Tag Archives: Hillary Clinton

A Campaign Trail Nomad Rooted in Nebraska

February 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Thankfully, the presidential horse race was over and the breathless autopsy of the results were ebbing by Thanksgiving. It gave CNN’s senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, a chance for a break—a quick holiday retreat to see his mom on the farm where he grew up outside Exeter, Nebraska, a tiny town an hour southwest of Lincoln.

“A little different pace,” he says wryly on the rainy Monday before Turkey Day. “I try to get back as much as possible. But I haven’t been back much this year. My mom has made me aware of that.”
While his CNN title suggests he is tethered inside the Beltway, Zeleny is, particularly during election season, more of a campaign-trail nomad. Thanks to his dogged work reporting on presidential campaigns for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, ABC, and CNN, he is one of the most respected political reporters and analysts in the business.

One reason for his gift for in-depth, spot-on work, his colleagues deduce, is his life and career trajectory—from farm boy, to sports reporter, to Midwest journalist, to D.C. insider. That path has made him uniquely qualified to penetrate and make sense of a political landscape deeply divided along urban/rural and white-collar/blue-collar lines.

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“Jeff is a brilliant journalist,” says David Chalian, CNN’s political director and oft-seen on-air analyst who hired Zeleny away from ABC. “He’s a reporter’s reporter. His work is so deeply sourced. He’s addicted to breaking news. He loves getting out on the road to talk to people.

“With all that, he’s such a good guy—he’s never ‘gone Washington,’” Chalian says. “You can’t take the Nebraska out of him… I think that helps him connect to almost anyone he meets.”

“Jeff is a remarkably gifted journalist,” adds Jane Hirt, a fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum of Zeleny’s who was managing editor of The Tribune during his stint in Chicago. “He was born to tell stories.”

Indeed, by the third grade, Zeleny says he was already glued to the television each night, watching Walter Cronkite on CBS nightly news. In high school, he began his journalism career by calling in high school football results to the local newspaper. By his senior year, he, one of 12 Exeter High School prospective graduates that year, was at the other end of the phone, fielding calls from sports correspondents for The York News-Times.

“Sports coverage is the only thing that prepares you for election night,” he says.

Zeleny headed to UNL with dreams of being a broadcaster. Print journalism professors at UNL suggested he first pursue a print journalism path to build his reporting and writing chops. His sophomore year, he quit playing trumpet for the Husker marching band to join the staff of UNL’s college paper, the Daily Nebraskan, where he later became editor. In his summers, he landed prestigious internships, including one at The Wall Street Journal, where, in a crowd of Ivy Leaguers, Zeleny says the editors “really liked the idea that I was from Nebraska.”

“Your Nebraska brand is a really good brand,” he says. “The Midwest mindset and work ethic is something people believe in and respect. It’s an advantage, not a drawback.”

Zeleny’s biggest break, though, may have been back in Des Moines at his first job with The Register. For a young reporter, those bellwether Iowa caucuses, with its stampede of presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state as the world watches, placed Zeleny’s detailed and astute reporting on the national stage.

Then he was off to Chicago, where he covered the rise of a young U.S. senator to the presidency.
After seven years with The New York Times, during which he increasingly made national television appearances as a guest political analyst, he took a position with ABC. As CNN began expanding its staff to cover the primaries and general election, Chalian went looking for “the top talent out there.”

“Jeff and I had spent a lot of time together on the campaign trail as colleagues in the press corps,” Chalian says. “I knew what a great reporter and great guy he was and I knew he was one of the most respected political reporters there is. I’m thrilled to have him here.”

The trick for Zeleny has been making the jump from being a newspaper reporter to a broadcast journalist—his dream job since his formative years watching Cronkite. A mere three years into diving into broadcast journalism, a time during which he says he’s received “a lot of behind-the-scenes training,” you could argue he still seems a shade stiffer than your typical broadcast journalist. While his reporting and writing is incisive and often witty, he’s still a little off with those affected vocal tone, pitch, and timing mechanics standard in the broadcast business. He doesn’t have the cheekbones of most of the guys in broadcasting. He’s more subdued than many. Basically, you can still kinda see that Zeleny is a newspaper guy doing television.

Good, Chalian says. Times have changed. “Many of the old-school broadcasting rules are less important now,” he says. “The key is great, robust, well-sourced storytelling whether it’s print or television or a podcast.”

Zeleny, good natured through a bit of ribbing from an old print reporter, seconds Chalian’s critique of the evolution of broadcast news. Viewers, he says, increasingly have made it clear that, “the blow-dried look,” as he put it, “isn’t important any more. We like real things.”

For all of Zeleny’s immersion in both rural and urban political landscapes during the last election cycle, he still didn’t predict a Trump victory. But news junkies and CNN fans know he was arguably the most prescient regarding the depth of frustration throughout the rust belt and other parts of the country with the perceived impact of trade deals and environmental regulations on the economy, and the idea of maintaining business-as-usual in D.C.

“Trump was seen as the exterminator,” he says. “It was a change election. Then Republicans came home to him. A lot of things came together.”

Now, Zeleny says, as interesting as this election season was, things may get even more interesting in the coming years.

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“It’s going to be fascinating,” he says.

And rough, and weird. In late November, Zeleny reported there was no evidence to back Trump’s claim that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Trump himself then targeted Zeleny, retweeting a rant from a 16-year-old: “@Filibuster: @jeffzeleny. Pathetic—you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.”

Also, this retweet: “Just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist!”

Zelleny, professional and measured as ever, responded: “Good evening! Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way. Full-time journalist here still working.”

Much of the battle now, Zeleny and Chalian say, is providing people with real news amid an onslaught of fake news, fake news that even the President of the United States seems uninterested in fact-checking.

“Our job now is to make sure we’re doing the best job possible and holding people accountable,” Zeleny says. “You need people to be there to call a ball a ball, and a strike and strike, and just keep going and going to get it right. It’s a very important time in the country. My job is to keep pushing and keep asking the tough questions.”

Visit cnn.com/profiles/jeff-zeleny-profile for more information.

Symone Sanders’ Iowa Odyssey

December 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Symone Sanders’ childhood dream never came true.

As a young girl Sanders created an alter ego, that of an intrepid news professional she named Donna Burns. She would grab a spoon as a microphone and report live (from the kitchen of her home) in covering breaking news all across the globe.

“I so wanted to be Donna Burns,” Sanders said. “I so wanted to be that person.”

Donna Burns never really left her, she’s just been just turned inside out. Now Sanders is the one having microphones thrust in her face.

Last August the 25-year-old (she turned 26 in December) was hired as Bernie Sanders’ national press secretary. At a time when many of her classmates from Creighton University’s class of 2013 were still clawing for that first entry-level position somewhere—anywhere—Sanders was taking the national stage in handling an army of “Donna Burns” for the Vermont Senator.

The Mercy High School graduate who had earlier attended Sacred Heart School is the daughter of Terri and Daniel Sanders. Her first taste of politics came as a 10-year-old through her involvement with Girls Inc. At 16 she would be selected by the organization to introduce President Bill Clinton when he spoke at a 2006 Girls Inc. event in Omaha.

Omaha Magazine caught up with her at Bernie Sanders’ state campaign headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa, the day before the Nov. 14 National Democratic Debates at Drake University.

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“I feel like I was in the right place at the right time,” she demurred in describing her formative years in Omaha. “Things were pretty stagnant in this town at one time. Now Omaha is breeding superstars. This city set me up for everything I’ve done. It’s an amazing place for exposure, opportunity, and access, and there are so many efforts moving the needle in a good direction…Willie Barney at the Empowerment Network [where Sanders was once communications, events, and outreach manager], the folks at the Urban League, the NAACP, Heartland Workforce [Solutions], Inclusive Communities, Women’s Center for Advancement, and tons of others. There are so many great organizations guiding young people and kids in building better lives and a better city. They’re doing it right, and they’re doing it right there in Omaha.”

In 2014, only 11 months after graduating from college, Sanders would become deputy communications director for Nebraska Democrat Chuck Hassebrook’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid.

“Symone is the kind of person that people just love to be around,” said Hassebrook, who spent his career at the Center for Rural Affairs, including 18 years as a University of Nebraska Regent. “She’s very smart, but it is her principles and ethics that I perhaps most admire. I’m a huge Symone fan. She’s a person that I hope will be running things someday.”

The day after votes were tallied in the 2014 election Sanders was on a plane to Washington, D.C. to begin a job with Global Trade Watch, an arm of Public Citizen, the nonprofit advocacy think tank founded by Ralph Nader in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress.

Also passionate about issues surrounding juvenile justice, Sanders has served on the board of the Nebraska Coalition for Juvenile Justice and recently stepped down as the national chair of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice Youth Committee.

“The system isn’t set up well for minority communities,” Sanders explained as staff and volunteers scurried throughout the campaign headquarters in Des Moines in the run-up to the debate. “Young people need to be involved in juvenile justice because this is so often a young person issue. My brother was incarcerated when he was young. I’ve been arrested myself—I told Bernie all about that right upfront—and this is an epidemic. Black and brown kids are being locked up at a disproportionate rate. It’s a school-to-prison pipeline. What so many of them need is help, jobs—not jail.”

Sanders is also aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and it was through that relationship that the campaign team first came to know her. She was brought in to advise the candidate shortly after Black Lives Matter protesters had interrupted a campaign rally in Seattle.

She met with Bernie Sanders to help him better understand and connect with a voting bloc that skews toward Hillary Clinton. Two hours later she was his national press secretary.

“The original Civil Rights Movement,” Sanders said, “is a phrase that was coined so that everyday Americans could understand the issues…so they could wrap their heads around it. That’s what Black Lives Matter is. It’s the same movement, the same ideals, but now for a new generation. There’s nothing new about the movement. It’s the same struggle. It’s the same people shaking things up for social justice. Malcolm X, John Lewis, and Martin Luther King didn’t call themselves Civil Rights leaders. They were just…leaders.”

Sanders has a magnetic personality and speaks in a rapid-fire, staccato fashion. Trying to keep up with her words in transcribing the interview from a micro-recorder was a nightmare of stops and starts, pauses and rewinds. But just as she is known for her mile-a-minute delivery, Sanders also knows when to take it down a notch or three.

During the pre-debate walkthrough of the auditorium, spin room, and media center on the Drake campus later that day, she became a deliberate, finely modulated machine that spoke in an even, deliberate tone in asking questions and soaking up every detail of where, when, and how the candidate and campaign team would navigate the crucial debates in the state where America first goes to the polls in the process of nominating and electing the next occupant of the Oval Office.

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And a chance encounter in the spin room had her taking her foot completely off the gas in coasting into a warm, engaging exchange with Donna Brazile, the political strategist and analyst who ran Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and now acts as vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Sanders demonstrates a razor-sharp grasp of issues, policy, facts, and figures, and only hesitates when the ever-focused media pro is tossed questions about her personal life that take her at least temporarily out of campaign mode.

It took her seemingly forever, for example, to be able to conjure up her Burlington, Vermont, mailing address when that information was requested so that she could be sent a copy of this magazine. And a query about how many nights she’s slept in her own bed since taking the press secretary gig drew—if only for a nanosecond—a blank stare.

And then she was instantly “on” again in flashing her broad, trademark, light-up-the-room smile in replying, “Bed? You mean my air mattress? I don’t have time to furnish a place. The only beds I sleep in these days are in hotels.”

Over the course of the campaign Sanders has spent a lot of time crisscrossing the nation with Dr. Cornel West. The activist, author, and philosopher is a major Bernie supporter and was again stumping with the candidate in Des Moines.

“Symone Sanders is a visionary,” West told Omaha Magazine the next evening moments before he was to take the microphone as the headliner at a pre-debate tailgate rally where, true to its name, he and other speakers addressed the crowd from the tailgate of a well-worn farm truck in the state where agriculture rules and corn is king. “She has the power to be the voice of her generation. She has the intellect, the moral compassion, and the energy to become a great leader.”

Also “Feeling the Bern” at the rally that night was Creighton senior Dawaune Hayes.

“Symone was always involved in everything on campus,” Hayes said. “She was involved in everything all over town. Everyone at Creighton knew she could change the world someday. Now she’s actually doing it.”

Sanders may already be well on her way to becoming a world-changer, but one thing she hopes remains the same is the secret recipe at Time Out Chicken on North 30th Street.

“The first job I ever had was at Time Out,” she said, “and I worked there all through high school and college when I could—even after college. I miss Omaha. I miss my family. I would kill for some Time Out Chicken right now. And I miss the girls at Girls Inc.”

“Symone was the epitome of a Girls Inc. girl,” said Roberta Wilhelm, the organization’s executive director. “She was heavily involved in our media literacy program called Girls Make the Message. That’s where the girls made their own public service announcements and created their own messages to the world. Not surprisingly, Symone took to that like a fish to water. Ironically, the theme was Girls for President, and now she’s working on a real presidential campaign. Symone is doing big things. She’s going to matter.”

And what message will Sanders deliver the next time she has a chance to visit her hometown Girls Inc.?

“Be smart. Be strong. Be bold,” she said in echoing the nonprofit’s tagline. “You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything. Omaha needs you. The world needs you.”

Donna Burns covered a lot of stories from that kitchen in north Omaha, but it looks like she missed the most important one. Now her creator would be the interview of a lifetime for the ace reporter.

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13 Hours in Benghazi

July 17, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article was featured in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.

The chaotic scene in Benghazi, Libya, the night of Sept. 11, 2012, looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie.

Just after 9 p.m., more than 100 Islamic militants flooded the U.S. embassy compound there, forcing a small group of American diplomats and security personnel into a frantic retreat to a safe room hidden within the compound.

One mile away, Omahan Kris Paronto, a former Army Ranger, sat watching a movie with fellow members of the secretive CIA security force known as the Global Response Staff. Then came the distress call from the compound: An urgent cry to “Get in here—NOW!” amid explosions and Jihadist cries of “Allahu Akbar.”

The ensuing rolling battle placed Paronto not only in the crosshairs of Libyan extremists, but, back in the United States, in the crosshairs of one of the most politicized events of the 21st Century. Benghazi.

Benghazi. The death of two American diplomats, including American ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation in that safe room. The fact that Paronto and his team—two of whom died in the skirmishes that followed—were told to stand down by the region’s CIA chief (orders that Paronto and his team soon disobeyed).

How could this all happen? Who was responsible for the intelligence and security lapses? Liberal conspiracy, or conspiracy theory of conservatives? Politicos in the 24-hour news cycle droned overtime.

This firestorm in which Kris Paronto found himself not only looked like something out of a Michael Bay movie, it will actually be a Michael Bay movie. And in that movie, and the book that inspired that movie, will be a character named Kris Paronto.

Paronto is now back in Omaha living what may be called a normal life with his wife, a son he calls “Bubba,” and a daughter he calls “Princess.” He takes long runs and rides his bike to clear his mind of the ghosts that haunt him. He resumed his insurance-adjusting business.

In the months following September 2012, the hourly barrage of news about this horrific ordeal died down, but what trickled out to the public was, in Paronto’s mind, grossly twisted into a political nightmare.

The surviving members of the team met in Langley, Virginia, that May to honor their fallen comrades. Following the formal service, they gathered at a bar, where they toasted the deceased. As the nearly unavoidable subject of politics arose, Paronto discovered he was not the only team member disgusted with the media’s portrayal of Benghazi.

“What the hell?” Paronto says, shaking his head.

The only way to tell the correct story would be to tell it themselves. It was then they determined they needed to write the story—as a team effort.

They had to stick together, as they were not supposed to mention the attack to anyone, let alone write a book.

“We kept getting treated badly by the CIA,” Paronto said. “We had to sign a bunch of non-disclosure agreements.”

But Paronto maintains this is the truth, and he tired of biting his tongue and clenching his fists when he heard inaccuracies on the news.

“It really bothers me when whatever side you’re on goes too far to further their cause,” Paronto says. “Battles aren’t political. You’re trying to live and they’re trying to live. We did not speculate what was going on in the head shed.”

Paronto is political in his own right. He’s a conservative-minded patriot with several tattoos, including one that looks as though his skin is being ripped open to reveal an American flag in his core.

He considers himself a warrior not just for the U.S., but for God, though personally, he’s more of a C&E’r, as in Christmas and Easter churchgoer. He sometimes attends Gethsemane Lutheran Church outside of the holidays and is a member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

A plan of counter-political attack made, Paronto contacted his friend Richard Abate, literary agent for author Mitchell Zuckhoff. Paronto previously read Zuckhoff’s book Lost in Shangri-La, and knew that the seasoned journalist and Boston University College of Communication professor could write the story well.

“This was the first book that came to me quite this way,” Zuckhoff says. “Normally I got out and found an idea and wrote a book. I felt honored that Kris and the guys went out and found me.”

“Like a lot of Americans, I thought I knew a decent amount,” Zuckhoff says. “The incident happened about nine or 10 months earlier, and I kept on top of it…Once I started talking to the guys, I realized I, like most Americans, had no idea what happened over there.”

One part Zuckhoff had no idea about was the lack of involvement from a film titled Innocence of Muslims, which both conservatives and liberals blamed as being part of the reason for the attack.

“What? I got up the next day and saw something about a video,” Paronto says. “Gosh, I don’t know where they got that video thing. It hadn’t filtered to Benghazi yet.”

As Zuckhoff discovered the story being told in the mainstream media differed vastly from the story the guys told him, he unraveled the story like a cat tearing into a knot of yarn.

“We got it done in about three months,” Paronto said. “We did three different revisions to make it apolitical. Even though we knew it would eventually become political, we wanted it to be nonpartisan.”

Also helping to keep the story apolitical were the GRS operators’ unassuming demeanors. “These are extraordinary guys, and what I loved about working with them was they got it,” Zuckhoff says. “They didn’t focus on ‘does this make me look good?’ They didn’t ask ‘does this make me look bad because I was joking around in a serious moment.’”

One member of the unit that Paronto had a hard time keeping apolitical about was the chief, known as Bob. Bob wasn’t Paronto’s favorite person. He was a veteran of what Paronto calls the “Alphabet Soup Company,” since he oversees so many things without really being a part of any of them.

“You can be in a combat zone and not be in combat,” Paronto said. “But that’s Bob.”

He sets his jaw more squarely and straightens his back when talking about the large Libyan militia unit known as the “17 February Martyrs Brigade.” Bob told the team one reason his team did not respond quickly was that they were waiting for help from the militia’s fighters. Paronto, specifically, did not trust that militia, which was formed during the revolution that toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Paronto’s instincts were proved correct when the only members of the militia in the area were a group of boys who turned back following the sight of actual combat.

“Failure to prep the 17 February unit.” “The GRS operated as mercenaries.” Accusations flew in all directions. Zuckoff had myriad divergent narratives to rectify.

“There were so many political interests around, but once I started talking to Kris, I discovered it was really straightforward,” Zuckoff says. “These are truly honorable, decent men who didn’t have any agenda outside of how they lost four brave men, and how they had been left to fend for themselves.”

Zuckhoff himself had no problem remaining neutral, although his own political tendencies sway opposite Paronto’s. The Boston University professor admits that previous to his contact with the GRS team, he was not likely to be friends with military contractors.

“My professor friends are more likely to have a glass of wine and call it a night,” Zuckhoff says. “When I go out with these guys, there’s a lot of storytelling. They are funny and profane, and there’s no guile.”

For example: Paronto, as serious as he can be, is well-known by his compatriots as an unrepentant prankster. He particularly enjoys heisting the odds-and-ends of friends (such as hats, Xbox games, and magazines), immersing them in containers of water, and then freezing them.

“I wanted to show a human side,” Paronto says. “I think the book did a good job of that.”

The book, 13 Hours in Benghazi, came out in September 2014—exactly two years after the attack.

“This was the fastest I’ve ever written a book,” Zuckoff says. “I literally only took one day off during that entire time. The only real pressure I had was that we wanted the book to come out on the second anniversary of the attack.”

The tome, bearing a book jacket covered in the yellow and green colors of a fading bruise, came out at the perfect time to engage the media. The first organization to report on the book? Fox News.

“People were saying we chose Fox because it is Republican or whatever,” Paronto says. “No, we didn’t choose them for that reason.”

The reason, Paronto said, was because Fox gave them the best deal.

Publishing the book means potential civil forfeiture of royalties and movie life rights, along with possible fines of $250,000 and prison. The team has experienced accusations of slander from both the government and the media.

But Paronto and his teammates succeeded in telling people their story. Partially boosted by good reviews in the The New York Times and the Washington Post, United States and Canadian bookstores sold 200,000 copies by the end of 2014.

Paronto sits back in his chair. “If I was in a military setting, we’d have gotten the medal of honor,” he says. “The things those guys did that night…those things that happen in combat, they don’t happen anywhere else.”

There is one other place that happens…the big screen. Paronto and the team will be able to watch the horror unfold again through the magic of Hollywood. Chuck Hogan, writer for The Town, starring Ben Affleck, wrote a screenplay based on the book. Shooting for the movie has just begun, with Pablo Schreiber portraying Paronto. No release date has been set, but Paronto has visited the set and describes Schreiber as “outstanding” in the role of, well, him.

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