By Jordy Yager - 08/02/10 11:03 PM EDT
What’s been your most memorable on-air moment?
The night the air war started in Iraq, back in January 1991. It had been building up for six months, and I was the Pentagon correspondent at CNN, which was the only network that kept reporters in Baghdad. So we really owned that story from day one. It really put CNN on the map. And it was the first big story I was doing with CNN, so it put me on the map as well.
You started as a print journalist. What made you want to go into broadcast journalism?
CNN started in 1980, and they’d invited me on as an analyst. I got to know a lot of the people there. In 1989 the Washington bureau chief of CNN, Bill Headline, invited me out to lunch with the guy who had been in charge of newsgathering, Ed Turner. After three hours of talking, they asked me if I wanted to be their Pentagon correspondent. I had liked doing TV, but I had no TV experience other than just being a guest. So I had to learn how to write for TV and how to broadcast on TV. It’s not brain surgery — it’s not all that complicated.
There were a few moments where I had tips of information of what was about to break, but it wasn’t hard enough to go with it. My inclination, as an old-school, classically trained journalist, is not to go with a story unless I have it hard. It’s not good enough to say something based on rumors that were flying around.
How did “The Situation Room” come about?
David Bohrman was really the creative genius behind this concept of how we wanted to do it. I was anchoring the 2004 presidential elections from NASDAQ in Times Square, which has all of those video boards with the numbers coming in. We converted that to numbers coming in from election night in the different states for all the races. It was then that we realized: Why don’t we do a daily news show incorporating some of this technology?
What was the learning curve for “The Situation Room’s” technology?
It was very strange for me. I was probably one of the last people in our Washington bureau who really came on board … but I was willing to do it, and it was a steep learning curve early on.
What’s been your most embarrassing on-air blooper?
Early on, when I was covering the transition after Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992. Every other day he would announce new Cabinet members, and we were taking it all live. One day I just froze and I couldn’t remember the name of the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Usually when you forget something like that, one of your producers gets in your ear and reminds you, but nobody in the control room knew what I was talking about. Here I was, the former Pentagon correspondent, and how could I not know who the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee was? I felt like such an idiot. Eventually I remembered, but it probably took five or 10 seconds.
Who’s been your favorite foreign head of state to interview?
I interviewed Nelson Mandela in Cape Town in 1998 when he was president of South Africa. It was so amazing to see the difference after the end of apartheid. He was such a powerful figure who almost single-handedly prevented a bloodbath. That interview was certainly one that I’ll always remember.
Who would you most like to have interviewed but haven’t been able to?
I think [Pope] John Paul. That would have been pretty exciting. You don’t really get to interview many popes. And Saddam Hussein — I would have liked to have interviewed him as well.
If you hadn’t gone into journalism, what career would you have chosen?
At one point I was thinking of trying to get my Ph.D. in international relations and starting to teach. And my dad was a homebuilder in Buffalo, N.Y., and if I hadn’t developed the journalistic bug early on, I might’ve stayed in Buffalo and built homes, which wouldn’t have been too bad, either.
What journalists do you most admire?
I really admired Daniel Schorr, who just passed away. He was 93 years old, and I used to listen to him and was always amazed to hear someone like that still broadcasting and making sense and helping me better appreciate something.
What have you learned about yourself in your 20 years with CNN?
I’ve learned that I’m just as excited today as I was when I first started, because I know that every day I’m going to do a lot of reporting, I’m going to learn and I’m going to wind up a little bit smarter at the end of the day than I was at the beginning. It’s sort of a lifelong education, and you can’t beat that.
What’s been the best advice you’ve received?
The best advice I got early on was to look in the camera and be yourself.
How many hours do you work each week?
It takes a long time to get the show ready. Two hours on television just doesn’t automatically happen. I’m up early, I’m reading newspapers online, talking to my staff, coming up with ideas. I’m on the go from early in the morning until 7 p.m., and when that show’s over then I can start to relax and go home or out to dinner.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I work out every morning, because if I don’t have a good hour of exercise, I don’t have the energy by 5 p.m. that you really need to get on the air. I’m a season ticket holder to the Washington Wizards and I love going to Washington Nationals and Redskins games. Unfortunately, my teams aren’t doing too great right now, but I’m an optimist and we’re coming back.
Do you ever get nervous before an interview or a segment?
The only time I get nervous is when I feel I’m not as up to speed on the subject as I should be. If I really know the subject and I’ve done my homework, then I’m not nervous. If I go into a new area, I get a little nervous about that.
What’s one thing you’ve always wanted to do but have never had the time?
I just want to keep on doing what I’ve been doing for as long as I can, but doing it better. Almost every day I wrap up my two-hour live broadcast and I say to myself as I’m driving home, “I wish I would’ve done this” or “We really should have gone live longer with this segment.”
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