Kitty Pilgrim worked as a CNN correspondent and news anchor for 24 years before leaving the network in 2010. As a New York City-based reporter her normal beat included politics and economics but her assignments also have taken her around the world. Pilgrim anchored her own CNN morning show, “Early Edition,” in 1998-1999 and was anchor for prime-time broadcasts at CNN from 2001-2010. Pilgrim is the recipient of an Overseas Press Club Award, a Peabody Award, an Emmy and a New York Society of Black Journalists Award. She is a member of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, and is a member of The Explorer’s Club of New York. She is the author of two novels, “The Explorer’s Club” (2011) and “The Stolen Chalice” (2012), and is at work on her third.
You’ve handled multiple career roles over several decades. Why do you think you’ve succeeded?
I’ve never done anything I wasn’t really interested in. I think that’s a good rule. If I’m not interested, it’s hard for me to do well. So even though people will advise you about what field you should be in or what career you should pursue, if you’re not interested in that, I don’t think you’ll succeed.
I’ve always done things that matched my skillset and interests. And then it doesn’t feel like work. You don’t wake up and think, “Ugh. I have to go to work.” That’s the secret.
Is it a secret you share with young people seeking advice?
Absolutely. I have two sons: one 25 and one 24. While other parents were doing massive amounts of work about where to position their children in life, I always putting things in their hands and asking, “Do you like it?” Now they both do something they adore and I think that will let you at least be happy in life. It doesn’t mean you’ll be a multimillionaire but to get up every day and do something you enjoy is important.
In her book “Stiletto Network,” Pamela Ryckman quotes you as saying, “I can tell immediately who’s going to succeed and who’s going to fail.” What do the failures have in common that you see?
In the CNN newsroom, we had thousands of people come through. Some were pursuing careers; some were just trying it on for size. You can tell who will succeed by the energy they put in their efforts. Some had ulterior motives. Some people would ask, “How can I get on television?” And my answer was that you’d have to really want to be a reporter and write a story. Getting on TV shouldn’t be your goal.
If someone has energy that they put into all they do, you can see that they’ll succeed. You could look and see who was going to make it and who was not. It was clear.
Was that true for both women and men?
In my early days at CNN, women were just starting to move into certain areas of news and men still assumed they would be in responsible positions and would get the lead roles. That assumption gave them a bit of arrogance. As society evolved, women took over more and more senior positions and men’s assumptions sometimes turned to anger. Some men learned to cope. Their reaction was an indication of whether or not they would succeed because, in the end, an angry man who wants to maintain his position is not going to make it.
During the 24 years that you were at CNN, how did assignments and roles change?
They changed quite a bit. In the newsroom, it was always a given that if you wanted something really done with all the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed, give it to the women. It sounds sexist of me to say that, I know, but it was true. The women were trying so hard to prove their worth—and we’re talking many years ago here—that they would do everything 300% and the men would not. If there was a particularly tedious job or something that needed detailed follow-through, they would give it to a woman.
That has changed some and everyone tries harder now. I have two sons in the workplace so I can’t make huge sweeping generalizations! Both of them work very hard.
Did you have mentors for your broadcast career?
I was pretty much on my own. I got emotional support from my family. I could always pick up the phone.
But I was doing something that different from pretty much everyone I knew. That meant I had to figure a lot out for myself. It would have been helpful to have [other women] ahead of me but there just weren’t many. Now I try to help as many people as I can.
You’ve been a field reporter and a novelist and you’ve said that both roles are about story telling. What in your life do you think led you to want to tell stories?
I’ve always loved stories. Ask writers and they’ll tell you they dictated their first story when they were four or five. That’s my story, too. And I was just at a lecture by Dan Brown and he told the story of doing his first story at four. So I think we all love storytelling
What I also love is accurate information. That drew me to news and later brought me around to novel writing. But even my novels are fact based. I don’t like to read things that are pure entertainment; I like to learn something while I read. So I put interesting facts in my novels.
Does your experience as a reporter influence the ways you research before writing a novel?
Yes. My books are international mystery/thillers and I go to every location in them. There will be five or six locations in each and I’ll go to them all. Some are quite remote. In my first novel, “The Explorer’s Code,” it was arctic Norway and I went there twice. I’ll go to each place so I can write it most vividly and accurately.
In that way I suppose I approach novel writing like a reporter. I go and report the story first and then write it. It’s almost the same process [as field reporting].
Where haven’t you been that you most want to see?
I have a where-to-go next list! I’m working on my third novel, which involves volcanoes. I’ve climbed a few of them in the last few years but I’m dying to go to Iceland. I’d like to climb a couple of volcanoes in Ecuador as well. The Galapagos Islands and…well, I could give a long list of places.
In your time in broadcasting you did go to amazing places and you saw remarkable things from the fall of the Soviet Union to 9/11 and Tahrir Square in Cairo. What was the most stirring or life-changing event for you?
I’d have to say one of the big ones was my going to Cuba in 1995 because I was one of the first American journalists allowed back into Cuba. That was astonishing.
But in terms of eye-opening experiences it was really the cross-cultural reality that keeps broadening your perspective. It’s seeing the commonalities among peoples as well as our differences. And that continues as I research the novels.
The media business is changing with the advent of “citizen journalism” and social media. Do you wish you were back in to see the transition or are you happy to be away from it?
I feel I’m in it still, quite honestly. Last year I went to Egypt to research my second novel, “The Stolen Chalice,” and we were there right when the American NGO [non-governmental organization] workers were being put on trial. I do feel I’m still in the middle of world events.
Do I go to events when things break? Not always. But I was in Greece last year when they were facing their economic problems, so I feel that I’m swimming in the same water I did as a journalist.
The difference is the absence of a daily deadline. For so many years I had a 5:30 p.m. deadline for filing a report. Having that taken off my shoulders has been fun.
Do you purposefully weave select world events into your fiction?
Yes, very much. I usually have an exploration theme that comes from my interest in the world of exploring. I’m a member of The Explorers Club of New York. My first book was focused on the competition for arctic resources, especially minerals and oil. I wove real events into the plot line.
At CNN I had covered pandemics and such things and I still believe there are biological threats. For my second novel I traveled to the Naval Medical Research Center in Cairo that’s run by the U.S. Navy. It keeps an eye on infectious diseases. So I move through issues that are interesting to me in researching each book. I hope I inform readers on some issues that are fairly serious. That said, my novels don’t read like homework at all. I hope the research is woven into the plot seamlessly so it doesn’t feel like I’m on a soapbox.
You once said that it’s a role of the media to increase understanding. Do you think the increase in the number of channels of communication has increased our understanding of the world and each other?
I’m very encouraged about it, really. When I was growing up we had a 30-minute newscast. Walter Cronkite and “That’s the way it is,” you know? That and newspapers were our information source. Now, to have so many sources of information is exhilarating for someone like me. However, you have to be discerning: there are legitimate sources of information and illegitimate ones. People are capable of hate-speech in some of these channels because there is no filter.
You have to be careful about where you get your information but that’s a mark of a mature society. Now that many of us have grown up in the Information Ag I believe we’re capable of deciding if something is legitimate or not by checking it out and researching it. It’s a new, mature way of looking at the world and I’m not as distressed about it as some others are. I think it’s a very big positive.
You’ve been involved with the U.N. and recently were on a panel it sponsored addressing how to empower women in the developing world. With all that you’ve seen in your travels, does it seem that the second-class status of women in many areas doesn’t change as quickly as governments?
I would say progress is slow. In some societies, progress is being made, but in others, no, it is not. There may even be backsliding and that is very distressing.
I firmly believe that a health of a society of based on the freedoms and the education of its women. They are the mothers who teach the children, and that’s where one starts progress and enlightenment. If you deny children an education, a society is really doomed.
But the Information Age does have its benefits here. Women have access to information now that they couldn’t have 100 years ago. In Victorian society, the man sat at the head of the table and read the newspaper in the morning and the wife sat there staring off into space. We’re beyond that. We’ve reached a new age in information and that keeps me hopeful.
In your commencement speech last year at your alma mater, Manhattanville College, you told graduates, “You have the power, the education and the motivation to do anything you dare.” Is that the message you try to impress upon all young people who are beginning their careers?
Absolutely. I really think you’re only limited by your attitude. Even if you don’t have advantages there are opportunities all around. You need to grab those opportunities with two hands, start asking questions and find out as much as you can.
But is the “glass ceiling” gone for women?
No, not at all. We still have to make an effort to make changes. There’s a wage gap between women and men that is reprehensible. Women often are heading households. I was a single mother all the time my children were growing up. I put them through college on my own. The wage gap is unacceptable.
We talk about “leaning in,” and that has been a huge discussion recently. [Sheryl Sandberg] makes the fair point that women should assume they can succeed and lead. But in a way it’s almost a throwback. I’m amazed that we’re still talking about it. I was dealing with these issues 20 years ago.
Balancing life and work is a common topic of discussion among women. How difficult was it for you as a single mother
Gosh, even having the time for a discussion about how to balance life and work would have been a luxury! I was fully challenged as a working reporter at CNN who was raising two sons on my own. I didn’t get a lot of sleep.
But we all made it. We’re all happy. So it worked out great.