STEPHEN KURKJIAN SPEAKS ON HIS INSPIRATION AND PASSION FOR JOURNALISM
A veteran journalist of forty years and founding member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team discussed the defining moments of his career at the University at Albany on Nov. 14.
Stephen Kurkjian, described by UAlbany journalism professor Jim Odato, as “One of the best reporters in America,” spoke with a classroom filled with journalism students and members of the Albany Student Press, explaining the two most impactful stories of his career and why he chose to continue being a journalist.
Kurkjian was still relatively new to journalism in the 1970s when the Chappaquiddick incident became a national scandal. Sen. Ted Kennedy crashed his car and abandoned it, waiting nine hours before reporting the incident. The woman he was driving with, Mary Jo Kopechne, died from the crash. Kennedy initially denied that any drinking had happened at the party he and Kopechne had attended before.
Kurkjian had first asked his editor at the Boston Globe if he should have gone to the police headquarters to ask them about the case, but the editor instead turned him towards the head medical examiner of the hospital that had taken in Kopechne’s body.
The original claim by Kennedy that no drinking had occurred at the party beforehand was changed; as the blood sample taken from Kopechne showed that while still being below the legal limit, she had recently ingested alcohol.
“That story made a difference. It stopped the spin and lying started by the siege of the news, and Kennedy started pleading guilty to minor charges,” Kurkjian said.
Another defining story of Kurkjian’s early journalism career was his coverage of the Woodstock Music and Arts Fair. He was originally supposed to be on a week’s vacation, attending the festival in his free time. Instead, he received news from the Boston Globe that the festival was thought to be a protest, and might be shut down by the National Guard upon orders from Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
After receiving the news, Kurkjian went to the bandstand asking if they were going to shut down or keep playing. He said that the stage crew member replied, “No, we’re going on in two hours. If Rockefeller shuts us down, then we’ll have a riot.”
According to Kurkjian, “The real difference was that we (The Boston Globe) had a reporter up close and asking questions, even if our quotes opposed those from other newspapers.”
Kurkjian, who at the time was going to law school during the night while writing for the Boston Globe during the day, said that those stories were what kept him in the journalism field instead of becoming a lawyer.
Enthusiasm and a passion to make a difference are two of the major forces the Kurkjian has been driven by. Describing himself as “a punk” when he was younger, Kurkjian said he feels that he was born for this business.
“Everyone has stories they like, and mine had a base sense of unfairness,” he said.
Growing up as part of the middle class in Boston, he saw first-hand the unfairness of how certain sections of society were, and still are treated.
To the room filled with student journalists, Kurkjian said, “The First Amendment is ours.”
Although he only took journalism courses for one semester in college, he stressed the importance of the classes, stating that what journalism professors are teaching are skills journalists use every day.
Kurkjian believes that reporting is “knowledge sharpened and used as a wedge to get change,” and strives as a reporter to do his best to help maintain the civic health of his community.