No clips, no internships and no idea what to do with his two degrees- that’s how Robert Shaffer (B.A. 1996, journalism and history) left Iowa City after graduation and headed to Los Angeles, Calif.
Today, Shaffer is a Fox News Channel producer, who hears gunfire and heads towards it. He has witnessed Israel defense forces destroy Yasser Arafat’s compound and experienced first hand the chaos when the American army was chasing Saddam Hussein in the deserts of Iraq.
“It has been quite the experience for me. I grew up in Iowa. Going to Florida with my family was a big trip, and now here I am in the Middle East covering serious conflicts,” Shaffer said after taking a sip of his cold Boulevard Pale Ale when he was home for a weekend to enjoy a UI football game with friends and family.
Sometimes he admits he finds his job stressful and wonders what he is doing in the middle of conflict when he has a great and more importantly safe life back in Seattle, Wash. However, literally being in the middle of history is how he reasons with himself and regains understanding for his work.
“It is a job, but at times you are just saying to yourself, ‘Wow, this is really incredible,’” he said.
Shaffer considers his biggest career accomplishment to be when his former partner, Steve Centanni, who was taken captive in Gaza by Palestinian forces in mid August and held prisoner for two weeks - were the first reporters on the scene when Saddam Hussein’s sons (there were two) was killed in Mosul.
He drove the streets of Mosul after getting the tip that there was a firefight with “high-value” targets involved. Searching for any signs of conflict, Shaffer thought to himself he might have been too late in finding the house. However, he finally stumbled upon the destroyed smoking wreckage. U.S. Army forces were flooding the premises and no other reporters were present.
“We essentially broke the news to the world. It was such a great feeling,” Shaffer said. CNN, Fox News’s main competitor, didn’t roll up to the scene until eight hours later.
Originally, Shaffer was not hired at FOX as a producer, but rather a researcher. Within a year of being hired, he was offered a producing job even though he had no previous broadcast experience.
Pursuing a career in journalism was not why Shaffer originally headed to L.A. Rather, he was just looking for a change of scenery. In fact, he started his west coast career working at a small flower shop making $6 an hour, half of the hourly wage he made working as a parking ramp cashier as a student.
“I was a terrible flower shop employee,” laughed Shaffer, “When people came in and asked what color of flower they should get for their girlfriend or grandma my response usually was that ‘I don’t know? What color do you like?’”
Choosing not to make a career out of the flower world, for lack of a better paycheck, was when he decided to put his degree to use and started applying at various local papers.
He was offered a job writing flyers for an advertising company, but turned it down because he thought he could get a better offer financially somewhere else. He received a letter of rejection from his next job application.
“I thought I was a hotshot, so I put the rejection letter up on my wall,” Shaffer said. “A few days later I got another rejection and then they just continued to flow in.”
Shaffer kept applying for jobs over the course of a year and remembers he literally had half of his wall full of rejection letters.
“It wasn’t funny anymore,” Shaffer said. “It was really brutal.”
Applying for a job in journalism was difficult with no clips, no past experience at any paper and no network connections. Whether he possessed talent was still a mystery to him and potential employers.
His reporting career started when he was hired at a small weekly newspaper as the entertainment editor. He remembers writing his first story about “what to do in Glendale, California,” and forgot to put his name on it, never receiving a byline for his first published work.
After gaining some experience, Shaffer moved on to work at the Glendale News Press, where he got what he considers his “big break” covering former Republican Congressman Jim Rogan during his election campaign. In 1996, Rogan was elected as Congressman for the Glendale district and then served as one of the House mangers in the impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton.
Even though he didn’t know it at the time, Shaffer was covering the primary campaign and all his stories were wired to papers in Washington, D.C., and many other well-known papers to be reprinted.
“I was so into it at the time that I had no idea and really didn’t care about anything else,” Shaffer said. “I had a Washington Post reporter call me one time and said he just wanted to bend my ear about the race. I told him to do his own reporting. I was such a kid.”
It was after the elections that Fox News became interested in Shaffer and offered him the broadcast job in Seattle.
To this day, Shaffer still doesn’t know why he pursued journalism in school. He said he simply wanted to get a second major, and he said after trying one journalism class, he must have either liked it, or found it easy, so he continued to take them.
“I was never even a writer,” Shaffer said. “I mean I wasn’t the kid that would sit down and journal, but I love to write now.”