CNN anchor and correspondent Poppy Harlow ’05 is driven by the search for truth.
CNN anchor and correspondent Poppy Harlow ’05 is driven by the search for truth.
Before she even landed on November 13, her husband, Sinisa Babcic, had packed some of her winter clothes and arranged for a courier to bring the suitcase to the airport’s curb. She would join a team of about 100 other journalists from CNN to report on the terrorists, the victims and the survivors of Europe’s worst terrorist attack in 11 years.
Harlow’s first report came about 24 hours after the attacks, outside the Bataclan concert venue where 89 people were killed after ISIS extremists held members of the audience hostage for two hours. “All these other reporters were lined up like sardines, freezing. It was a blur. The information just kept coming in,” Harlow says.
In the 10 days that followed, Harlow interviewed the mother of a victim, a doctor who treated the wounded, a French senator grappling with the attack’s political repercussions and a survivor still trembling from the shock of the experience, among others. But amid the city’s frenzy of tragedy and survival, she had a personal concern: She was five months pregnant.
“I thought, it’s not just me [anymore]; I’m carrying another life. But I also thought, if I am scared and not going to cover something, then the terrorists win,” she says.
It’s with pragmatism and empathy for her subjects that Harlow does her job. The Minneapolis native and 2015 Emmy nominee for “Outstanding Business and Economic Reporting in a Regularly Scheduled Newscast” brings a voice to the broadcast world that is truth-seeking and tuned to the human experience. Whether she’s parsing the details of the 2016 presidential election or interviewing the witness to a heart-wrenching crime, Harlow takes a step back to research thoroughly and listen carefully, showing every subject respect and understanding in her questions. This quality has carried throughout her career, says former CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who later became a mentor to Harlow.
“I’m always impressed by Poppy’s thoughtfulness and fundamental decency — perhaps those are her heartland roots showing,” Heyward says. “I’ve never known her to cut corners or fail to consider the responsibilities inherent in being a network journalist.”
In other words, says one of her current co-workers, CNN Weekend Programming Manager Bryan Bell, “Poppy’s signature is one made with human emotion. We are nothing without it.”
Harlow’s anchoring responsibilities extend far beyond what we see during CNN Newsroom Weekend. She and the show’s executive producer plan out discussions, guests and features. When news breaks, Harlow’s team pivots from planned material to the latest developments. In the week leading up to the shows, Harlow and her team are constantly identifying editorial opportunities and how the show will cover them.
Harlow recently spearheaded a regular series on her weekend show called “American Opportunity,” in which she and other correspondents explored topics on income inequality. Her reasons for focusing on these inequalities have much to do with her own upbringing in a middle-class family.
“I just feel like I had this amazing shot,” she says at a cafe across the street from CNN’s newsroom after an anchoring shift. She quotes one of her favorite interviewees: “The way Warren Buffett puts it is, he won the ovarian lottery. He was born to parents in the right place in the right time in America to build his success. I feel like I won the ovarian lottery, and a lot of us did. We owe it to people who didn’t win that lottery to figure out how they can achieve more.”
It wasn’t only the content of Harlow’s reporting that her parents, Mary and James Harlow ’69, influenced. Harlow says she inherited from them practices like taking copious notes, putting long hours into her work and instantly striking up a rapport with her subjects. Mary was a former ballerina and actress who went back to school to earn a doctorate in psychology while her two kids were young. “Watching [my mom raise me while going to school full-time] had a very strong impact on me. I look to her as an example of someone who was ambitious with her career and also focused on raising me to the best of her ability.”
COURTESY POPPY HARLOW ’05
Harlow — her given name is Katharine Julia; “Poppy” is a childhood nickname that stuck — doesn’t recall hearing stories of her father’s time at Columbia. But even without saying much about education and hard work, he instilled in her these values, along with a deep reverence for family, she says. She remembers the family’s long drives to their Walker, Minn., cabin. When he would drive her to skating practice in the morning, the two would listen to Prairie Home Companion on the radio. Memories like these reflect the man she feels lucky to have had in her life for 15 years, she says.
When CNN asked Harlow to participate in a special last year, “The Person Who Changed My Life,” she knew she wanted her father to be the focus of her segment. Through it, she learned her father was just as studious as she was, and spent more hours in the library than the student revolutionaries of that era. “While Jim was sympathetic, he was, like Poppy, focused on getting his work done, and frustrated that he couldn’t get into the library when the school shut down,” Mary says.
Attending Columbia was one way Harlow could remain connected to her father. “When he died, I think anything I could do to be close to him, I did,” she says. “I know I took some of the same classes as he did because of the Core Curriculum, so he was definitely in my mind all the time.”
As a political science major at the College, classes like “Game Theory” with Robert Jervis and extracurriculars like the Columbia Political Union fed her curiosity. She originally planned go to law school but entertained the idea of journalism, interning at CBS MarketWatch for three years of her college career.
“I loved it — it was everything from the mundane transcribing of interviews to running physical tapes across the street to going on shoots,” she says. “So I decided I was going to do this news thing. If it didn’t work out, I knew law school would be there.”
When CNN asked Harlow to participate in a special, “The Person Who Changed My Life,” she knew she wanted her father to be the focus.
Harlow graduated magna cum laude from the College. Her first job was at CBS Newspath, where she gathered video footage from the CBS archives, transcribed interviews, and helped producers and reporters on shoots and with research. This led to a broadcast reporting job at local television station NY1, covering Staten Island and New Jersey. Next it was Forbes.com, where she was a video correspondent. Along the way she built up expertise in financial reporting and a Rolodex full of valuable sources. It has helped set CNN Newsroom Weekend apart from other network shows, says Bell, CNN’s weekend programming manager.
“She has deep contacts within that sector,” he says. “The show is often able to shine a light on an issue that few other news programs can touch in the same way.”
Getting to CNNMoney from Forbes.com required a set of qualities wholly her own. Harlow describes an interview she had with former CNNMoney Executive Producer Caleb Silver as a test of persistence. When the interview with Silver was cut short, Harlow joined him on the elevator and followed him into the street. “I always think, what do I have to lose?” she says. “That’s what I think going into interviews or trying to get an interview.” It’s a quality she hopes to teach her daughter, due in April, from an early age, she says.
Silver saw something more than persistence, though, and he saw it before Harlow ever stepped into the elevator and onto the street with him. He was taken by her approachability: “She could talk to anyone and make it seem like the conversation they were having was the most important, yet most natural, conversation they could possibly have,” Silver says. “That is not a teachable skill. It comes from a person’s natural curiosity and presence.”
In 2008, Silver hired Harlow as a correspondent during the early stages of CNNMoney’s online video channel. At the time, producing engaging online videos for the personal finance and financial news website wasn’t as simple as publishing broadcast clips on the web. Segments that did well on air wouldn’t necessarily succeed online. Harlow describes it as a proximity issue: “When someone is staring at their computer screen or their phone, it’s a little more intimate. They maybe don’t want to see talking heads. They want you to take them there.”
Harlow knew this from her time at Forbes.com and CBS Newspath. Silver recognized Harlow’s innate ability to connect both on-air and online, but had to convince the network’s senior executives that she would excel “despite her youth and relative lack of experience,” he says. “She proved me right within about 10 seconds” of her first televised report.
Harlow’s first 4½ years at CNNMoney were spent online, with many of the segments making it to air as well. She was promoted to CNN as a correspondent in April 2012 and then as an anchor in February 2015.
Upon her return from maternity leave, Harlow doesn’t expect to stop traveling and reporting. “I love my job and gain a lot personally from it,” she says. And she anticipates her husband, a senior manager at Ernst & Young, will play an important role in their balancing work and family life. But Harlow acknowledges motherhood may change the way she works — it was certainly on her mind in the early days of the Paris attacks, knowing she had another life to look after in what many other reporters described as a “war zone.” Harlow believes being a mother will give her reporting a deeper significance, whether it’s about policies, justice or the “unsung hero,” she says.
“I have these discussions now because I’m passionate about them. Those ambitions haven’t changed because of [my daughter], but I think I will feel responsibility as a parent to tell the important stories I hope will help shape the world she grows up in,” she says.
“When the shooting occurred, the expected media swarm descended onto the mountain town, and with it, throngs of reporters and cameramen and bright lights,” Bell says. “Live shots were focused on the shooter, the madman behind the trigger who cut short these lives.”
But Harlow and her teammate in charge of arranging interviews, Jennifer Henderson, instead pivoted the story to Parker’s father, Andy, and CNN aired Harlow’s interview with him in a 30-minute special. “It’s because of that skill — of knowing that Andy Parker’s story is one that deserves to be heard — that Poppy was able to connect with him,” Bell says. “We spent 20 minutes listening to him, an eternity in television time. It is that devotion, that ability to capture conflict, emotion, joy and sadness, that makes Poppy so special.”
“If you can bring it home to the viewer and make
it personal, about a human and a life, then I think it resonates with people.”
Similarly, Harlow’s reporting in Paris focused on those left behind, rather than on the terrorists behind the attacks. In one interview, Harlow and a survivor of the Bataclan theater attacks sit together on a Parisian street, the survivor still trembling. Harlow asks him if he feels guilty that he lived while so many others died — “survivor’s guilt.” It’s the type of question reserved for close friends or family members. And the way Harlow’s voice and demeanor comes across, she seems to be exactly that.
Harlow cites longtime CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl as one of her biggest influences. And she regularly runs ideas by her biggest supporter, her husband. The two met when Harlow was visiting her family in Minnesota after she graduated from Columbia: “I value his opinion a lot and I ask for his advice. He’s very honest and helpful,” she says.
And she’s constantly thinking of what it would be like to watch her interviews from afar.
“If you were sitting on your couch yelling at the television, what would you ask that person? I don’t always do it well, but when I do, I’m happy when I get it out there … If you can bring it home to the viewer and make it personal, about a human and a life, then I think it resonates with people,” Harlow says.
Harlow’s empathetic style occasionally has drawn criticism. In March 2013 she was reporting from Steubenville, Ohio, outside the courthouse where two teenage football players were convicted in juvenile court of raping a 16-year-old girl. In a live report, Harlow described the verdict as emotional, and said it was “difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believed their lives fell apart.”
An online petition calling for CNN to apologize garnered nearly 300,000 signatures. News websites wrote about the segment, some calling CNN and Harlow’s reporting “sympathetic” to the rapists. In the bigger picture, the reporting was part of a marathon of coverage, much of which did focus on the victim of the assault. And Harlow later interviewed the victim’s mother, bringing an especially important perspective to her viewers, she says. But Harlow, who still thinks about the incident with obvious pain, regrets what she said in the segment. “I think I could have done a better job,” she says. “I learned a lot and it has informed my career as a journalist going forward, no question about it.”
In 2015, Harlow and CNN producer Amanda Hobor were nominated for an Emmy for a report that focused on a many-layered tragedy exposed in the wake of General Motors’ sweeping recalls for faulty ignition switches. Their story followed Candice Anderson, who was driving a 2004 Saturn Ion when the car swerved off the road and crashed into a tree. Anderson’s passenger and boyfriend, Gene Mikate Erickson, was killed in the crash. Because a trace amount of Xanax was found in Anderson’s system, she was charged and pleaded guilty to criminal negligent homicide. However, in 2014, her car was recalled because of the defective ignition switch; Anderson was exonerated of the crime in November 2014.
The district attorney who initially prosecuted Anderson says if she had known about the faulty ignition switch back then, she never would have prosecuted Anderson, Harlow and Hobor’s reporting found.
The segment was important not only to Harlow’s career but also to Anderson’s life, says Heyward, the former CBS News president. “In a business where ambition often trumps other qualities, Poppy stands out by standing for something more than her own success,” he says.
Harlow says she knows stories like that one, which required both hard work and an eye toward justice, would make her father proud.
“Isn’t that what keeps us all going?” she asks. “There are some pretty wonderful people in the world.”
Lauren Steussy is an arts and culture reporter on Staten Island. Her last profile for CCT was on Marie Claire executive editor Lea Goldman ’98 (Winter 2015–16). Steussy’s work has also appeared in The Staten Island Advance, San Diego Magazine and The Orange County Register.
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