Perhaps one of the brightest personalities on the morning newscast at NBC 5 in Chicago is that of popular news anchor Nesita Kwan. Kwan co-anchors the 5-7 a.m. and 11 a.m. weekday newscasts. Born in Montreal, Kwan came to the U.S. at age 10 and graduated with honors from the University of Virginia with a degree in English. Kwan's first stint in broadcasting came in 1986 when she did her first radio broadcast at WINA in Charlottesville, Va., within 24 hours of receiving her degree.
Television soon beckoned, and Kwan was hired as a general assignment reporter/anchor in 1987 for Station WDBJ in Roanoke, Va. She remained there until 1990, when she moved to WVEC in Norfolk, also as a co-anchor/ reporter. After two years, Kwan moved southwest, and soon found herself at KHOU-TV in Houston, where she served as a co-anchor and also produced and reported a consumer affairs segment for the 10 p.m. news. From Houston, the Chinese American Kwan found her way to NBC 5 in Chicago, where she began as co-anchor of the NBC 5 weekend evening newscast.
Besides doing street reporting and special segments, Kwan recently co-hosted a morning lifestyle/entertainment show on NBC called NBC Daytime. Her co-host was Allison Rosati, and although the show was canceled after a brief run, Kwan enjoyed the multitasking she has learned at her Chicago TV base. Friendly yet thoughtful and precise, interviewing Kwan over coffee in a bustling cafe in NBC Tower proved lively and rewarding.
WCT: As an Asian American broadcast journalist, do you feel your career was in any way hampered by prejudice? Also, what is the atmosphere for minorities in the fields of TV and journalism today?
NK: I think when you're an obvious minority, and by that I mean someone who clearly is not white and clearly not native American … I think there are still people out there who see Asian Americans as Asians, and not as Americans. So I think you're looking at a very unique way of hiring. So, you know, you can be the judge of whether or not this is a way in which a career is hampered. But how many Asian Americans do you see on the air at each station? You see one at each station. Television is a visual business.
You could get into the issue of why that's the case, why there's only one Asian American at two of the stations, possibly none at one station. One at another. It begs the question, there must be a lot of other qualified Asian Americans. ... Was my career hampered or not? You know, from where I sit, I've been fortunate in that I've had great mentors, I was fortunate in having great parents who said, you know, "Work hard and do what makes you passionate." So I think all of those factors have been part of what got me here. But I know there are a lot of other qualified Asian Americans out there ... . I think any minority group must ask itself, are we in a position where ( with diversity where it is now ) the world says, OK as long as we get the representative, part of one/one of that minority group, we're OK. Because that's not the point, is it? The point is you get the most qualified people in. Now, I understand that I'm talking about an ideal world where truth and justice prevail, and the person who's the very best at what they do is the one that gets hired. And whether you're in television or anyplace else, there's always going to be other factors. I think you need to be really thoughtful about creating a situation in any industry where you hire one token person where you've got the one person and then the rest of that minority therefore feels they're competing amongst themselves for that one position. I try and ask that question in a lot of situations whether it's about women, or do we have someone who's gay making their point in our newsroom? In every instance that's the goal. To make sure all viewpoints are represented and that it's not a token situation.
WCT: Nesita, why do people get into the field of broadcast journalism?
NK: By and large people who get into this business I think have a reason to get into it other than a good job. They're moved by the desire to tell a story. They're moved by the passion for it. To get into the business, you really have to want to. To stay in it, you really have to want to. Aside from the financial incentives that are clearly different in the beginning when you make $11K a year and work a second job ( and that can be true for four or five or six years ) , a lot of people who stay in the business beyond that period … they have reasons far different from because it's a good job.
WCT: Could you describe the atmosphere from your perspective at Channel 5 when Carol Marin and Ron Magers left at the height of the Jerry Springer commentary controversy. What was it like?
NK: It's interesting. It's so many years later and people keep asking that question. I think for all of us, you know when we hear that question asked, we wince a little bit, because it's not a period that we particularly like to remember. I think Channel 5's a fairly close team ( as employees ) . Both behind the scenes and on the air we can be combative within the group. You know, we very much look at ourselves as Channel 5 employees. I think we try not to look back, we try to look forward. And say that's really a chapter ( Marin-Magers ) that's over and done. The way I look at it, there's nothing to be gained by bringing it back up again. For me, I'd rather look at some of the leaps and bounds we've made since then. For example, our morning show. I look at that and I think the last few years have been really wonderful because we've got such a great crew on the morning show. We really have fun in the mornings. How many people get a chance to say that even though they get up at a ridiculous hour in the morning.
WCT: Can you tell me about a story that you reported on that you are particularly proud of?
NK: When I think of stories that I've done that really matter to me, they are stories where I've been able to bring something to the table that other people, because they've had different experiences, might not have been able to bring to the table. For example, we did a story about gambling in Chinatown. Which is a very touchy issue for the Chinese community. It wasn't a story about gambling in Chinatown but a story about buses being sent into Chinatown to take people, for example when they got off of work at a restaurant at two in the morning to the gambling boats. Buses were free, and there were incentives to get on the bus and it's all very legal. But what does this mean to the community? So there was a moral and ethical dilemma. That story is a good example of a story where I felt I brought something to the table because I'm of course Chinese American so I had knowledge of the community and awareness and it was a controversial story.
WCT: How do you feel about the plight of gays and lesbians in today's society? Should same-sex couples have domestic partner benefits?
NK: On the issue of partnering, I think there are some questions left to be answered. There's the question of marriage. I don't see why gay couples should not be allowed to marry. And then of course all married couples have access to or shared benefits, right? So my question is, since marriage in the gay community is not recognized by the mainstream community the issue of benefits becomes one of how do you define a partnership and when can partners get benefits? Which raises the whole issue of all these heterosexual couples who are no longer choosing to get married in the typical sense because they consider themselves to be domestic partners in the same way, and they're saying, "we should have these benefits as well." I think it's a very complex issue. The direct answer is that I think when people have committed relationships and they can clearly show whether it's by marriage or in some other way that these are the people they want to and plan to spend the rest of their lives with, and that they are in a relationship in which they are sharing households and sharing lives that it's a good idea for our society to offer benefits ( to them ) . It's good for our society, period.
WCT: What about your feelings about the position of gays and lesbians in today's society?
NK: I think the thing I notice the most in interviewing people and in interaction with people is that a lot of times people don't even realize the kinds of prejudice they carry, and that's the part that scares me. Overtly prejudiced people, they're somewhat easier to deal with because you know where they stand. What concerns me is someone who has experienced a lot in life, whether it's kids who are very well educated or well traveled or however that shakes out, they've seen a lot. And they say, "I'm very open-minded." And then they make a statement to me that indicates that they have absolutely no concept you know of what a Gay or lesbian lifestyle is like, what it is to be gay or lesbian, even what it is to be discriminated against regardless of why. There are still people who say to me, "Gosh, you speak English so well. How did you learn to speak English so well?" And often it's not done out of any real prejudice it's done out of ignorance. I often say to people, "if you don't know about it, if you've never been exposed, you never had a discussion with, never truly connected with someone who's going through an experience that's vastly different from your own, where there are difficulties you can't even imagine, you don't really go there."
WCT: What was the most heartbreaking story you ever covered?
NK: Gosh, I mean scrolling through my head when you asked that question is every story about a little child that does injury to another little child. There's the case of the five-year-old dropped from a window because he wouldn't steal candy. You know he was dropped by 11 and 12 year olds! So, you look at every bit of that equation: nothing but heartbreak. You know, and then the case of an 11-year-old kid who was accused of killing a 13-year-old girl and ultimately he was killed, execution-style. I mean, the heartbreak, I don't even want to say it's one story, because it's impossible to extricate one story from the infinite number of stories that involve children hurting children.
Kwan has stepped forward and claimed her rightful place in an industry that hasn't always been kind to those of different ethnic backgrounds. But she appears to be a leader and indeed a role model for not only Asian American women, but also for all people who find their road to success by honoring a strong work ethic and staying true to themselves.