A Legacy of Tenacity, Resilience, and Integrity | Hall of Fame 2019 Inductee: William H. Lord
“You have to be tenacious every single day. You can never give up. I used to preach this relentlessly to the people who worked for me,” says William “Bill” Lord (B.A., Communications, 1971), as he reflects on his philosophy as a broadcast journalist and news manager. He continues, “If you get beaten to the punch on a story, you don’t just fold up the tent. You go out, and you do that story, and you do it better. You can never accept defeat.”
A Seattle native, Lord was drafted into the Army at 19, and sent to fight in the Vietnam War. In a way, his communications career began there, as he carried the infantry company’s radio through many battles, including the Tet Offensive of 1968. “In the military, when terrible things are happening, you have to be precise, communicate clearly, and not leave out relevant facts,” says Lord. “You have to do the same as a journalist, with less pressure.”
On his return, Lord enrolled in the University of Washington, and chose political science as his major. Being on the front line had disillusioned him about the war, as he chronicles in his 2018 book, “50 Years After Vietnam: Lessons and Letters from the War I Hated Fighting.” Lord returned to a divided country and radicalized college campuses in 1969. Seeing that people were either on the extreme right or extreme left made Lord uncomfortable. “I wanted to be involved, but I didn’t want to be an advocate for one of the extremes,” he says. He was therefore pleasantly surprised to find his people at the offices of The Daily.
“I was walking by and happened to visit The Daily newsroom one day,” he reminisces. “I met people there who were not on the edges, but believed in unbiased reporting. They were involved in the events of the day, but they weren’t necessarily advocates. I found a home with them.” His time at The Daily prompted Lord to change his major to communications and journalism. “It really was a stellar moment—an epiphany of sorts, when I realized there is a place to be where you don’t have to be an advocate for either side.”
Unbiased and fact-based reporting remained at the core of Lord’s work as he carved his path in journalism. After graduation, he worked as a reporter in Oregon and Utah before becoming one of the youngest correspondents hired by NBC. He spent two years in Beirut covering the Lebanese civil war. On his return, Lord worked at KING-TV in Seattle for a year. Subsequently, he served as the news director at KIRO-TV twice, and eventually landed in Washington D.C., where he was the news director at WJLA-TV (ABC) for ten years, and then general manager for four more years.
Lord’s time in the field heavily influenced his reporting philosophy. He recalls reading stories about the Vietnam War in the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes. “It did a good job. But everything was positioned to support the war. It was written for the generals who were running the war. It had a perspective,” he says. “But then we would get articles about the same events from home. And those versions were considerably different!” That’s when he learned that “you can’t fall into the trap of looking at just one perspective, speak for only one group, and avoid the inconvenient facts. I was able to see clearly from those differences how to behave as a reporter later.”
Lord was mindful of this when he saw the same biased reporting by local newspapers in Beirut. “You have to be true to the whole audience. In those days, perspective on everything in the Middle East was pro-Israel. People didn’t know about Palestine. They had to learn about the Palestinians, and understand their motivations,” Lord explains. “To be fair and unbiased, you cannot have a perspective beyond filling in the gaps,” he asserts. “You have to inform the audience, not tell them what to think.”
Lord was drawn to broadcast journalism because, at the time, it was the new wave. ”In those days, it was very exciting. There was an artistic side to it where you had to blend the pictures with the copy, and tell a story. It was very appealing,” he remembers. However, he wasn’t always sure of being in front of the camera. “I did daydream about becoming a foreign correspondent, and showing up in a trench coat every month, and then going back to the beach! I did become a foreign correspondent, but spent most of my time in Beirut during a war, so there wasn’t a lot of beach time there. My daydreams did not exactly work out!” he says with a chuckle.
Even after a decade-long career as a successful broadcast journalist, Lord did not enjoy being in the spotlight. “I was just naturally bashful,” he says. “I have always thought that the red light of the camera takes away about 50 IQ points. It was true of me. I could do it, but I was still not comfortable. Transitioning into management felt like a weight had been lifted,” he confesses.
Lord was a natural leader, and thrived in his time as news manager. “When I was a reporter, I was the management’s worst nightmare, because all I cared about was my story. I didn’t care who I made mad,” he says with an air of mischief. That awareness helped him as a manager. “Because I knew that attitude existed with reporters, as a manager, I could talk to them on their own level. We worked on how they could best write their stories, without blowing up the universe. I had credibility because I had done their job, and done it well.” He continues, “I also got a lot more satisfaction leading a team of people to a collective goal rather than being the lone cowboy,” Even as manager, Lord cared about the integrity of the story above all else. Having to balance the needs of both his team and upper level management made him a better communicator.
“You have to realize that when you’re a reporter or a news manager, you are always under pressure to not make waves. Whether it’s a politician, or your boss, or an advertiser, everybody wants you to go easy. Get the story done, and don’t make anybody uncomfortable. It took me a long time to realize I could say ‘no’ to these people in a polite fashion,” explains Lord. He had to “learn to communicate with people who weren’t necessarily my people. I realized over time that it was probably smarter to sit down and talk to them, and explain what I was doing. Even if they disagreed with me, it was better to have that dialogue, instead of just saying ‘go to hell!’”
Despite all the challenges, the newsroom was where Lord wanted to be. “A newsroom has an amazing dynamic. There’s an energy there that doesn’t exist in other businesses. Once the story breaks, everybody throws themselves into it headlong, and it’s like a beehive of activity,” says Lord with palpable passion in his voice.
A good day’s work for Lord meant that “we had beaten the other guys on the big story of the day. For 45 years, there was never a day when I didn’t want to go to work.” He believes that the broadcast newsroom is “a place for adrenalin junkies. Get a good salary to do what you love doing, and have a healthy disrespect for authority figures. Who wouldn’t want that job?” he exclaims.
Lord has also shared his passion for storytelling by giving back to the community in several ways. He is proudest of the time he served as the national board chairman of Prime Movers, an organization dedicated to teaching journalism to young students in minority neighborhoods in the D.C. area. While working at WJLA-TV, Lord and his colleagues bemoaned that they didn’t have “any direct outreach from the newsroom to the inner city schools that didn’t have journalism programs.” During this time, Dorothy Gilliam of “The Washington Post” approached Lord about the Prime Movers project.
“It involved taking our best reporter and photographer out of the newsroom for three weeks to volunteer for the program,” recalls Lord. However, he notes, even during its first year, the program paid huge dividends. “With Dorothy’s help, we recruited other media outlets to do the same thing. We secured a grant from the Knight Foundation. Some of the kids got scholarships to go to college, to journalism school. It was satisfying to see how we helped the community, and how they helped others,” he concludes.
Leading and helping others to achieve their best defines Lord’s legacy. When asked about how he learned to be a good manager, Lord recalls an anecdote about when he was first asked that question. His answer? Everything he needed to know about management he learned “as an infantry sergeant in Vietnam.”
While initially surprised by it, this statement made more sense to Lord the longer he considered it. “In war, you do all the things you have to do as a manager. You have to always be honest. People can sense dishonesty, and then they won’t trust you. You have to be decisive. Even a bad decision is better than no decision,” he shares. “And lastly, to maintain the support of your teammates, you always, always need to have their backs. If you do these three things, the rest of management is pretty easy.”