VES to NBC: An Odyssey in Film

Independent filmmaker finds calling in broadcast journalism

As the modest Lisa Hsia ’80 tells the story, it has all been a happy accident— her career path to success, that is.

The current Vice President of NBC News, Hsia, who supervises the production of shows like the Today Show and Dateline NBC, concentrated in Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard and swears that the acquisition of her executive post was “never something I set out to achieve” but rather “something that fell in my lap—[the product of] right timing, right skill set, and a person who believed in me.”

In fact, even when given the chance to speak about what she has done during the past 25 years—a task prone to self-aggrandizement—Hsia, a mother of one, displays humility, freely abasing herself and hesitating to accept credit for her ambition and accomplishments.

But though Hsia’s countenance may project a shy confidence, it cannot be doubted that she possesses a tough core, one that helps her endure the sometimes cutthroat climb to the top in the world of broadcast journalism.

A CAREER CHOICE CLICKS

Like many an incoming freshman at Harvard, Hsia arrived on campus clueless about her passions.

“I thought I was pre-med,” Hsia says of her first days within the brick walls of the Yard. But she was quick to stray from that path.

Like much of the trail that led her to the top, Hsia says even the discovery of her calling was serendipitous, coming only when she “fell into a photography class freshman year and it clicked.”

“I discovered a passion for the visual image that I’d never been in touch with before,” she says.

Before long, Hsia was pursuing documentary filmmaking classes at the Carpenter Center and serving as Photo Chair of The Harvard Crimson.

Hsia recalls a college life defined by the demands of the presses at 14 Plympton St. and says she spent much of her free time at school capturing football games, demonstrations against apartheid, and all things newsworthy on film. In fact, her prowess made a lasting impression on classmates near and far.

“Complete strangers still come up to me and say, ‘I remember you—with the long hair and the grey pants with the black stripe on the side taking photos.’ I guess I must have only owned one pair of pants or something.”

But while Crimson work instilled in Hsia the practicality of journalism, she says it was Agee Professor of Social Ethics Robert Coles—a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, child research psychiatrist, and documentarian—who truly inspired her.

Hsia wrote in an e-mail that Cole’s humanist perspective, interest, and genuine efforts to understand the lives of diverse children through research, writing, and photography deeply impacted her. Indeed, Hsia credits him for introducing her to the very senses that led her to declare her journalistic calling.

“Those are the same qualities that attracted me first to journalism—telling the stories of human beings and the issues affecting them,” she says.

She may have garnered inspiration in Cole’s classroom, but Hsia reports that she learned and thrived most in Harvard’s “non-academic world.”

Or perhaps because she was studying what she loved, Hsia simply forgot where the line between work and play was drawn. After all, when talking about her “non-academic” involvement, Hsia frequently notes, “Okay, that was for class, but it didn’t feel like work.”

Hsia even managed to integrate an explorative quest into her senior thesis film project, following a seven-year-old growing up in the Hare Krishna religious sect, which claims to base its way of life on ancient Indian scriptures.

For the film, Hsia and her small crew lived on a Hare Krishna farm, while disciples made no secret of their wish to proselytize the intruding film crew.

Hsia says of the on-the-road filming sessions, “it was an odd experience, but the [film itself featured] a lot of parallels to the kind of work I supervise and enjoy watching today.” From the experience, Hsia says, she learned the technical elements that need to be considered when taping compelling stories about people, which require that filmmakers help to “put our world into context.”

AN UNEXPECTED ENTERPRISE

Now an executive tucked away in the upper floors of a sky-scraping plush office, Hsia reports that she misses being a filmmaker and field producer, a position that allowed her to move “from war zone to rainforest to other major historic events.”

“But,” she concedes, “I guess there’s a time for everything.”

For Hsia, who was born and raised in Illinois, the time for her own self-discovery came soon after her college graduation.

She calls the 1980 Michael Rockefeller Fellowship that allowed her to initiate a documentary film about her heritage and family in China “one of Harvard’s greatest gifts to me.”

The fruit of her fledgling efforts as a novice documentary filmmaker, “Made in China: A Search for Roots,” led Hsia to a nine-year career of making films independently and for PBS, in lieu of a career at major networks.

Without family or classmate connections at the major networks—“My media connections when I moved to New York consisted of two names pulled from the [Office of Career Services] files,” she remembers—the always-resilient Hsia survived on “a pure love of filmmaking and the necessity to pay the rent.”

But while it may have seemed that she had fallen short of luck, Hsia, who is Chinese-American, was actually unwittingly cultivating a valuable expertise about her heritage.

“I tried a little of everything. I made films about the exploding economies in Asia, about the greatest collection of Chinese art in the world,” wrote Hsia, who met her future husband, Jeffrey Victor, on a shoot in Taiwan. “I even produced two independent feature films—including the first co-production of a feature film between the U.S. and mainland China....Before I knew it, I had a little niche specialty on films in mainland China at a time that the country was just opening up to the world.”

In fact, people came to increasingly value Hsia’s opinion about all things Chinese.

“I was often called by people for advice on what to see and whom to talk to in mainland China,” she says.

Eventually, Hsia’s demonstration of her abilities impressed her callers, leading to an interview for a position at Diane Sawyer’s then-new program, “Prime Time Live.”

According to Hsia, it was not talent, but her Harvard experience that got her the job. She recalls her interview experience: “The two leaders of the show looked at me and said, ‘Let me get this straight. You have absolutely no hard news experience?’ I then piped up, ‘Well, I was a writer for The Harvard Crimson...and eventually became Photo Chairman.’”

“I got the job,” she adds, “became Diane Sawyer’s producer, and have spent the last 15 years in broadcast journalism.”

WHAT MEDIA MAY COME

Since NBC News President Neal Shapiro announced his intent to step down from his post, Hsia’s future journalistic prospects remain wide open.

But Hsia contends calmly, “I’ve absolutely loved helping contribute to the building and success of NBC News—helping recruit and develop the best talent for the network…and figuring out how to best communicate what’s happening in the world to our viewers.”

Noting that she is fascinated by the draw of Jon Stewart’s faux-news production, The Daily Show, Hsia remains committed to reporting the facts and keeping the world informed.

“There have been challenges—particularly in an environment where the media’s credibility is being questioned—but that’s what keeps it interesting. We need to maintain the highest standards and ethics in order to keep the faith of the public in media,” she says.

But Hsia says it is not the content of the news that is most important but the people who help to deliver it.

“There have been endless fantastic stories that I feel very proud of. But ultimately, it all comes down to people,” she says. “I am most proud that I have recruited and developed fantastic talent that I know will bring issues to the public in an important and meaningful way.”

—Staff writer Vinita M. Alexander can be reached at valexand@fas.harvard.edu.