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CNN exec discusses life, book, CNN

By Alex Jacobi
On December 1, 2011

On Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, at 7:30 p.m. in Watkins Auditorium, CNN Executive Vice President Mark Whitaker spoke to UTM students through the UTM Honors Program about his recent book, My Long Trip Home, a story of his family and upbringing.

"We worked through a speaker's agency, Greater Talent Network, to secure the speaking engagement. We knew we wanted a big name speaker, that he needed to be able to relate strongly to issues relevant to the UTM community, and yet would be affordable.

Mr. Whitaker fit all those criteria. I would also like to add that Student Affairs is financially supporting his visit.  It is yet another example of Honors Programs partnering with other units on campus to ensure that the Academic Speaker series has something for everyone," said Lionel Crews, Honors Director.

To begin the program, UTM Athletics Director Phil Dane presented the Beth Malone award to junior communications major Hannah Stewart.

Whitaker was introduced and he began by reading the first few pages of his book. The book began by telling the story of his parents and how they met as an interracial couple in the 1950s. He then went on to explain how his parents divorced when he was six years old, and his happiness quickly dissipated. His father disappeared from his life and was an alcoholic. He explained the full extent of the struggled relationship between him and his father, and how his father eventually passed away.

A year after his father died, to the day and hour, Whitaker decided to write his book. He approached it like he would one of his reporter stories, and asked people who knew his father questions. For the next year, he worked on it and finally showed it to a publisher who encouraged him to include his mother's story.

Through writing the book, Whitaker said that he had to face the negative feelings he had towards his father.

"People say ‘To understand is to forgive.' I found that I had to forgive before I could understand," Whitaker said.

Whitaker is now with CNN and has been there a year, doing what he loves—journalism.

"I fell in love with journalism in college. I fell in love with the process of it, but also the people. …I realized that there were things

about this job that appealed to me that were in my childhood. I grew up around books and ideas and discussion.

…[And] I liked the idea of doing a career where I had something to show for it everyday," Whitaker said.

Whitaker said journalism goes deeper than just informing people.

"I think it [journalism] goes beyond just telling people about the news. I think people are better equipped when they have more information. They're better equipped to be citizens and voters; they're better equipped to manage their finances; they're better equipped to deal with a lot of confusing realities of today. Information can't necessarily set you free, but I think it can empower you. So, I think that's what good journalists do, try to give people as much reliable information as they can to equip them to have more control over their own lives," Whitaker said.

Also, Whitaker delved into beliefs and how that affects both his own work and the work of others.

"Another big element in my book is religion. I think it is an undercover area in media. … The people who are the most effective are the people who can reflect their personal beliefs in their career," Whitaker said.

After Whitaker finished speaking, the floor was open for questions, where audience members asked him questions about news, politics, and CNN.

When asked about the purpose of writing his book, Whitaker expressed the importance of story.

"I think a good story is a good story. Stories about people and about family, if they're unique enough but also relatable enough, can speak to a lot of people. … One of the things people have asked or commented on is that I came from such a difficult background, and yet, things have turned out well for me; I managed to have a good career and family. I wanted to give people who have gone through things like that a sense that things can actually turn out alright," Whitaker said.


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