A seasoned television news correspondent for CBS News, Alison Harmelin ’98 knows what it’s like to go to places nobody wants to be. She has covered breaking stories from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy to the London Underground bombings, the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I was in Buffalo last month when the deadly snowstorm hit,” said Harmelin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “My son asked me, ‘Mommy, why are you driving to Buffalo?’ It’s hard to explain to my [three] kids because I don’t want to scare them. In the end, I compare myself to someone from the military or to the police or fire department and say ‘I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m taking care of myself and you have nothing to worry about.’ ”
The daughter of an attorney who was Lyndon Johnson’s White House speech writer, Harmelin grew up outside Philadelphia in a suburban environment she described as “very conservative and traditional.”
My father’s writing always inspired me to learn the language and to learn how to use it well.
“But my father’s writing always inspired me to learn the language and to learn how to use it well. There was a time I thought I’d actually find work as a poet.”
Moving alone to Los Angeles at age 17 to attend USC was a sea change.
“Landing in L.A., finding my own way and meeting people was a trial by fire,” she said. “But USC was very welcoming. There were programs in place and from the day I arrived, I felt the whole place was buzzing with activity and opportunity.”
In her freshman year, Harmelin took those opportunities to explore her options, changing her major four times, before settling on interdisciplinary studies.
I was more interested in being a student of the world than in being a student of any one thing, and I’m still very much like that today.
“I was more interested in being a student of the world than in being a student of any one thing, and I’m still very much like that today,” she said.
“I’m just as interested in reading The American Journal of Medicine as The Atlantic or Star Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily or Smithsonian magazine. I’m fascinated by so many things. I think that’s key to being a journalist because every day you’re doing something different and new. I think you have to be willing to have an open mind and not feel any particular niche is overwhelmingly important to you.”
Persistence pays off
Before her senior year, Harmelin looked for journalism internships.
The fact that I wasn’t in the journalism school didn’t keep one person from trying to help me.
“The fact that I wasn’t in the journalism school didn’t keep one person from trying to help me,” she said. “That’s a tribute to how USC really supports its students and doesn’t put them in a box. Of course, email wasn’t around so much back then, but I made a lot of phone calls and sent a lot faxes,” she said.
Soon her persistence paid off and she landed an internship at NBC News in London.
After graduating, Harmelin moved to New York, where she got a job as a production assistant at ABC. There she met celebrated TV news agent Alfred Geller, whom she credits with changing her life when he helped her find her first job as an anchor in Johnstown, a small community in Pennsylvania. She went on to gain experience as a reporter in a number of small markets before becoming a reporter in her hometown of Philadelphia.
In 2005, she landed her first job at CBS as a freelance correspondent for CBS Newspath. She has remained a correspondent with CBS News and in 2009 began anchoring for CBS Moneywatch. This year, Harmelin began fill-in anchoring the network’s overnight and early morning broadcasts Up-to-the-Minute and The CBS Morning News, as well as at CBSN, the newly launched streaming channel produced by CBS News.
Her recent assignments include reporting on the Ebola crisis. Last summer she had her first opportunity to work out of the CBS Los Angeles bureau when she covered the Napa Valley Earthquake in August.
Harmelin was in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit and continued to live on the outskirts of the devastated city for several weeks after the levees broke. She considers covering Katrina and its aftermath to have been the most meaningful story of her career.
“It was a very stark and unfortunate wake-up call for me about how people in a country that I love were living. Until Katrina, I had been wearing rose-tinted glasses. I didn’t realize there were thousands and thousands of people living in New Orleans who didn’t have social security cards because they couldn’t read, who barely subsisted in housing that was Third World at best and who died because they were so underserved.
Hurricane Katrina made me redouble my efforts as a journalist.
“It took a while for me to realize that I didn’t have to fly to London during the bombings or go to Kosovo to find real trouble. Real trouble is right here on our doorstep. Hurricane Katrina made me redouble my efforts as a journalist. To this day, a fifth of American children are on food stamps. I felt that it’s my job as somebody who does love this country to show other Americans that there’s a lot of work to be done.”
As well as reporting on breaking news stories and opening viewers’ eyes to wider issues of social injustice and inequality, Harmelin also sees her role as one of establishing objective truth in a media forum she believes has become increasingly blurred by social media.
“I feel in some ways my job has become more complicated and yet more important because there are too many people running around spreading incorrect information over social media,” she said, citing the recent vaccination debate.
“I thought by going into journalism, I would be able to tell stories for people who couldn’t or shine a light on things that were wrong or unjust. I don’t know that I succeed at that every day,” Harmelin said, “but I keep trying.”