LEWISTON — Crisscrossing the globe to tell the news stories she believes are “most important,” award-winning broadcast journalist Cynthia McFadden was home again Thursday in the Twin Cities to share stories about her ascendant career and humble beginnings.
The senior legal and investigative correspondent for NBC News who reports on human rights abuse and national security, among other top line issues, was featured on a Zoom videoconference version of the Great Falls Forum, hosted by the Lewiston Public Library.
McFadden grew up in Auburn with her adoptive parents and attended Edward Little High School where she won the Maine State Debate Championship in her junior year, which came with a scholarship to Bates College in Lewiston.
But McFadden had her heart set on Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where she had applied early decision. She was accepted and had expected to apply for financial aid. But her father, who worked at the local phone company, said the family had saved enough to cover her education and insisted the school’s financial aid funds should go to more financially deserving students.
She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bowdoin before earning a juris doctorate from Columbia University Law School.
Never forgetting where she came from, McFadden said, “I really do love Maine and miss so much of what she has to offer. And I don’t just mean lobster.”
She told stories about living in a modest home on Monroe Street in Auburn and, later, Cleveland Avenue.
McFadden said she held such a parochial view of the world when she was younger that when CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite referenced LA, she thought he meant the Twin Cities.
“Clearly, I had a lot to learn,” she said.
As a teen, McFadden worked at then-St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston and the Auburn Public Library, where she nearly caused a scandal with her poor spelling, self-addressing overdue book notices as “Auburn Pubic Library.”
She also worked as editor of the school page at the Sun Journal, one of her earlier brushes with journalism, she said.
“Much of my attitude about life, about work and about what is meaningful was forged, not just by Maine, but by my two wonderful Maine parents, Arlene and Warren McFadden,” she said. “They were pretty strict and we were not rich, but they gave me two things that are more valuable than anything: unwavering love and unflinching support.”
That support never diminished, even when McFadden packed up a U-Haul and set out for New York.
“They thought I was nuts,” she said. “And I must say there were periods during which I thought I was too.”
Never intending to practice law, McFadden said she studied at Columbia with her mind set on journalism after late Maine Times newspaper co-founder John Cole advised her to study a specialized field before diving into the vast waters of the Fourth Estate.
The Peabody Award and Emmy winning journalist started her career as executive producer of Fred Friendly’s Media and Society seminars based at Columbia that aired on PBS. A stint as anchor and producer at Courtroom Television Network followed.
She then joined ABC News, where she worked for 20 years, first as legal correspondent and covered the O.J. Simpson trial.
She anchored several news programs at ABC, most notably, “Nightline,” before moving to NBC News.
McFadden talked Thursday about the many meaningful stories she has reported for that network around the world, including in the war-torn country of Central African Republic that was ravaged by food insecurity and populated by fleeing refugees.
She said the U.N. had determined it was “the worst place in the world to be a child,” which is what compelled her to go there despite the significant security risks the trip posed to her and her crew, she said.
Her reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic would take McFadden from struggling hospitals in New York City, when that was the disease’s epicenter, to the Navajo Nation to Uganda.
In East Africa’s Madagascar, she witnessed toddlers lowered into mica caves to mine by their tiny fingers the mineral that would be refined into an insulating material for electronic equipment.
“What we found was shocking,” she said, “Beyond shocking.”
She later confronted large corporations who used the mica in their products with the truth of the origins of those materials.
“Oh, we didn’t know,” they told her. “And so, my follow on question is, ‘Well, you do now. So, now what? Is it OK with you to have part of your supply chain be dependent upon the most vulnerable children in the world?”
She went to the U.S. Congress to seek answers about laws banning the importation of products that depend upon child labor.
“And so, mica from Madagascar was added to that list last year,” she said, “and — happily — many manufacturers want to work with those who are knowledgeable about this area to clean up their supply chains.”
McFadden recalled Thursday the moment she was struck by the journalism bug.
She was lying on the floor at her Auburn home watching the Watergate hearings on television.
“I can remember thinking, ‘I want to be there. I want to be in that front row. I want to be asking the hard questions,’” she said, “having a seat in the front row of history. Nobody told me I couldn’t. My parents said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, do it.’”