The day before his 30th anniversary at CNN, senior United Nation’s correspondent Richard Roth was doing his first live shots from his new (temporary) studio at the UN. It’s a cramped space down the hall from Al-Jazeera English, BBC, CBC, and NHK that the network is using while the UN completes reconstruction on the wing where the studio was formerly housed.
Roth’s cameraman tells senior producer Terence Burke to squash himself against the wall to get his reflection out of the shot while another staffer trips over some wires as Roth prepares to go on air. Between the four men, almost 90 years at the network are represented. “The way things are going, this is rare,” Roth says.
In addition to the studio switch, the morning TVNewser visited Roth was a particularly hectic one with Bill and Hillary Clinton attending a special conference on Haiti. On a busy day, Roth will do 12 live segments between CNN and CNNi. “Every day you’re shot out of a cannon in the morning,” Roth says. “That’s how 30 years can pass.”
With that many years under his belt, Roth has a unique perspective on TV news. “Competitors called CNN ‘chicken noodle news’ and it was thought that we were going be an instant failure,” he says. “There are very few CNN originals left and I feel good that maybe I’m carrying the flag for the original goals of our founder, Ted Turner,” stressing that “the news is the most important aspect of CNN bar none that we should be constantly focused on what is news.”
Roth says “it’s disappointing to see” the recent articles about ratings woes. “But I remember the days when we were in Times Square and we were trying to stop people for man-on-the-street interviews and they would say, “C-N-what? Is that an HBO thing?’ I can remember looking at a woman right in her eyes and saying, ‘No no, you know Ted Turner? He owns the Atlanta Braves, the baseball team…?’ So I look at where we’ve come, and we’re a brand name…CNN means news.”
“Richard’s a great guy, a great friend and a great journalist,” Turner tells TVNewser. “His reporting over the years has been superb and his passion for the UN speaks volumes. The media world wouldn’t be the same without the likes of Richard Roth.”
Only a few “CNN originals” have been with the network longer than Roth, and in the past year, he’s seen two long-time colleagues take their leave.
Lou Dobbs also started at CNN in 1980 and over the years, Roth admits they often butted heads on how the UN should be covered.
“I would always ask Lou if he wanted to be the UN Secretary General.”
Roth doesn’t seem surprised about Dobbs’ departure last fall. “I don’t think his show fit on CNN anymore.” But in the context of what’s happened recently in global economics, Roth thinks things could have turned out differently. “If Lou had stayed with financial news, he would have now been one of America’s top senior anchorpeople.”
Considering their beats, Christiane Amanpour’s decision to move to ABC hit closer to home. “I’m sad to see them go, because it feels like a big piece of me is leaving when Christiane is departing,” he says. “She represents a lot of great memories and I feel she’s an icon, especially for international news.”
At CNN, many things look and feel very different now than they did in 1980. Roth jokes about “these cryptic messages that are appearing now on the bottom of the screen.” In addition to the crawl, online reporting has become more prominent. “I was thinking about changing my name to iRichard the way things are going.”
“I don’t totally embrace the new technology, though I realize it’s the only way to go,” he says. Roth has a Twitter account, but he’s used it sparingly. “The tweeting will resume shortly,” he promises. “You can tell all my followers including shut-ins, men in pajamas, and bag ladies.”
“I do think technology has improved dramatically while other aspects of TV news have not kept up over 30 years,” Roth adds. After we pressed him, Roth told us, “I don’t want to hear people’s opinions on the air. I don’t want to hear viewers opinions. I don’t want to hear what someone in Florida said in an email on the air. We should be informing. I can go out onto the sidewalks of New York and hear what people have to say, and I do.”
April 1st, 1980 — Richard Roth’s first day at CNN. He was deputy bureau chief in New York and worked the assignment desk. “I was the assignment desk,” he says. Roth was soon after named Chicago bureau chief, a position he held for just two months before being sent to Europe. His assignments ranged from juggling odd field pieces while covering major world events. “One day I was about to milk a cow, and we got a call: ‘The Berlin wall is falling, go cover it.'”
He spent many years “based in hotels” and logged more hours in Baghdad than any other CNN reporter before the war started. He later took over for Jeanne Moos covering the UN, where he’s been for 16 years. “It was a real exciting bold time for UN issues,” Roth said, though he and his staff admit that interest in the UN has waned since the war in Iraq began.
So will he be a CNN lifer? “The decision is not up to me,” says Roth who hosted “Diplomatic License” for 12 years. “I was almost canceled once, so I don’t know. It’s too soon to say if I’m a lifer. I’ve had a near-death experience at the company.”
In 1998, Roth also had a real near-death experience and received a kidney transplant. “That experience was an even greater achievement than 30 years at CNN,” Roth told us, adding that he later received many “get well” notes from international figures. “I told all diplomats, ‘Don’t punch me in the stomach area, because it’s at risk.'”
Roth is well-known around the UN hallways for his one-liners and was even asked to host the United Nations Correspondents Association ball. In regards to his anniversary occurring on April Fools Day he says, “It’s fitting.”
“Can we get Rachel Ray off that monitor?!” Roth suddenly shouts pointing at a malfunctioning television set in the claustrophobic studio. He has to be on-air again in two minutes and the internal feed from the conference is only transmitting in French for some reason. He looks at us and says, “If you think Haiti was a disaster, watch this live shot.”
CNN’s UN studio
Roth asks a question of World Bank President Robert Zoellick from the “stake-out” area
CNN’s New York Bureau in 1980