An Interview with AP's Bangkok Bureau Chief Denis Gray
It's not Dennis Gray, or Dennis Grey, or even Denis Grey. It's Denis Gray, ok? There, now that we've spelled his name properly, we can begin. The dean of Bangkok journalists was born Zdenik Mecir, in Pilsen, home of the best beer in the world. He's Czech through and through as both his parents were born Czech as well.
Denis Gray with former PM Chuan Leekpai
His father was a rising politician and businessman who had to flee his homeland when the communists took over. A year after he fled, the CIA helped Gray and his mother and sister flee from behind the Iron Curtain in a very hairy escape. Gray's father then went on to work with the CIA for a few years but he eventually grew tired of the bureaucracy, and went on to work with IBM.
So Denis became a refugee at the tender age of seven. From the time he left Czechoslovakia until the time he started attending college, Gray and his family roamed the world stopping in places as diverse as France, Germany, the US from time to time, and South Africa.
As many of his formative years were spent on the road he learned a number of languages, and he found that he enjoyed the international style of living (probably part of the reason he later became a foreign correspondent). He eventually attended Yale University and took a humanities degree in history and then he entered the Army through the ROTC program. After completing his masters degree in international relations at George Washington University he had to honor his two year obligation to the US Military, so they shipped him off to Japan unlike most of my buddies who were sent to Vietnam. That's where he first fell in love with Asia. He extended his tour for a year figuring he would stay in Japan, but the Army posted him to Vietnam instead.
In Vietnam, Gray was with a military intelligence unit which saw duty in I-Corps, the Central Highlands, Saigon, and the Cambodian border. "In general, I had a pretty good army experience," he says, "Vietnam was frustrating because I was there at the tail-end of the conflict, and it was hard for officers to motivate the troops because we knew the end was coming. But in Japan, I was with a real elite unit many of whom had literally come over with MacArthur after World War II. Many were brilliant linguists who spoke Japanese fluently, and had a real appreciation for Japanese culture."
While serving in the Nam, he started thinking about what he would do when the War was over. One of the people that Gray met in Saigon was journalist Kevin Buckley of Newsweek. Gray who had himself become disillusioned with the War, had always enjoyed writing and was impressed that Buckley and some of his colleagues were trying to tell the truth as best as they could about what was going on in Vietnam. It was then decided he would try his hand at journalism.
After the War, Gray returned to live with his parents in Greenwich, Connecticut. "I didn't work for about eight months or so. It was very difficult to find a job in journalism back then. I had a good academic and military record but I didn't have any experience in journalism, nor had I ever taken a course in journalism. I wrote about 100 letters and had about a dozen interviews trying to get a job. It was pretty disillusioning, pretty devastating actually. Even small town local papers wouldn't respond to my inquiries.
"Then I went to AP in New York City and applied for a job. I had never written one line of journalism and they asked me to start writing news stories on a typewriter that didn't even work properly. Needless to say, I didn't think I did very well and when I walked out of the building after the interview, I said `I'll never get this job.'
"But a few weeks later I got a call, and it was AP saying they needed somebody immediately in Albany. One of the reasons I was hired was because I was a bachelor so I came cheap. So I just packed my car, and I headed off to Albany. In the AP bureaus stateside when you start out you have to do everything: rewriting, reporting, weather, radio, high school basketball games, the whole works. It is a great testing and proving ground, I don't think there is any better in journalism."
Gray stayed in Albany for thirteen months. An AP routing is usually a couple of years on a bureau in the US, a couple of years in New York City on the desk, and then a foreign posting.
"But by a stroke of luck," Gray recounts, "AP was looking for volunteers to go to Indochina (again bachelors) because a few people had been wounded and they expected Phnom Penh to fall soon after the American bombing shield stopped (In August 73, Congress mandated a bombing halt in Cambodia.) I was chosen probably because of my experience in Vietnam. So I went from covering high school basketball in Albany to forty-eight hours later covering a grenade attack in Phnom Penh. It was a very abrupt transition."
Gray was posted to Saigon, but he spent most of his time in Phnom Penh. The AP Bureau chief in Saigon at that time was George Esper who Gray cites as his mentor and second father.
With the Indochina War winding down, AP shipped Denis to Bonn because he spoke German but he missed Asia terribly, and he absolutely hated his time in Germany. "I was ready to commit suicide," he says. "When the final days were coming for all these places in Indochina, I asked George Esper if he needed some help, and he saved me. The only place I actually saw fall was Vientiane, but I got a dose of the end of Vietnam, and the end of Cambodia.
"I was supposed to go back to Bonn towards the end of 75, but it was the last thing I wanted to do, and I really thought about quitting. But just by chance the bureau chief here, Richard Blystone (now with CNN), wanted to go to Europe so I got a chance to work for AP here in Bangkok. So for the third time in my career I was quite lucky: first to get the job; second to be rescued from Albany; and third to get rescued from Bonn."
Reflecting on the tragedy of Cambodia he says, "Nobody could have foreseen what was going to happen. One reason many of the people working for us died was they just didn't believe the Khmer Rouge could be that horrible. We offered to evacuate them two weeks before Phnom Penh fell, but no one wanted to go. I remember them saying: `It might be a little bit rough, but after all, we are all Cambodians.' It was the opposite of Vietnam where everyone wanted to get out, but there wasn't a bloodbath.
"They knew it was going to be tough," Gray continues, "because they'd heard on the radio, and they'd seen what the Khmer Rouge were doing to people on the battlefield - they knew these guys were tough operators. Yet, Cambodians are a weird bunch of guys. They have what in the worst sense could be described as xenophobia `Us Cambodians against the horrible Vietnamese and everyone else' sort of thing. But in a positive sense it is similar to what the Thais have with their pi, nong relationships. They have this idea that: "We are all Cambodians, and they may be Khmer Rouge and they may be bad, but in the end we are all brothers and sisters."
Although Denis is adamant that he hasn't done it on purpose, many of his articles have raised money for worthy causes. These stories include pieces on Father Joe Maier, an elephant hospital in Lampang, and a home for young prostitutes run by an American missionary in Chiang Mai. Substantial donations followed these stories which for a print journalist is especially gratifying. "When it happens I feel really good," Denis says. "It is our duty as journalists to expose the evils and corruptions of this world but it is also our duty to hi-lite good people and good causes."
And what does the AP Bureau Chief think makes for a good journalist? " You have to have a certain sensitivity especially covering events with a tragic impact, and therefore being sensitive to other people's suffering makes you a better human being. I think the really good journalists I've known have had this combination of good professionalism along with a wonderful human side to them."
Gray cites Neil Davis and George Esper as a couple of the journalists he admires. Another is Sydney Schanberg: "I didn't like him at all in Cambodia. He was much the same way he was portrayed in the movie: arrogant, and he thought only he and The New York Times knew the truth. I also thought that some of his reporting was way off base. I just didn't like the guy. But in the few times I've seen him since, and having read his stuff about Cambodia, I really realize there is quite a bit of depth to him, and there is a great deal of human kindness in him as well. So I would have to put him on my list of good guys even though at the time I thought he was a bit of a shit."
Contemporary journos he admires? "Nate Thayer and our bureau chief in Phnom Penh, Robin McDowell. They both are aggressive and they go after stories doggedly. But if you ask any Cambodian if they like Nate or Robin they will say `They're great.' They're friendly, they will bullshit with the Cambodians, they don't look down on them, they like to be with them, and they fit in well. You really need that. The same goes for Grant Peck who works with me here in Bangkok. The Thais really like Grant, every source that I've ever met in Thailand likes Grant. He can be very demanding when he is working on a story, but he's easy going and he's friendly and his copy is as sharp and tough as anyone's. Style, it accounts for a lot here."
And what is Denis looking for when he hires a Thai journalist? "Obviously, they must be good in Thai, and they must be able to move well in this environment. But most importantly, they must see the news as we see it. They must realize they are reporting for an international audience not a domestic one. They have to realize that most people in the world don't know where Nakhon Ratchisima is, or who the Thai prime minister is. So we need someone with a broader vision that goes beyond the Thai borders, and sometimes that is difficult to get across to Thai journalists who have always worked here and grown up here."
As Denis is a master of copy it only makes sense that I ask what he thinks makes for good writing, "Well, as AP writes for such a broad general audience we try to find the ideal combination of interest and simplicity. No matter how complex the issue you must lay it on in such a manner that it will be comprehensible to Eskimoes, or the Kansas City milkman or a guy in Kuala Lumpur."
He has interviewed many important people in his time, but none more so than the King of Thailand who he had a two hour chat with back in 1985. "What impressed me most about him was his total frankness. We talked about everything, including his brother, and he also talked about how when he first became king how little power he actually had. People forget that when he first came back to this country he was almost treated shabbily. What was also interesting was that after every question, he pondered and he really gave the best response he could give. He didn't give any pat answers."
Denis loves his job, and his enthusiasm is contagious. "Since I joined AP, I don't think a day goes by that I'm not excited about going to work and I swear that's true. I never look at my watch and say `Oh Jesus, I wish it was 5:00 and I could go home.' I feel sorry for people that have to do that."
Aside from running the AP Bureau, Denis is working on a book about his personal recollections of cultural and environment changes he's seen in his life starting out with Czechoslovakia and ending with Thailand.
From the fall of Marcos, to covering the tragic plight of the boat people, the death of Emperor Hirohito, six Asian Games, the Winter Olympics, Somalia, Rwanda, and the Gulf War, Denis Gray has been there and done that. A life well lived. Hell no, he's just getting started. Good luck Denis.
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Denis Gray c/o:
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