Terry Anderson talks about the media, living in Central New York and his time as a hostage in Lebanon

Syracuse New Times | November 16, 2011
You don’t think much about retirement when you’re a Marine in Vietnam. You don’t think much about retirement when you’re a hard-charging, hard-drinking international correspondent in Africa and Asia. And when you’re blindfolded and bumping along in the trunk of a car driven by Hezbollah through the streets of wartime Beirut, as Terry Anderson was on multiple occasions a few decades back, you most certainly do not contemplate retirement.

But as The Byrds so eloquently put it when they did their cover of one of scripture’s greatest hits, for everything there is a season, and this autumn finds Terry Anderson back in upstate New York, scouting the landscape for a place, of all things, to retire.

The paunchy and bespectacled Anderson, who just turned 64, has signed on for a yearlong gig as a visiting professor at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, teaching international journalism and critical perspectives in the media to mostly graduate students at Syracuse University. He is bullish on Central New York, and on SU. “This is a great school,” he gushes. “The toys these kids get to play with are unbelievable!”

Anderson was kidnapped in his tennis shorts on March 16, 1985, by Islamic Jihad, a cell of the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, which has longstanding ties to the Iranian government. His nearly seven-year imprisonment connected him directly or tangentially with many of the major issues of late 20th-century global history, from the end of the Cold War to the modern age of terrorism. When Ronald Reagan’s aide, a Marine colonel named Oliver North, tried to secure the release of Anderson and fellow hostages by persuading the Iranians to arm the Nicaraguan Contras, the resulting scandal nearly brought down the administration and led to the conviction of several high-ranking officials of Reagan and George W. Bush.

Next month it will be exactly 20 years since Anderson was released, driven to Damascus, Syria, to be reunited with his wife Madeleine and Sulome, the 6½-year-old daughter he had never met. The road from hostage to Newhouse professor has taken as many turns as the cars that transported him blindfolded through the Lebanese night from one hiding place to the next.

He is now as big an Orange booster as Otto himself. “I think Syracuse is a nice city, with a vital culture,” says Anderson, perched at his fourth-floor desk in the futuristic Newhouse III, the setting sun casting an amber haze over the older castles of academe perched on the hill above. “I love the diversity. You’ve got a lot of great theater, great restaurants.” Taking a glass-half-full approach to the bankruptcy of the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, he gushes, “I love the fact that they are trying to revive the symphony.”

His only complaint about the “very bright” students that he teaches is that they don’t seem to get off campus enough to appreciate all the city offers. He exudes an optimism about our town that a lot of locals can’t seem to muster.

From Newsman to Newhouse

Few of the students in his classes at Newhouse (fully a third of them are from outside the United States) were even born when Anderson was kidnapped after that fateful tennis match in Beirut. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran, Anderson had followed wars and famines across Africa for six years before the Associated Press sent him to Lebanon to cover that country’s civil war. At the time of his capture he was the AP’s chief Middle East correspondent.

For now life finds him nestled in a cottage on the shores of Otisco Lake, where he recently landed a 34-inch Tiger Muskie (for the uninitiated, that is a big fish to land from a very stingy lake). “I intend to retire in upstate New York,” he says. Anderson was born in Ohio but grew up in Batavia, where a bust of him now graces the high school from which he graduated. Mixing political commentary with travelogue, he notes, “This is a beautiful, interesting state which has been very badly led for a very long time.”

Thus the headline might read: “Man who lived imprisoned under constant death threat in Beirut likes Syracuse better” except that Anderson also really loves Beirut. He has gone back to his old Lebanese stomping grounds several times with students from Ohio State and the University of Kentucky, where he taught before coming here in August. He went back to Lebanon in 1996 with a CNN crew and made a film in which, among other things, he met the mastermind of his kidnapping, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, whom Anderson says he has long since forgiven. (He also has forgiven his fellow Marine Oliver North, whose antics, Anderson believes, added years to his imprisonment.)

How has Lebanon changed? “For one thing, they’re not killing each other in large numbers,” he says, noting the obvious.

In the years following his release, Anderson says he was all over the country “trying to find my way.” Known as a hard-drinking, risk-taking reporter prior to his kidnapping, during his captivity he turned to religion and poetry to keep himself together. He recounted much of that story in Den of Lions (Crown, 1993), a memoir he wrote in tandem with Madeleine.

His daughter, who was born during his captivity, works today as a reporter with The Daily Star, an English-language paper in Lebanon. “I have the distinction of having both of my daughters evacuated from Beirut by the U.S. Navy under fire,” he says with a chuckle. BOTH?

Anderson is harshly critical of his colleagues in the press in allowing the 2003 invasion of Iraq to roll unchallenged. “Anyone who knew anything about Iraq knew that Saddam had nothing to do with al-Qaeda. Iraq wasn’t even a Muslim country,” he says. “It was a socialist country. We had already destroyed Saddam’s army in the first Gulf War. That was like sending the Dallas Cowboys against a high school team.

“We didn’t cover ourselves with any kind of glory. The war was covered nearly 100 percent by reporters embedded with the U.S. military. Before the war we gave very short shrift to what the UN inspectors on the ground were saying. Judith Miller in The New York Times kept reporting from Iraq that they were about to build weapons of mass destruction. None of it turned out to be true.”

He makes no effort to hide his disdain for broadcast news. “Local TV is the worst part of journalism today.”

In spite of its failings, Anderson believes that the journalism has a bright future. He refers to himself an “old, dead-tree guy,” by which he means a journalist who uses only words to convey his message. He considers himself a relic, referring to himself at one point as “a grumpy old guy from another century,” but insists that his profession is in fine shape.

“The myth that journalism jobs are going away is bullshit,” he insists. “People like me, old dead-tree guys who haven’t made the transition to digital, we’re the ones who are going away. At The New York Times there are as many jobs as always--they’re just different jobs.

“My daughter went to Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and now she works in Lebanon for The Daily Star. She learned that to be successful today you have to be able to work in at least three platforms. For God’s sake, The Wall Street Journal is now running four hours a day of live TV on the web. They’re not a newspaper anymore; they’re a damned television station!”

A lifelong Democrat, Anderson looks forward to volunteering next year on Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. At one point Anderson himself was a candidate for public office. It was 2004, and he lost a race for state Senate in Ohio. “Like a good Democrat I ran on jobs, education and health care, and my opponent ran on God, guns and gays. The New York Times said it was the dirtiest race in America that year. I got my clock cleaned, and afterward I concluded that the people were correct not to vote for me. They went to the polls to select someone who reflects their views, and I did not.”

What persuaded him to go into politics? “Madness!” he insists. “I was playing poker with some friends from the Democratic Committee and they were looking for a candidate. They said ‘How about it?’ and I figured I’d been telling politicians how to do things for a long time, so I said why not?”

That sort of reckless decision-making has played a big role in Anderson’s life, which includes a pair of failed marriages (“I’m not very good at relationships,” he volunteers), foreclosure on a horse ranch in Ohio and a bankruptcy filing two years ago. That last came after his 2002 multimillion settlement in federal court against the government of Iran, the principal financial and military backer of Hezbollah.

Anderson received the settlement, worth as much as $26 million by some estimates (Sulome and Madeleine were awarded separate multimillion dollar verdicts), from frozen Iranian funds held in American banks after a two-day trial and an extensive lobbying campaign that defied the wishes of the Clinton administration, which at the time was holding out hope for better relations with Teheran.

Anderson started a number of charitable ventures, including an organization that built schools in Vietnam, and a number of businesses, an IT firm that went belly up and a chain of restaurants. Still, you have to wonder: How do you end up bankrupt after tasting that kind of money?

“I wasn’t very good at being a rich man,” he answers. “Stupidity, a bad market. I trusted people. I grew up poor and didn’t know anything about money. I gave half of it away.”

Today he sounds like a man who wants to leave that all behind him, spending his time fishing at Otisco or preparing for a trip to the Caribbean, where, even with two artificial knees, he indulges his passion for scuba diving.

For all his many lives--horse rancher, restaurateur, philanthropist, professor, political candidate--Anderson remains convinced, with good reason, that his obituary will peg him first and foremost as “former hostage.”

He’d most like to be remembered as a passionate journalist who is passionate about journalism. He has served for 20 years with the Committee to Protect Journalists, which advocates for practitioners of a free press worldwide. “Eight hundred journalists have been killed in the past 20 years all over the world, and in the majority of those cases, there has been no investigation, no trial, no justice.”

Passion and objectivity, he insists, are not mutually exclusive. “The job of a journalist is to go out and find the truth and tell the story as best you can. Objectivity means divorcing the telling of the story from your own worldview and preconceptions. It does not mean not caring! If you’re not passionate then don’t go into journalism. We have enough mediocre journalists.”

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