Earleen Fisher · 2014

earleen fisher

Were the byline “Earl Fisher,” the reporter and editor would belong, solidly, in the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame. More than 30 years with The Associated Press in Indianapolis, New York and dozens of foreign cities, Fisher directed news staffs and produced detailed dispatches from active war zones, poignant features on people caught in political cross-fire and no-nonsense interviews with heads of state. All of this from a born-and-raised Hoosier who learned the trade at Indiana University.

But the byline belongs to Earleen Fisher, a journalist who began her career when females were not allowed membership in the Indianapolis Press Club, and it was common for a woman to hear the sort of answer Fisher received when she asked a boss if AP would ever elevate her from temporary to permanent status: “What are you worried about? You don’t have a wife and kids.”

Fisher responded to that clueless, sexist remark as she would to others over the years, by being a top-notch pro. She not only got a permanent job at AP, she went on to file from datelines such as Beirut, Tel Aviv, Nicosia, Dhaka and Kabul. Eventually, she became a supervisor on AP’s foreign desk in New York, the New Delhi bureau chief, then chief of Middle Eastern Services, directing a staff of more than 100 journalists who covered news in 16 countries.

“It wasn’t any kind of feminist crusade,” Fisher said. “A job had to be done, so do it.”

And do it she did, whether the job was chronicling the pullout of Soviet troops in Afghanistan or covering India’s first national election since the assassination of Indira Gandhi – just as 30 metric tons of methyl isocyanate began to leak from a Union Carbide facility in Bhopal.

IU journalism professor Ronald Farrar was not among the clueless when he advised Fisher her senior year that she was “good wire service material.”

Much of what inspired Farrar’s assessment was sown early and deep in Fisher’s life in Milford, Ind., (population, about 1,500). A globe her parents gave her in grammar school pulled her hyper-curiosity toward countries far from the family farm and Milford’s small social circles: “I kept asking where these places were. I wanted to see these places.” At the same time, she acquired the work ethic of a farm family, its ingrained practicality and inventive problem-solving skills; they served her well.

In Beirut in 1982, for example, AP staffers were hamstrung when the repairman for their truly precious Telex stopped coming to the office during Israel’s siege of Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. The tech lived in Christian East Beirut and had to cross the front line to get to AP in mostly Muslim West Beirut. While her colleagues fretted and complained, Fisher dug into the guts of the machine and discovered how to fix it herself.

She had been known for ingenuity since her early days at Indy AP. United Press International and AP were rivals for subscribers then, and Indiana high school basketball scores served as valuable lures. In the pre-fax, pre-email 1960s, many scores had to be tracked down. Just out of IU (and unlike the Canadian running the weekend news desk), Fisher knew state geography and the universal appeal of Hoosier high school hoops. Mining directory assistance, she phoned every entity from county coroners’ offices to village gas stations, finding people who had seen games and could provide or confirm final scores. AP drubbed UPI.

Such industriousness earned Fisher a reputation around AP as “a good desker,” which landed her a job in New York in 1971 on the wire service’s U.S. News Report. Women’s equality also lagged there. Fisher remembers a particularly crusty guy who phoned in from the New York Daily News and insisted on addressing her as “dear.” When she took to calling him “lamb chop,” “dear” disappeared.

By 1977, Fisher was married to an AP reporter and considering possible desk jobs with The New York Times and the San Francisco Examiner. Her husband, however, was offered an AP post in Cairo, Egypt, “and Cairo won.” (The couple divorced in 1988.) True to form, Fisher threw herself into freelancing and stringing for AP (“$7 a day”), as well as The New York Times and Voice of America. She studied Arabic and was the contact many visiting Western correspondents depended upon to get the lay of the land. By 1980, she was back on full-time staff for AP.

She saw during those years that being a woman sometimes worked as well for her as against her in gender-segregated cultures. In conservative areas, females often didn’t talk to male reporters, but they talked to Fisher, and locals were less suspicious of her than her male colleagues.

Once, in Beirut in 1981, Western journalists were trying to cover a car bombing, but were turned back at gunpoint by PLO guerillas. Scanning the street for a place to hide, Fisher was suddenly pulled off the sidewalk by three women and whisked inside their home, where they provided eyewitness accounts of the explosion. No man would have been so fortunate.

Male journalists also might have missed out on a homemade antidote for tear gas given to Fisher by Bangladeshi women: an onion cut in two to hold near her eyes. “I never quite understood how it worked – or if it worked,” she said, “but when somebody is kind enough to offer you a half an onion for tear gas, you take it.”

Part of people’s comfort with her was a response to knowledge Fisher had gained in Milford: a comprehension and appreciation of the extended-family nature of small-town or village life. Throughout her years in the Middle East, that ease with non-urbanites – a respect for what makes conservative and unsophisticated people tick – won her access, trust and loyalty.

Fisher left AP in 2004, taught at American University in Cairo and worked in Beirut on a U.S.-funded media development program for the Middle East and North Africa. In 2007, she came home to Milford, where she lives in a house she designed. She uses 21st century technology to stay in close touch with news and friends from abroad, but finally has time to indulge her first love, reading English history. Among her many treasures are three cats, including Alpha, who was born in Cyprus more than 20 years ago.

–by Stephanie Salter, board member, Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame

 

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