If there’s ever been anyone worthy of calling himself a Bitter Lawyer, it’s ABC newsman Bob Woodruff. However, despite having a top-notch career interrupted by a near-fatal incident, that is hardly his attitude.
First as a corporate lawyer, and later as a journalist, Woodruff has had a knack for finding himself in harm’s way. As a young lawyer, Woodruff caught the journalism bug while working in China. The year was 1989, and Woodruff went from law professor to CBS News “fixer” overnight when the nation’s young people—some of whom were his students—put their lives on the line in what became known as the Tiananmen Square protests.
Tiananmen Square wasn’t the end of Woodruff’s legal career, but it marked the beginning of Bob Woodruff’s more-public career as a television journalist. In the decades that followed, Woodruff earned a reputation as an effective, no-nonsense reporter for ABC News. He covered stories in international hot spots like North Korea and Iran, as well as domestic disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
Those assignments eventually propelled Woodruff to the top seat—co-anchor of ABC’s “World News Tonight.” In January 2006, less than a month after succeeding Peter Jennings, Woodruff was on assignment reporting from the front lines of the Iraq war, when an improvised explosive device detonated, severely wounding Woodruff and cameraman Doug Vogt. After a month-long coma and a painstaking, hard-fought recovery, Woodruff has returned to ABC News as a correspondent, and this last July, he even courageously returned to Iraq as a reporter.
Bitter Lawyer recently caught up with Mr. Woodruff to find out how he went from law to journalism, what it’s like inside North Korea, and if humans can save the world from themselves.
Where did you go to law school?
University of Michigan. [Class of] 1987.
What made you want to be a lawyer?
I thought I could do international business work, especially in China for a while, [and] then back in the U.S.
Where did you practice?
M&A at Shearman and Sterling in New York, then taught law to young Chinese lawyers in 1988-89, then bankruptcy in San Francisco for two more years.
What was it like teaching in China? Are Chinese law students neurotic too?
They might be neurotic, but I can’t remember the Chinese word for “neurotic.”
How did you become a journalist? Was it something you had always wanted to do, or did it just happen one day?
I thought about going to grad school for journalism after college, but I really loved law. Then, when [I was] living in China, Tiananmen Square happened at the end of that year. Some of my students were shot, and I became a “fixer” for CBS News. I got addicted.
It’s been twenty years since Tiananmen Square—an event that had an enormous impact on your career and the future of China. What was your view of the protests and massacre at the time, and what’s your view now? Where would you personally be if Tiananmen Square hadn’t happened?
That event certainly sent me on a completely different course. Would I be a journalist if I was not stuck in it? I don’t really know. I hope so. As for China, it changed that country much faster than they ever expected. It is part of the reason why 600 million Chinese have moved out of poverty, the economy has skyrocketed and they have relative freedom (although not real democracy).
But shortly after Tiananmen Square, I was disgusted and furious about what happened to the people. I witnessed it. In our university—the building where I taught—the people brought four dead bodies and put them on top of four huge ice blocks to give them a quick funeral.
In addition to bearing witness to the events of Tiananmen Square, you’re also one of the few Western journalists who have been inside of North Korea. What surprised you most about what you saw there?
It is no secret that North Korea is perhaps the most bizarre country in the world. You look at the image from space and see there are no lights because [there’s] no money or energy. The capital of Pyongyang has traffic lights, but they are not on. Instead, military women direct the traffic. The people know nothing about the world. They have no news or internet access. This is changing slowly, but we all hope it will happen faster.
Do you think your legal background gives you an edge as a reporter?
I believe that studying law is one of the best educations you can pursue. Sometimes people don’t like it when you drill them with little facts and balanced messages, but that is our way, right? If not, we would have failed school.
There are a lot of former lawyers working in journalism. Is that just a coincidence, or do you think journalism’s quest for truth is a tonic for many lawyers who have become jaded by practice?
I think you are dead on. First of all, after being a lawyer, you can be almost anything, depending on your other love. If you are a lawyer/artist or a lawyer/writer or a lawyer/magazine reader, then you can just change to the latter. Perhaps people are more likely to be readers and writers, so they are comfortable pursuing journalism. But it is a tight funnel. Many try it, and many drop out.
What was your best moment as a lawyer? What was your worst?
I had a lot of good moments. But the worst was when a banker client committed suicide during the bankruptcy. That was my last project in law.
What’s a typical day for you as a journalist?
There is no “typical” day in journalism. Sometimes [it’s] incredibly interesting, and sometimes it’s boring like any job. But I would say [it’s] the former at least 80 percent of the time.
Is being a journalist better than being a lawyer?
I loved being a lawyer, but it was really only for three years of practicing and one year teaching over in Beijing. I have been a journalist for eighteen years now, and I have had a great adventure.
On that “great adventure,” you were severely injured while reporting from Iraq. At any point in your recovery did you regret your decision to become a journalist?
I was nearly killed in Iraq and was in a coma for thirty-six days before I woke up. [But] I never regret becoming a journalist.
You recently went back to Iraq in July. What was your experience like?
We wanted to get back to Balad, Iraq, which is where they saved my life, but because of a big sandstorm, we could not get there. What I really wanted to do was visit those doctors, nurses and medics who are still saving so many [people]. But ironically, we went to Kandahar, Afghanistan instead. There I saw two others who worked on me while I was still unconscious and in a coma back in 2006. Of course I did not recognize them, but I had an excuse. We hugged. The shift from Iraq to Afghanistan [is what’s going on] these days, [it’s] not troops, but medical forces as well.
A few months ago, we saw your latest ABC special, “Earth 2100,” which explores the predictions of some experts who believe that over the next 100 years, a “perfect storm” of climate change, scarcity of resources and population growth could threaten humanity’s existence. What got you started on this story?
I have been talking about climate change for years, and it has been difficult to get networks to report about it. I would say 92 percent of the scientists believe 100 percent that there is man-made climate change, and the other 8 percent think there could be [a man-made climate change]. But “Earth 2100” is about the worst case, not the absolutely inevitable case. [However] we need to do something about this soon.
As a lawyer and then a journalist, you’ve dealt with facts that have already happened, how did you handle the challenge of forward-looking reporting?
Scientific studies have a range of possibilities. They have explained this in papers, but we had to show it on TV. So we used the “graphic novel” approach. It is a unique way to show people what [the future] could look like.
“Earth 2100” paints a rather bleak picture, but at the very end, you give some examples of things we can do to avoid catastrophe. Do you think we can do it?
You’ve covered a wide range of stories in your career. Is there one that you’d like to do again? What would you do differently?
I would like to report about the shift of control from the U.S. military to the Iraqi military again, but this time stay inside the tank.
Do you have any advice for lawyers out there looking for a second career?
I have told so many kids who are graduating from high school (like my son) or college that they should pursue what they love, not to go after something because of money.
I made more than $100,000 [per year] when I left law to go make $12,000 [per year] in my first journalism job, and that was when my son was two-months old. I was happier than I was a week earlier. I was 30 years old, and somehow my wife did not divorce me. Of course, as we get older, it is harder to change without concern about income. We have more debt, perhaps, and responsibility for kids or aging parents, but if you can pull it off, it is good.