Whether it’s coal miners in Ukraine or President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, broadcast journalist Ryan Chilcote ’91 will ask anyone anything.
By Jennifer Sutton
“I suspect we’re not the only ones on this phone call,” Ryan Chilcote says at the end of a 90-minute interview.
“People talk about getting spied on by the Russians. I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Chilcote, an Emmy-nominated journalist, isn’t worried. He’s not exaggerating, either. He’s simply stating a possibility that has been part of his life for decades. Now a special correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” Chilcote cut his teeth as a reporter in the CNN Moscow bureau in the late 1990s, and later immersed himself in economics and business while working for Bloomberg Television in London. Chilcote has covered Brexit, the international oil industry, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it is his first beat — Russia — that fascinates him the most.
Chilcote first lobbed interview questions at Russian president Vladimir Putin back in 1999, when Putin was still prime minister under Boris Yeltsin. Since then, there have been other interviews, and last fall, Chilcote shared a stage with Putin at an international energy forum in Moscow, along with Saudi Arabia’s energy minister and CEOs of the world’s largest oil companies. That’s where Putin made headlines when he answered a question from Chilcote, saying that the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal — who was poisoned in England along with his daughter and a bystander who died — was a “scumbag.” Chilcote says, “Putin is at his best when he’s challenged. He’s actually quite good to interview because you can learn a lot you didn’t already know.”
Besides Putin, Chilcote can tick off other notable interviews he’s done: former British prime minister Tony Blair; Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela; and Petro Poroshenko, president of Ukraine. And places he’s reported from: Europe, the former Soviet Union, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt, South Africa, Sudan, Kenya, Iceland, and Russia’s border with North Korea. In London, Chilcote has spent time in the anchor’s chair for Bloomberg Television, wearing a suit and a layer of makeup and updating viewers on the international headlines of the day.
What sticks with Chilcote, though, are the unglamorous, under-the-radar stories. One time, he sat at a kitchen table in southern Russia and interviewed a young mother who was forced to leave her child behind during a deadly hostage crisis at an elementary school. Another time, he went deep under the ground in eastern Ukraine to talk with coal miners who were working without pay while Russian-backed troops fought in the streets above their heads.
How does Chilcote compare these stories, and the intense reporting they require, to the suit and the layer of makeup and the anchorman’s chair? “I’d rather be in the coal mine,” he says. “I’m always more interested in the underreported part of the story.”
Chilcote has “traveled aggressively” as a journalist, he says. He grew up traveling, too, as an “airplane baby” who went back and forth between divorced parents. He became “fiercely independent,” he says, and watched a lot of TV. His mother steered him toward NMH with the hope that he would focus on schoolwork and find a strong mentor.
At NMH, he met Fred Johnson, who taught Russian. It was the late 1980s, and there was great excitement around the prospect of the Soviet Union opening up; Johnson’s introductory Russian class was so packed that Chilcote had to wait a year to get a seat. At 16, he joined an NMH study-abroad program in the USSR led by Johnson. “Academically, I was never the strongest, but Fred thought the experience would resonate with me,” Chilcote says. “Boy, did it.”
In Russia, Chilcote’s independence worked to his advantage. Within his first few hours in Moscow, he found himself changing his money not in a bank but with “a dodgy guy” at the Cosmos Hotel, in a room where the walls were lined with shelves filled with caviar and vodka. “I got 26 rubles on the dollar, which was four times the official exchange rate at the time,” Chilcote recalls with pride.
Chilcote went from NMH to the University of California, Santa Cruz, to study Russian, but in his first semester, a friend, Steve Hope, also an NMH graduate, was hit by a car and killed while the two were mountain biking together. Chilcote decided to take time off from college, and he headed to Russia. He hired a language tutor and made money by exporting Russian crafts to a shop his mother and stepfather owned in New Hampshire. “I’d load up a hockey bag with nesting dolls and painted furniture and porcelain earrings and bring it back with me to the U.S.,” he says. When Chilcote did return to UC-Santa Cruz, he made sure his studies allowed him to do a semester in Moscow.
“Putin is at his best when he’s challenged.
He’s good to interview because you can learn a lot you didn’t already know.”
Besides being a devotee of Russia, Chilcote was also a CNN fan. After finishing college in 1995, when cable TV news was at its peak, he put on the Nordstrom’s suit that his parents had given him as a graduation present and boarded a plane for Atlanta, where CNN’s headquarters were located. Eager and overconfident, he managed to wrangle the attention of the editor in charge of the network’s foreign correspondents. “I said, ‘Hey, my name’s Ryan Chilcote. I know everything about Russia. You should hire me.’” The editor advised Chilcote to take a breath. But he also said that if Chilcote went to Russia on his own dime, he’d see what he could do.
Chilcote took that advice seriously. He got himself to Russia and ended up in a “glorified internship” at CNN’s Moscow bureau. It was a busy time in Russian news: President Boris Yeltsin was in and out of the hospital and fighting for re-election, financial crises were rampant, and Russia was at war in Chechnya. Chilcote did all the grunt work that CNN threw at him and eventually was offered a full-time job as an associate producer. Five years later, he was on the air, reporting the news.
In 2001, Chilcote had just done his first presidential interview — Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus — and had flown back to Moscow on Sept. 11, quite pleased with himself. He walked into the CNN Moscow bureau, put down his bag, turned on the TV, and saw the first World Trade Center tower on fire. Lukashenko was forgotten. “For a few hours, like everyone else in the world, I was glued to the TV. I saw the second plane fly into the second tower. Then I got it,” Chilcote says. He went to his apartment and packed another bag.
“We knew there was going to be a war,” he says. “The U.S. was not going to leave this without consequence. Whatever happened, we wanted to be there to show the world.” That’s what he told Tajik embassy officials as he cajoled them into issuing him and his CNN colleagues visas so they could travel through Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan. By Sept. 14, he was interviewing Afghan soldiers in a trench just a football field away from the Taliban.
Over the next three years, Chilcote returned to Afghanistan seven times, reporting for CNN. He covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, starting out with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division at their base in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He followed the soldiers to Kuwait and, eventually, Baghdad, and along the way, got to know their commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who later became director of the CIA.
Chilcote was relentless in covering breaking news that dominated international headlines, but he also documented local stories that embodied — or were casualties of — larger, more sweeping events. He met a young mother, Anetta, in Beslan, Russia, who told him how she had brought her 9-year-old daughter and her baby girl to a school party celebrating the first day of the academic year. Joy turned to horror when a group of terrorists attacked the school and took Anetta and her children hostage, along with more than a thousand students, teachers, and family members.
Chilcote says, “The terrorists released a group of mothers with infants because the infants were screaming, but they wouldn’t let Anetta take her older daughter with her. She had to decide whether to stay, or leave without her 9-year-old. So the story was about this impossible choice that was not really a choice at all.” Anetta left her 9-year-old in the care of a friend, but the girl died — along with nearly 200 other children — when Russian soldiers stormed the building. “Anetta became a hostage of her own decision because now she lives with such pain, but if she had stayed behind, they could have all died,” Chilcote says. He and Anetta eventually became friends. His story about her was nominated for an Emmy Award.
“Anyone can tell the story of human tragedy in war. It’s harder to do a compelling story about mortgage-backed securities.”
By 2007, Chilcote had produced hundreds of reports on Russia’s tumultuous evolution through political upheaval and war. When Bloomberg Television offered him a job in London as a business reporter, he moved there with his wife and their two small children, ready for a new direction. But “the story afoot,” he says, was the rise of Russia’s oligarchs. With his experience in Russia and his fluent language skill, he was tapped to interview them and “kind of introduce them to the world,” he says.
Business news may lack the urgency and drama of war reporting, but Chilcote contends that’s what makes it more of a challenge. “Anyone can tell the story of human tragedy that exists in war. It’s in your face, particularly in television news,” he says. “It’s much harder to do a compelling story about mortgage-backed securities. And yet that’s what brought down the American economy in 2008.” Financial stories, are “often about the pursuit of creation, or how economies work, or how a crisis can spark things,” he says. “They help us understand important ideas because we live in a geopolitical world where politics and money intersect in a huge number of ways.”
When Chilcote began studying Russian at NMH, it was during the post-Cold War era when the U.S. was enamored of Russia and Russians couldn’t get enough of American capitalism, blue jeans, and music. “But then it slipped away,” he says. “I knew it because I was selling those nesting dolls and painted furniture in my mother’s store, and, all of a sudden, they stopped selling.” Now, he sees little prospect for improvement in the near future. “So many people, and the U.S. Congress, see President Trump’s relationship with Russia as suspect that irrespective of Trump’s desire to improve relations with Russia, there’s no way that he can do that.”
Chilcote covered the 2018 press conference in Helsinki where Putin said he supported Trump in the 2016 election, and where Trump, in turn, praised Putin. The Republican-led U.S. Senate responded by voting to impose greater sanctions on Russia, and to remove much of President Trump’s power to influence those sanctions. Chilcote says, “If I were to put on my analyst hat, I would say that Putin made a big mistake. Because Donald Trump is now so compromised that it’s difficult for the Russians to do anything with him.”
That analyst hat is one that Chilcote is not quite comfortable with. As a reporter, he prefers to disseminate facts and let viewers make their own decisions — to be an objective “student of the world,” he says. “I just like to share my observations. Someday I’ll know enough to have an opinion to share. Right now I’m still learning.”
Chilcote hasn’t lived in the U.S. for nearly 25 years, but having moved from Moscow to London, he says that he is slowly making his way home. He sees himself back in the U.S. someday, traversing the country much like he’s traversed the Middle East, Europe, and Russia. “Kind of like John Steinbeck and Travels With Charley, the way he traveled around with his dog, rediscovering a place,” Chilcote says. “I’m still very much a proud American. Having been outside the U.S. for so long gives me a unique perspective on what’s happening there now, and I have a huge interest in reporting on it firsthand.”
This article was featured in NMH Magazine.