yoga app – we all have apps now, don’t we? We never leave our homes; we just get an app – and this app did Kundalini yoga and breathing. It’s a little guided mediation, I used to do it for half an hour back in New York, when I had time and when I was trying to be really good and holistic. And I started it again because it’s really good for helping calm down the noise in my brain and calming down my nervous system well. So, I often try to do a 20-minute breathing exercise in the morning and then I do a couple of minutes before I go into the studio. And it really works! It’s a game-changer. I love it when I find something new like that, that can just help in those moments.

Rebecca Wright presents for Newshub Live at 8pm on eden

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