Minnesota reporter opens our eyes to the world

We cannot let the week pass without a tip of the blogger hat to Fred de Sam Lazaro, who makes Minnesotans who watch PBS NewsHour a little more proud each time one of his reports airs.

He is marking 40 years since coming to America and runs the Under-told Stories unit under a funding deal with St. Mary’s in Winona, Minn.

“We try to make the foreign less foreign,” he told David Brauer in a 2011 profile. “Why are we engaged with Malawi, with the Congo, what relevance is there to us as Americans, as Minnesotans? Not just in a moral vacuum, but in terms of economic and security interests, what opportunity there is for students. We also look at social entreprenuerialism as a way to look at the world’s problems. We’re not sugar-coating stories, but we’re casting things as solutions-oriented.”

In other words: There’s a lot more to the world than us.

In a commentary on the PBS NewsHour site today, De Sam Lazaro recounts his arrival from India 40 years ago, learning a new language, and finding acceptance after moving to Minnesota.

St. Scholastica offered the liberal arts but no real journalism program. This aspiring journalist enrolled anyway because it had two key assets (three if you add liberal financial aid): the young woman attended there, and Minnesota Public Radio had its Duluth station on the campus, one that served as a northeastern Minnesota bureau for the MPR network.

Its manager was kind enough to offer me an internship and eventually my first full-time job. Dick Daly was an astute journalist and a good teacher, wrapped inside a grumpy exterior and a plume from chain-smoked unfiltered Pall Malls. More than anyone else, he was responsible for scraping the Bangalore off this Bangalorean’s tongue: the consistent use of “w” instead of “v”, dropped “h”s in certain words, like “third.”

“Fred’s never going to get anywhere if he continues to say turd,” the noted MPR host Gary Eichten once told Daly. It should be noted that it took Eichten a long while to learn the correct pronunciation of my name in introducing my reports.

This MPR stint would begin a career built largely around reporting on human suffering. The Duluth Superior region (which includes the Mesabi Iron Range) consistently had the highest rate on unemployment in the nation. The bucolic Range, long a colony of America’s steel and auto industry, emptied out in a mass exodus to the Twin Cities and elsewhere as the industrial heartland became the rust belt. For a cub reporter, there was abundant fodder, far more than one could expect from a region of Duluth’s size.

“I hear you on the radio all the time,” said Jim Russell, a public media stalwart who at the time was the chief production executive at Twin Cities Public Television. “I think you might like to work at KTCA,” as the PBS affiliate was then called.

After a brief stint on the weekly public affairs program “Almanac” came a big break in the bureau KTCA ran for the newly expanded MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. I became its correspondent 30 years ago in October, filing my first story from the Hormel meatpackers strike, another landmark event in Minnesota history.

He’s reported from 62 countries since he started his national gig under the assumption that you really do want to know about the places that most media decided to ignore years ago.