CNN’s John Lewis; the Death of a Colleague

I was deeply saddened by the death of my old friend, CNN Asia correspondent, John Lewis, a legend in television journalism.

I first met John in Tokyo at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan back in 1974, when he was a decorated Vietnam vet from Ohio trying to claw his way into TV, bootstrap style. Personable and easy going, he was one of the few in the club who got along with most of the cantankerous, suicidal, or just plain drunk writers there, and was often the first to step in to stop a fight. In those days you didn’t get fired in this rough and tumble business for punching out competitors.

At my 1977 wedding at the club, John graciously took the pictures because I was too poor to hire a professional. In 1979, rumors spread that this wild man millionaire named the “Mouth of the South,” Ted Turner, was going to start up a 24 hour news cable channel called CNN, and was looking to hire a full time Asia correspondent. We both jumped at the job, and Lewis won out. Everyone was impressed, but kept their fingers crossed.

I was left part time stringing for NBC news, reporting to the late Bruce McDonald, who had worked his way up from writing for Johnny Carson’s Tonight show to the network producer for Asia, which is a big deal. And you wonder where I got my wicked sense of humor.

I often ran into John in the field, he covering the typhoons, floods, and wars, and me the business angle, which often blended into the same story. So we covered the corrupt Marcos regime in the Philippines, the assassination of Indira Gandhi in India, and the opening up of China. We never missed an opportunity to swap contacts and war stories at dingy, dubious bars from Seoul to New Delhi, and all points in between.

We parted ways in the eighties when my career made a sharp jag to the right with my joining Morgan Stanley in New York. John shot to international fame when he ignored Chinese orders to cease covering the Tianamen Square massacre in 1989, and kept beaming reports abroad until the heavies cut the power off. Gutsy move, John.

I heard that John died of a heart attack at 63. Foreign correspondence did not exactly offer a healthy lifestyle, with all the smoking, drinking, and general carousing that went on. There were also the occupational hazards of the occasional stray bullet, bouts of amoebic dysentery, and stints in jail at the behest of some third world dictator. It was a larger than life existence, but not exactly conducive to a family life, so I moved on. John stuck with it, but what a price! I was appalled when I saw his recent picture. The years had not been kind.

John was one of a dying breed of journalist whose sole interest was to get the story right and get it fast. There was no pandering to a particular political viewpoint, stealth marketing on products, or surreptitious product placement that has regrettably become endemic in the trade today. His was really an old fashioned kind of reporting, almost quaint in its principles.

He will be missed.

John Lewis

Tanks - Tienamen Square