Story by Shinyung Oh.
“Bridgegate” breaks on the morning of Wednesday, January 8, 2014. In New York’s CBS Broadcast Center, correspondent Elaine Quijano heads to the National Desk to seize the assignment. After talking to her producers, Quijano obtains a copy of the newly released emails regarding the shutdown of lanes in Fort Lee, N.J., allegedly ordered by Gov. Chris Christie’s staff as political retribution. First, she works on verifying their content. Then, she pores over the heavily redacted documents to try to decipher what is going on. At the same time, her team works on tracking down Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, the rumored target of the retribution, to schedule an interview. Quijano fires off a draft outline to her producers before dashing out at 2 p.m.
Quijano hops in a cab to head to Fort Lee on the heels of her team members who left earlier in their satellite van. Unexpectedly, they encounter a traffic accident on West Side Highway. Panic sets in. The mayor has limited availability. The show airs at 6:30 p.m. Quijano calls her senior producers to update them while her mind races to make alternative plans. Should she hop on the ferry? Track down the mayor elsewhere? For Quijano, missing the interview is not an option. This is no time to be meek. She has to get the story.
The cab makes its way through West Side Highway and Lincoln Tunnel before finally pulling up to Fort Lee. Quijano interviews Sokolich and heads over to the George Washington Bridge where she will do her live shot. There she hunkers down in the satellite van to pull her story together.
In the segment that airs later that evening on CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley, Quijano displays none of the panic that ensued shortly before. She gazes calmly into the camera, her shoulder-length hair pulled back with not a wisp out of place and white pearl earrings dangling placidly, as she reports the story that has the potential to bring down the rumored Republican presidential favorite for 2016. She’s home by 7:30 that evening to put her three kids to bed. It’s just another workday for Quijano.
Quijano, who is in her late 30s, lives a journalism student’s dream. Upon graduating from the University of Illinois, she worked at a couple of local stations before landing at CNN Newsource and then at CNN where she covered various beats, including the White House, the Pentagon and the Supreme Court. Now at CBS as a correspondent, Quijano reports for CBS Evening News and CBS This Morning. Ask whether she thinks of herself as a success, and she’ll brush it off. “Everyone defines success differently,” she says.
But by anyone’s standards, Quijano has climbed to the top of her field. She’s reported on stories as far reaching as 9/11, the election of George W. Bush, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. On CBS Evening News alone, more than 6 million viewers watch her nightly as she reports on events like the inauguration of Pope Francis, the trial of “Whitey” Bulger, and the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects. She works with some of the most renowned names in the field, including Scott Pelley, Charlie Rose and Bob Schieffer.
She talks as if she simply willed herself to reach these heights. “I’ve just been persistent,” she says about her career. “It requires absolute commitment. Your will has to be such that you endure.” But any ascent requires toil, and Quijano has had her share. Take this example. When Hurricane Sandy unleashed on the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, Quijano bundled herself in her down jacket and winter boots to meet the hurricane in Belmar, N.J. From 6 a.m. until noon, she stood in boots filled with frigid water, pants drenched, with sand pelting her as she clutched the exterior handrail of a nearby house to anchor herself. She worried about hypothermia and felt as if she was having an out-of-body experience. In the aired footage, the ocean bellows behind her and Quijano fights to keep her eyes open against the punishing rain and wind. But what you see is a reporter at work, steadily describing for her viewers the overwhelming force of Mother Nature and the imperative to evacuate.
At such moments, Quijano blocks out all else and sees only the mission at hand. “I live in the moment,” she says. “I concentrate on it 150 percent.”
Above all else, she is prepared. In her office, she has a closet where she keeps two bags, extra clothes and weather gear, like snow boots, hand and foot warmers and everything else she may need for wherever she is sent. On any given day, at any given moment, she may get launched on a story hundreds of miles away. “This is the worst,” she says, “to be unprepared.” She doesn’t even like wearing her suits to work, preferring to change once she gets to the office, for fear of getting a stain during her commute.
Quijano says that she was first attracted to broadcast journalism in part because of the adrenaline rush. But she does not look like an adrenaline junkie. Instead, she talks like a second grade teacher, ever patient, always calm. Watch her interview the parents of Newtown victims as she listens with the intensity of a psychotherapist, her face intent with empathy. “My objective is to hear what they want to say,” she says about her interview subjects. “I try to be compassionate and respectful and try to listen a lot more than I talk.”
Interviewing Sandy Hook parents was particularly difficult. At the time, her daughter was 6, the same age as the young victims. “I found it too easy to stand in their shoes, to know how to convey the stories for those parents,” she says.
When she has a choice, she prefers a walk on the lighter side. “I like stories where the viewer is left with the feeling that the world is not such a bad place to be — people coming to the aid of others, people overcoming things,” she says. “These resonate with me.” Her recent favorites? A story on Kid President, a 10-year-old boy with brittle bone disease whose homemade videos went viral. “I always root for the underdog,” she says. Then there is the story of Diana Nyad who, after several failed attempts, finally swam from Cuba to Florida at the age of 64. This story appealed to Quijano because she takes to heart the message that failure is never final. “For many people who are struggling with whatever they have in their life, [Nyad] represents this goal — that you should do what you do. It’s a human story told within the parameters of a swim.”
When asked if she identifies with the underdog and what she had to overcome in her own history, she refuses to go there. “We’re not ones to navel gaze,” she says, referring to herself and her Filipino American family. “You do what you must.” For Quijano, failure is not an option, and it certainly does not have the last word. It barely registers on her mental barometer. She is too busy. She has stories to tell.
This story was originally published in our Spring 2014 issue. Get your copy here.