Voice for the Voiceless: Vladimir Duthiers

Photo courtesy of Vladimir Duthiers

Photo courtesy of Vladimir Duthiers

If you’re a fan of CBS News, you’ve probably seen the reports by Vladimir Duthiers ’91, a globetrotting correspondent who has covered some of the most compelling stories of the last decade.

By Elizabeth Rau

If you’re a fan of CBS News, you’ve probably seen the reports by Vladimir Duthiers ’91, a globetrotting correspondent who has covered some of the most compelling stories of the last decade.

The Brussels and Paris bombings, the police shooting of an unarmed African-American man in Ferguson, the devastating earthquake in Haiti, Superstorm Sandy—all were reported by the award-winning journalist who got his start on our woody campus in Kingston.

The son of Haitian immigrants living in New York, Duthiers majored in political science at URI, but cut his teeth as a reporter for The Good 5 Cent Cigar and as a program host on the campus radio station, WRIU.

His path to journalism, however, was winding. Confronted by a lack of writing jobs after graduation, he found work with a global asset management firm, a position he held for 16 years before some soul searching led him back to journalism and graduate school at Columbia University.

The rest, as they say, is history. His big break came when CNN anchor Anderson Cooper asked Duthiers, who speaks Haitian Creole, to accompany him to Haiti. Those reports led to Emmys and, eventually, a job as a CNN international correspondent based in Nigeria, where he later won a Peabody for his coverage of the abduction of Nigerian schoolgirls. Since joining CBS News in 2014, he’s been working in the field and behind the anchor desk on hard news as well as features.

URI caught up with Duthiers in between assignments to chat about his wonderfully busy life.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. We know you’re on the go 24/7. What’s the best thing about being a journalist?

I’m always reminded of something Zora Neale Hurston once said: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” But for many people in this world, though they may scream and shout about their pain, often their voices are drowned out by forces greater than them. Like the families of the missing schoolgirls in Nigeria or the victims of war, terrorism and curable diseases. I try to give them a voice through my reporting. Secondly, it is astonishing to me that I get paid to feed my infinite curiosity about everything from politics and history, to science, the arts and Star Wars.

You covered the Brussels bombing and interviewed a Brazilian-Belgian basketball player who nearly died. That must’ve been emotionally wrenching.

Meeting Sebastien Bellin was incredibly moving. Here was a man who nearly died in a horrific attack that killed dozens of innocent people yet he wasn’t angry, he wasn’t self-pitying. He had so much positive energy and inner light, it nearly blinded me. Not everyone can be like that and I think there are lessons to be learned from Seb about how to face adversity in life.

You spent a month covering the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American. Why is this such an important story for our country?

Because society needs to understand what is happening in our country, why it is happening and from there, we can move forward to find solutions. The Guardian newspaper found that young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015. But the reasons why this is are complex and go beyond just the actions of individual police officers. We need to examine our society, laws and policies for answers.

What story in your career so far has been especially moving for you?

The earthquake in Haiti. For more than a month it was the biggest story in the world but, of course, I felt connected to it in a way that is hard to describe. I had never seen a dead body before (except at a funeral) and here I was confronted with thousands of them on the street, in classrooms, restaurants—everywhere. There were many times that I cried even as I was writing in my notebook what I was seeing and hearing. But being there with Anderson Cooper on my first major assignment helped me understand very quickly how a reporter does his job in extreme conditions. The facts yes, but with humility and sensitivity.  Without that, I think I would have struggled when I was assigned to cover West Africa. #BringBackOurGirls in Nigeria is a close second. Haiti was big news around the world. With the girls it didn’t start that way, we (the press) were able to make people notice, from British Prime Minister David Cameron to Michelle Obama. But they are still missing. So there’s that.

How valuable was your journalism experience at The Good Five-Cent Cigar—and your political science courses? Did you put in some long hours in the newsroom?

Everything in life has a foundation and for me, my poli-sci and history classes and the Cigar are exactly that. I wasn’t always the most diligent student but I absorbed a lot—thanks to Professors Killilea and Weisbord especially—and I seized every opportunity to write for the Cigar.

How did you connect with URI graduate and CNN superstar Christiane Amanpour? How important is networking for budding journalists?

I was her 38-year-old intern! She liked the fact that I had lived all over the world, had been in the Army through my ROTC time at URI and was so passionate about journalism I was attempting to break into it so late in life—and from the very bottom. Yes, I was older and more experienced than most interns but not in broadcast journalism.  Many times, she’d turn to me and say things like “Vlad, write this down in your notebook! Don’t ever take someone’s word for it. A journalist must go there to see and hear what is happening.” Networking isn’t everything but it is important, especially early on. Most of my early breaks happened because of networking.

Any advice for a URI student who wants to be an international correspondent?

First, you have to be curious about what is happening beyond your world or community. Second, I think the inclination is to try to freelance in dangerous places like Syria or Iraq but without proper training, good resources on the ground, etc., that can be a fatal mistake. Working as an assignment editor on a foreign desk for a few years is a good start. That was Christiane’s path and many others. Also, try to think about a country where most journalists don’t want to be based. Everyone wants Paris, London, Beirut or Istanbul. I had a friend from graduate school who was from Italy, but she took a job working for a NYC-based Haitian newspaper in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Outside the box and not glamorous but boy did she learn a lot in a year. Now, she’s at Vice. You have to get out of your comfort zone and expect that it will be several years before you get back to it—if ever.

You flew with the Navy’s Blue Angels. Terrifying or thrilling—or a combination of both?

BOTH. But I didn’t get sick and I only passed out for a split second at the very end of my ride. Which is of course the part that ran on CBS This Morning.

One final question: You have to jump on a plane at a moment’s notice. What’s in your go-to suitcase?

My iPod and my Kindle with noise cancelling headphones; without them I am toast. Two mobile phones. Notebook obviously. Beef jerky, bags of almonds and packets of tuna. Everyone got sick in Haiti in the days after the quake. Not me. Asolo Fugitive GTX boots. Flashlight. A Leatherman multi-tool but only if you’re checking luggage. A couple of shirts made by 5.11 Tactical. They repel mosquitos, are practically waterproof and stink-proof because you never know when you’ll get to shower. My North Face Cyclone rain jacket and my Patagonia R4 fleece. Because even in West Africa, it can get wet or chilly, especially if you have to sleep out in the bush. A sense of humor.

From the archives: QuadAngles, Winter 2013

There and Back Again
From the Cigar to Wall Street to CNN, Vladimir Duthiers ’91 has come full circle.