Ken Dilanian

NBC News Correspondent Dilanian to Speak at Mirror-Spectator Panel, Gala


WATERTOWN — Ken Dilanian is the justice and intelligence correspondent for NBC News, based in Washington D.C. He will be one of the panel members discussing “Media Coverage of Armenia and Artsakh Today” at Tufts University on Friday, October 27, and at the Armenian Mirror-Spectator’s 90th anniversary gala the following evening.

Starting last year, Dilanian’s focus at work has been primarily the Justice Department. He has an office in the Justice Department’s press room, and covers the FBI, the Attorney-General, and the various things the Justice Department is doing, with the biggest stories being right now the special council investigations and prosecutions of the prior president and the investigation of the current president and his son.

The 55-year-old Dilanian said that at NBC currently he has three different types of work. “One job is to go on cable and do a live shot. I just talk off the cuff or sometimes read a teleprompter about a breaking story of the day,” he said, but he also still writes articles. These are usually on something interesting and new but not suitable for television, or an article summarizing a television story that he had done.

His third category of work is preparing the television package. He said, “For that you go out and shoot the story. You do the interviews, bring together the visual elements with the help of a producer, and then you write a script putting all that together.”

A Career Path Leads to Iraq

When Dilanian was studying at Williams College, choosing journalism as a career was still not definite. In fact, he said, “I kind of stumbled into it.” He majored in political science and history, and would write for the Williams Record, the weekly college newspaper. There was no journalism program at Williams, so he took one month winter study courses from outside journalists.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

During his senior year, in 1990-1991, he recalled that there was a lot going on in international affairs, including the Gulf War. “I got the bug writing weekly columns that people were reading. It was fun, but I still wasn’t 100 percent sure how do you even get into journalism,” he said. He also worked on a weekly Williamstown newspaper called The Advocate, whose editor took him under his wing and taught him basic news writing skills.

He interviewed for a job in a New York ad agency but did not get accepted. As he was graduating he decided to try to get a job with a newspaper somewhere, he said, and he finally was accepted by the Philadelphia Inquirer as a suburban reporter. He said, “Even though it was a great newspaper, at the time I was at the very bottom rung, making very little money.” He was green and untrained, he said, and learned on the job.

He became fully hooked on journalism there, exclaiming: “The Philadelphia Inquirer at that time had just won the Pulitzer Prize for 17 years in a row. It was filled with these amazing reporters and writers. At the time, they had some six foreign bureaus around the world. It was the height of the metropolitan daily newspaper. It was a really heady time and I just really loved it.”

The job was basically a two-year internship, so he had to leave. He went on to newspapers in Texas, the Fort Worth Star and the San Antonio Express, before being hired back by the Philadelphia Inquirer as a staff writer in 1997. He covered city hall and the state legislature, before becoming the Inquirer’s last foreign correspondent, based in Rome for three years.

Reporting from Baghdad for the Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2005 (courtesy Ken Dilanian)

Dilanian said that he had never worked abroad before, but regional newspapers would send their local reporters out when international positions opened. When he came to Rome in the fall of 2002, the buildup to the Iraq War was happening. The Inquirer was owned by the American media company Knight Ridder, which owned many other newspapers such as the Miami Herald, and all these newspapers decided to pool resources for coverage of the war. They embedded reporters with various American military units, all arranged through the editors back in the US.

Dilanian worked with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in Italy, which parachuted into northern Iraq. Aside from being embedded with it, he also worked independently out of what became the newspaper’s bureau in Baghdad. This gave him experience from two different perspectives.

Ken Dilanian, second from left, with a medivac company at Taji airfield in Iraq, January 2005 (courtesy Ken Dilanian)

He said, “When you are embedded, you are living with the US military…They are protecting your life, so it does influence how you approach your job as a journalist. There are some concerns about whether that is a fully independent relationship, but you certainly see things from their point of view.” He saw, for example, terrified 18-year-old privates worried about incoming cars being suicide bombers at checkpoints.

However, when he was living in Baghdad with a “fixer” and translator, and driving around, he also saw horrible civilian casualties. He said, “Families would drive up to US military checkpoints, not realizing the implications of that, and get gunned down.”

While in Iraq, he said, he was not ever in any really heavy combat, though he was shot at a couple of times while on patrol with the US troops. He said the most dangerous situation was probably when he was going around independently as a reporter all over the country, from Baghdad to Basra. He even reported in Falluja, which became a no-go zone and a hotbed of the insurgency. He said, “We didn’t realize how dangerous it really was until reporters started getting kidnapped and Americans were being snatched. All of a sudden, the things that we used to do, nobody could do any more.”

Of all his journalistic work in his career, Dilanian said, “I am most proud of the work I did as a foreign correspondent. That was incredibly fun and rewarding. We were telling stories, giving voice to people who have no voice. I can remember interviewing these marsh Arabs who lived, in a garbage dump outside of Baghdad, and thinking, I had never seen people like this and never will again. It was just incredible, the kind of people that you met – for example, migrants on a boat, coming into Lampedusa, trying to get from Africa to Italy.”

Coming back to the United States, Dilanian eventually took a new position with USA Today as State Department and Congressional correspondent from 2007. Remaining in Washington, he became National Security correspondent for the Los Angeles Times from 2010-14, after which he continued to cover the intelligence for Associated Press for several years, and finally, in 2007, began his current position with NBC News.

Covering Intelligence Agencies and Department of Justice

For some ten years, Dilanian covered the intelligence agencies. He said, “That was the hardest thing I have ever done in journalism. It never got easy. In the beginning, it is almost impossible, and it takes years to build up your sources. It is every day trying to get people to talk to you who have no incentive to talk to you, and every incentive not to talk to you, and to try to find breadcrumbs, bits and pieces of information.”

Intelligence officers who are currently serving are actually prohibited from speaking with the media. They are periodically polygraphed and asked whether they are talking with reporters, Dilanian related. Consequently, he had to talk with a lot of former operatives who still have contact with people on the inside, as well as consumers of intelligence, including on the Hill. He is using the skills he developed then, he said, to find out at present some answers about how the Hamas attack happened in Gaza and what is going on with the hostages.

Avoiding reliance on just one set of sources is one important way to not be manipulated or deceived about a news situation. Dilanian cited the great lesson of the very company that he was working for at the Inquirer, Knight Ridder covering the Iraq war: “My colleagues at the time who were in Washington covering the intelligence agencies were the only people who consistently questioned the account of the Bush administration, putting those stories on the front page. They did that because they were lowly Knight Ridder, and they couldn’t get the kind of people who were talking to the New York Times to talk to them, so they were talking to low level people who told them the truth. I always keep that in mind.”

In other words, he summarized, “The best way to explain how to do that is you have to triangulate. If official intelligence sources tell you something, you should check with people on the Hill who do oversight of those folks, and others – different political parties if there is a dispute about something, to make sure that you are not overly reliant on one source of information.”

(While Dilanian was accused in 2014 of submitting some materials he was working on to the CIA for review prior to publication, Dilanian said that the situation was not really what it appeared to be, and he was trying to get information out of the CIA, while he also wrote a lot of stories that were very tough on the agency.)

Dilanian said that his work at the Justice Department is even harder than reporting on spy agencies. He noted: “It is a felony for a prosecutor to talk about a pending grand jury investigation, so that is even tougher than the [situation of a] CIA person talking about unclassified information.”

Since the Justice Department won’t talk about pending investigations officially, almost all the information reported on comes from other sources, such as defense lawyers, lawyers for witnesses who have to come in to a grand jury, and people briefed on what is happening.

Armenian Family Background

Dilanian’s father’s parents were from various parts of the Ottoman Empire. Dilanian said that the family legend was that his grandfather Vahan came over to the US before World War I. When the war broke out, he was not allowed to enlist in the US army, so he went and joined the Armenian Legion (under French command), going to Port Said, Egypt. He was a medic and saw combat, and returned to get US citizenship, though he never learned English.

His grandparents settled in Jamaica Plain in Boston, where Dilanian’s father grew up with his older brother and sister and had to at least learn some broken Armenian in order to communicate at home.

Dilanian said, “My dad grew up in the 1940s in the time of assimilation [in American society]. He was sort of walking away from his ethnic roots.”

His father later moved for work to Springfield, MA, which is where Ken grew up. Dilanian said there weren’t a lot of Armenians there, in comparison to the Boston area. Nevertheless, he was sent to Armenian school as a child and tried to learn the language a bit, but it didn’t take.

While he has not visited the Republic of Armenia, as a foreign correspondent he went through the Kurdish areas of Turkey like Diyarbakir, which of course used to be Armenian-populated places, but most people there looked at him as an American, he said.

Elsewhere, his last name has led people occasionally to recognize his Armenian background, leading to interesting conversations. Just a week before his interview with the Mirror-Spectator, a French ambassador saw his name and spoke about the difficulties of his posting in Turkey.

US Coverage of Armenia and Artsakh

Dilanian said that US media coverage of recent events in Armenia and Artsakh have been “pretty paltry…Most American news consumers are not getting a good picture of what is happening.” He said that perhaps during most of the last few decades, with the semi-frozen Karabakh/Artsakh war, the situation might have been seen as similar to a typical regional war, of which there are many around the world which don’t get coverage. “But when you have this incredible change of status and displacement of all these people? I think ordinarily it would have been a huge story, but because of the Ukraine war, and the craziness in American politics, and the news environment that we are in, it suffered from that environment,” he said.

He felt that prominent people like Rep. Adam Schiff in government, or in business, bringing the issue to the fore could make a difference in getting the press interested, but concluded, “At the end of the day, the news cycle is unforgiving.”

When asked about the utility of demonstrations for attracting press attention, he first declared that it is hard to say, but then added: “Look, journalists are human. If they don’t know about a story, they might learn about it because they might ask themselves, why are all these people down there demonstrating.” While the people deciding what to feature on the evening news would not be swayed by a demonstration, he said it could certain raise awareness, which in turn could lead people to ask questions and evaluate the topic on its merits as an important story.

In the end, he said the market signal is the most significant determinant: “If there was a demand for this story, every network and every major newspaper would be telling it. It is kind of a chicken and egg situation. I’m sure people are saying, if you’d cover it more, maybe there would be more demand for it. However, the New York Times has covered it pretty thoroughly in recent weeks and you are not seeing it really take off as a big story.”

Future for US Newspapers

Dilanian said that it was important to separate the demise of the metropolitan American newspaper from what is happening at the national level. He said, “One story is that all these metro dailies like the one I used to work for, the Philadelphia Inquirer, or the Boston Globe, or the Chicago Tribune, used to be these huge robust journalism engines, with reporters all over their region, covering city hall, the legislature and watching for corruption. They are shells of their former selves, and they are just not doing what they used to do. Nothing that I can see has filled that vacuum. That is really a tragic story for our democracy because there are fewer people watching elected officials and public officials, and how they are spending money, what decisions they are making, and how they are exercising power. That business model collapsed, and nothing has moved in to fill it.”

The television news industry is going through its own upheaval as people cut the cord for cable and streaming, so it is not clear how news will be delivered ten years from now, Dilanian opined. The rise in the level of partisanship on cable is affecting politics, and not in a great way, he said.

On the other hand, he declared that at the national level there is more journalism than ever, with new types of coverage by websites or organizations such as Politico, and more recently Semafor and Puck, while the New York Times and to a lesser extent papers like the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post have risen to the fore.

Overall, he concluded that it was not clear where the future of journalism was headed.

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: