Eager to learn about the world, Michael Isikoff left the U.S. for the first time to study abroad in Durham, England. Traveling extensively throughout Europe – including seeing first-hand the contrasts between East and West Germany – put the Cold War into context for the budding journalist, who would later receive critical acclaim for his coverage of breaking stories from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the war on terror. Today, after spending his career with The Washington Post, Newsweek, and NBC News, Michael is Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News. Learn how study abroad deepened his interest in international relations and politics and how it has influenced his career as a journalist ever since.
IES Abroad: As a student at Washington University, what led you to study abroad in Durham?
Michael Isikoff: First and foremost, I was looking for an adventure and excitement and to learn about the world. I had never been to Europe, and study abroad seemed like a great opportunity. I was a history major at Washington University in St. Louis, and what really intrigued me about IES Abroad was the ability to use the opportunity as a springboard to travel throughout Europe. I wanted to take full advantage of that. In Durham, I lived in Castle College and ate my meals in the college, which was built by Normans who came over with William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, just opposite one of the truly magnificent cathedrals in the British Isles. I was steeped in British history, and the opportunity to see the world – to see Europe from both East and West – is something I cherish.
IES Abroad: What are some of your greatest memories from your time in Durham?
MI: I loved it. First of all, it was a great group in 1972-73. We bonded right away, and many of us have stayed friends throughout the decades since. There were even a few marriages that resulted from that group. Our leader, Professor Scooner, was a somewhat eccentric guy and an economic historian with all kinds of insights. He took us all around the U.K, and the most exciting part for me was traveling in Europe. We went literally everywhere in Western Europe for about a week each trip. It became the springboard for further travel, and I had some incredible adventures on those trips. After the first trip in December, I and a whole bunch of others hitchhiked in Germany. We all ended up with the same family in Germany and celebrated Christmas with them. They were the warmest family. We were sitting around the Christmas tree and went to Christmas services. It was one of those experiences that sticks with you.
From there, a couple of buddies and I went to Berlin. We went to the Berlin Wall, hitchhiking through East Germany and through Checkpoint Charlie. We were in hardline, communist-controlled Germany. The contrast between East and West Berlin could not have been starker. The East Germans, still under communist control, had not rebuilt. We walked past the bombed out Reichstag near the Berlin Wall, and talking with the East Germans was just unbelievable for a kid who had grown up in the Cold War era. Someone pointed out where Hitler’s bunker had been. We went over there, and an East German tank rolled up with machine gun wielding soldiers barking at us to get away. For me, intellectually, that was the highlight of the trip and maybe my whole time there. I had never experienced anything like that.
IES Abroad: What inspired you to become a journalist? Did your experience in Durham influence your career path or type of journalism you wanted to pursue?
MI: The Brits are great writers. I probably knew that I wanted to be a journalist when I was in Durham, but I hadn’t made a definitive decision about career choice. I was editor of my school paper at Washington University during my sophomore year and was always a political junkie, so I knew that I was interested in journalism. For me, it was the speakers who would come, hanging out at the Shakespeare Pub where we’d gather, and just the whole experience of being there. It was a big growth year for me, becoming cosmopolitan with all of the travel. One of the countries that I hadn’t visited with the program was Spain. After the term ended, a British buddy and I went to Spain. We went to Pamplona and ran with the bulls. I came pretty close to being gored. I was determined to run with the bulls, having been steeped in Hemmingway. After the run, I made it to a small side street, which is on the way to the big stadium. I leapt up onto a railing to let the bulls pass and then jumped down when I thought the last bull had passed. My jumping down had distracted a bull, and we were eye to eye, me and the bull, and I could see my life flashing before my eyes. Mercifully, a Spaniard nearby had a rolled up newspaper and whacked the bull, and he ran off. My life was saved by a newspaper, and this inspired me to become a newspaper person.
IES Abroad: Were there lessons learned in Durham that helped you in the early days of your career?
MI: Studying abroad was certainly a formative experience for me. It incited my interest in the world, world travel, international relations, and politics, all of which factored into my career choice as a journalist and all I have done since.
IES Abroad: You are now the Chief Investigative Correspondent for Yahoo News after a career at NBC News, The Washington Post, and Newsweek. What motivated your move to a digital media outlet?
MI: The media has changed so rapidly and so much. The distinctions among the outlets have become less and less. We are all multi-platformed actors these days. I write. I go on TV. I do videos. I go deep into stories. At Yahoo, I do all of the above. More and more, at other news outlets, people are doing the same thing. Everybody writes for online. The world has changed. Yahoo is a great platform. Having come from network TV, I still enjoy doing news videos.
IES Abroad: Looking back at the stories you have broken and reported on over the course of your career, what are you most proud of?
MI: I’ve written a couple of books that have been best-sellers, so I’m very proud of the books I’ve written – Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story, about my experiences during the Clinton era, and Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, about the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq. The thing that I am most proud of this past year is a documentary I did that has gotten a lot of attention, Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays. It is an historical documentary about the persecution of gays by the federal government. It has some really fascinating material, documents that have not been seen before, and I was able to use my investigative talents.
Obviously, I have broken a lot of stories from the Monica Lewinsky story to stories on the war on terror, stories on the use of torture and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” I don’t know that I would pick any one of these as the most rewarding. You know, I’m an old newspaper guy. The thrill of the scoop is what always got my adrenalin going. I remember my first real newspaper job was with the Washington Star, the afternoon paper. I was a young reporter covering Prince George County, one of the suburbs here [in the D.C. area], and I had the scoop on a sleazy land deal that the county executive from Prince George County was involved in. It was my first big story at the Washington Star. It didn’t count, though, unless the Washington Post then chased the story. That would be when it was ratified as a totally worthy scoop. I was sitting at a dive bar with a group of buddies, and the early morning edition of the Washington Post was slapped onto the bar. I grabbed it, and there on the front page, they were chasing my scoop. It was my most thrilling moment in journalism.
IES Abroad: How important is cross cultural competency in today’s world?
MI: It is one world. We are all connected. In a bizarre way, look at ISIS, which on one hand has this ideology and practices out of the Middle Ages, the most barbaric imaginable. Yet, how do they communicate? On Twitter and social media. How do they recruit? Using the most up-to-date encryption to avoid detection, the most up-to-date technology. People all of the world are using the same technology. It is a reminder that no matter the geographical or ideological barriers, we are all interconnected. It shatters all paradigms of only twenty years ago. When I do a story for Yahoo, the first thing I do is Tweet it. Within seconds, I get a ping that someone has read my story and is retweeting it. People are commenting on it. It is not anything that I could have imagined when I first started.
IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life today?
MI: Talking and listening to others to get their perspectives is important to understand the world.
IES Abroad: What advice do you have for the students who are considering studying abroad today?
MI: Do it. Get out there. Travel. See the world. My advice is to take advantage of what is likely to be a rare opportunity, one that will stick with you for many, many years. It was a great year.