Start Here / Never Stop Podcast: David Zucchino '73
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Zucchino ’73 joined Dean Susan King to discuss his remarkable career as a reporter, his attachment to UNC Hussman and his acclaimed new book “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy.” Zucchino visited UNC Hussman in February to deliver the Nelson Benton Lecture — read more on his day at the school here.
Zucchino is a UNC Hussman alumnus, former lecturer at the school and inductee of the North Carolina Media & Journalism Hall of Fame. Now a contributing writer at The New York Times, he has covered wars and civil conflicts in more than three dozen countries and is a four-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting in Iraq, Lebanon, Africa and inner-city Philadelphia. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his dispatches from apartheid South Africa.
Zucchino spoke with King about his research process — including hours studying Carolina’s history — for “Wilmington’s Lie.” The book tells the little-known story of the Wilmington coup of 1898, in which white supremacists used a campaign of rallies, race-baiting editorials and newspaper cartoons and fabricated news stories to raise tensions and win control of the state legislature in November of 1898. Days later, their supporters kicked off a violent sweep of Wilmington, leaving at least 60 dead in the streets. Zucchino weaves together individual stories and accounts in what The New York Times calls a “brilliant” and “heart-wrenching” account of the violence. King also asked Zucchino about his days as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, where he spent 18 years, including long trips embedded with American troops. He reflected on the war and the path forward for the Afghan people.
Zucchino also discussed the changes at UNC Hussman since his time. He praised the school’s focus on UNC’s “global guarantee” to provide students with opportunities to gain global perspectives. Listen below to hear Zucchino’s reflections on North Carolina history, today’s students and his biggest regret from his time at UNC.
00:01:19 David Zucchino: Thank you, Susan. It is great to be back. But as you say, I'm already here.
00:01:24 King: *laughs* So I almost don't know where to start because there's so much I want to talk to you about but I'm going to start with the book since it's just out and it's been called brilliant and tour de force and I have finished it and that move by it. But I want to know why as a war correspondent, someone who covered the great issues of the last 30 years — what made you focus a book on home and North Carolina? What brought this to your attention?
00:01:51 Zucchino: Well, I was surprised and a little bit of ashamed because I went to high school in North Carolina and I went to UNC and I had never heard about this story. Never heard one word about it did not know about it until 1998 during the centennial when UNCW tried to bring blacks and whites together in Wilmington, and burrow down and tell the true story of what happened. So I started reading newspaper articles at that time about it. And I said, “how could this have happened in the United States of America? And how could I not know about it?” And the more I learned about it, the more I realized that the story had not really been fully told to a national audience. — as a narrative. There have been many dissertations Wilson Library is full of dissertations and PhD papers on the issue. And as you know, in 2006, the state of North Carolina published the commission report, they spent five years looking into what really happened. But again, I wanted to tell it as a human story as a narrative and to correct the historical record, which for more than 100 years had been the white supremacy version of what happened. So I wanted to expose that lie even though it had been exposed. But I wanted to do it for a national audience for a general readership book for a nonfiction book by a journalist.
00:03:12 King: But you didn't just take the state commission and write a new narrative you really want like a reporter into the diaries and into the dissertation. So as you say, and into the reports of that time in national publications.
00:03:25 Zucchino: Right, and the groundwork was laid by the historians, but I went back to the as you say, the diaries. The letters were a great source people writing letters to each other — memoirs of people like Josephus Daniels, the newspaper publisher at the News & Observer, and national newspapers because the white supremacists during the spring, summer and fall of 1898, had announced ahead of time that they were going to overthrow the government. They were going to do it by the ballot or the bullet or both that violence would be required. National newspapers sent their white reporters because all the papers were white down to Wilmington to cover what they call the race force. So all of that coverage was very slanted. They accepted the white narrative of what was happening before and after the coup, but the facts of what happened and the details of what happened were accurate. So that was an incredible record. And at the same time, you had people's memoirs and letters, diaries, there was one amazing diary by a woman named Jane Cromley, whose brother was sort of forced to be one of the militiamen that was patrolling the town protecting against this supposed black riot. She wrote an incredible diary of that whole summer, from the point of view of a white person who was appalled by what was going on and felt helpless to stop it. But her descriptions were very, very useful for writing this kind of story.
00:04:51 King: When you started this, did you realize in a way you're going to hit a moment of Zeitgeist, you know, Silence Sam has been, you know, a huge issue on our campus. And there's a 1619 command of the New York Times by our grad Nicole Hannah Jones defining sort of a new discussion around race in America. Did you know your book would come out at this particular moment, or it just happened?
00:05:12 Zucchino: I didn't time it that way, but it is so relevant to what's happening right now to our national discussion about race, and how race stories involving race are told. How they are presented in what narrative is told. And it's always from the white point of view, almost always in this country.
00:05:37 King: I want to talk a little bit about the role of journalism because what I found revealing even though I had heard that Daniels was a white supremacist and was sort of the headline at him sometimes, I had no idea how we use the power of the newspaper and the power of his leadership in the state to really knit together a narrative that did connect and to use the power to help the movement. It's not what you call objective journalism.
00:05:58 Zucchino: No, no.
00:05:59 King: What does that say to you in our field?
00:06:00 Zucchino: He in his own way — he was brilliant and he portrayed himself as a journalist and he was not a journalist. He was a politician who happened to own a newspaper and his newspaper was the most important voice at that time in eastern North Carolina, The News & Observer. And he was a member of the executive committee of the Democratic Party, and they would hold Democratic Party meetings in his office. So he was a politician who used his newspaper for propaganda and he created this false narrative. As I said before that black men were insatiable rapist who were coming for white women. They were coming for white jobs that black men were incapable of voting intelligently, much less holding office and he pounded away and pounded away during the whole summer and fall of 1898 aiming it out white voters and inciting them. If you see a black man going out, trying to register to vote you stopping and use force if you have to. That was his message.
00:07:01 King: I must say, I found it very sobering as someone who believes so strongly in the power of journalism and, and democracy to read this, but I have to do it a little bit of a turn. Because you have had an extraordinary career as an international reporter. And for the last few years, you've covered wars, and I just know people are going to be out there wondering, “what's it take to be a war correspondent these days?” That is tough business, being in that minefields of the last 20 years.
00:07:23 Zucchino: t takes curiosity for one thing. It takes persistence. But I have found once you start, you get addicted to that adrenaline to being in the center of things. It is so thrilling and engaging and rewarding. Particularly I've tried to cover it from the bottom up from the top. I mean, I don't cover institutions, and I don't really cover generals and politicians. I cover people on the ground. And I've spent 18 years in Afghanistan, and it's my second country now. I care about that country. I care what happens to the people. And I'm just drawn to go back and back because I've seen the story from the very start. I started there during the invasion and I followed it all along through all these terrible years. And I want to tell the stories of the Afghan people and there's so many multiple varied, just heartbreaking stories there. And I can't even get to them all.
00:08:21 King: Also, you've been doing the Telethon Talks and such. Do you feel like and this is this would be out of date, probably in a year, although maybe not. Do you think? Are you optimistic that there's conclusion coming because there's such fatigue in the United States?
00:08:33 Zucchino: I’ve learned to be pessimistic, and all these years covering not only Afghanistan, but a rack to some of the similar things are at play and covering other other countries at war. It's as optimistic as I've been in the 18 years, but I do not trust the Taliban. And I know the impulse from the United States is to get our troops out any way we can. And I'm afraid they will reach a deal with the Taliban that the Taliban has no intention of honoring. And there are certain benchmarks along the way and certain mechanisms that are supposed to keep them honest. But once we start withdrawing our troops, we're going to have no leverage left. The Taliban knows that they play the long game.
00:09:21 King: What do you say as somebody who really loves the Afghan people and their culture and knows much better if the American public have lost their will?
00:09:30 Zucchino: And I think they have. I think people are very weary of Afghanistan. Nobody wants to talk about it. And my biggest concern is women and children and the younger generation in the cities has embraced the modern world which they could never do under the Taliban. My only hope is then there will be really fierce resistance to the Taliban from this younger generation like we are not going back to where we used to be.
00:09:55 King: One new perspective on this one of the things UNC today is trying to represent for every student is the opportunity for what they call a global guarantee. That you're not just a student or a resident of North Carolina, you are resident of the world. Do you think that's important for the students today? It feels that somehow that, you know, the world is fracturing. You know?
00:10:15 Zucchino: Right.
00:10:16 King: The EU is fracturing. You know, we're trying to get out of everything. What do you think about that global perspective?
00:10:20 Zucchino: Well 've read about it on the website. And I wish I would have had that when I was in school here because I desperately wanted to travel back then. And there was just no way there was no opportunity at the school to do it. So I think it is fabulous that students can actually as students start doing that sort of international reporting. My biggest regret from my years in school here is not learning a foreign language, particularly Arabic because I was just lazy and I didn't want to do the work. And if I could do it all over again, I would learn a foreign language. Just pick one wherever you think you would like to be out. That's one thing I think people should do and secondly, travel as much as you can because it is so eye opening It's indescribable. The thrill that you get from going to a foreign country and meeting people I should say, another country, not a foreign country. And meeting people and being so welcome because I have found particularly in some of the places I've gone are very remote people are fascinated to meet an American and particularly in American journalists, because that they have that innate understanding of what American particularly journalism does, and how fair it is and how objective it is. And they're not used to that in their country. And they love talking to I've never had anybody turned me down for an interview overseas, almost never. They are so fascinated to meet an American journalist. It's, and it's thrilling for me. Yeah, I meet people like that.
00:11:45 King: Glad to see our brand continue.
00:11:47 Zucchino: Yeah, so I'm so glad that's available for students. And I would just say travel whenever you can see the world because we're all interconnected now.
00:11:56 King: Absolutely. I mean, you know, the local companies, even though pork is owned by Chinese company. So it's like were we talking about. But lastly, you've always come back to North Carolina kept your roots here your home here as you sort of moved around What? Why? What is it draws you to this state?
00:12:11 Zucchino: I came of age at UNC. I mean, I left home for the first time. And my first journalism job was was here in North Carolina. And I think most people really have fond memories of their 20s because that was there was a brand new world out there. It was so exciting and so new. And I just love the spirit here. The people I also met my wife here right out of school, so it's a special place for me. I have one daughter who still lives in Durham. Another reason to be back here, but my wife and I, she's also from North Carolina. We both said even though we lived overseas for many, many years, and we were out of here for 30 years, we always said we're coming back, and we always knew that and we always wanted to be here and I'm delighted to be here.
00:12:57 King: I have to say that seems to be a calling of many people in North Carolina has a clarion call.
00:13:03 Zucchino: It has a fall on me because I wasn't born here. I'm not from here but I fell in love with the place.
00:13:08 King: David Zucchino, you make us very proud of your career, proud of all your accomplishments but proud that journals remains there. You know, it's very hard. We will be thank you.
00:13:19 Zucchino: Thank you. It's great to be with you.