To mark the 15th anniversary of TVNewser this month, Adweek honored the 30 Most Impactful TV Newsers of the Past 15 Years, spotlighting the personalities and execs who were instrumental in the industry’s incredible decade-and-a-half evolution. TVNewser will be presenting expanded versions of each honoree’s interview.
- Job title: Lead political anchor, CNN; anchor, The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, CNN
- 15 years ago: In January 2004, when TVNewser launched, Wolf Blitzer was the anchor of Wolf Blitzer Reports, on CNN, as well as anchor of Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, also on CNN.
Adweek: What were you doing 15 years ago, in January 2004?
Wolf Blitzer: I was anchoring two shows on CNN, 15 years ago in January of 2004. A Sunday talk show called Late Edition, which we always called the last word in Sunday talk, and a Monday-Friday show, Wolf Blitzer Reports, which I don’t know how they came up with that name. That’s what I was doing, but as I look back, we were getting ready for the Iowa Caucuses, the New Hampshire Primary, the South Carolina primary, all the democratic contenders were getting ready to see who was going to challenge George W. Bush, who was up for reelection. I was already starting to moderate our CNN presidential primary debates. It was an exciting time politically. It was the first time, in the 2004 election, that I would be CNN’s lead political anchor, and I was getting ready to anchor in 2004 our coverage on election night, November 2004. And we did it not in our Washington studio, not in our New York studio, we did it from the NASDAQ headquarters in New York, because they had all those video screens behind me, and we could walk around and look at the states. And all the different states results would be coming in. It was the first time we ever did anything like that, on election night coverage. Interestingly enough, it set the stage, because everyone loved the way it looked, Wolf walking around, looking at the video screens, showing what was going on. And the results were very dramatic. And it set the stage for the creation of the Situation Room, which was launched in August of 2005. And it’s still on the air right now, and I’ve been anchoring the Situation Room ever since. So it was a very very exciting period all around.
What’s your favorite professional moment of the past 15 years?
As I look back over these 15 years, there’s been a lot of huge stories and dramatic stories, important stories. When we launched the Situation Room in August 2005, and spent a long time getting ready for it. Our Washington Bureau chief at the time, David Bohrman, was very much involved. Sam Feist, who is now our Washington Bureau Chief, was involved. Eric Sherling…we had a terrific team that, we wanted to create something new and different. And it was the first show really that took advantage of incoming live video that we would show in multiple boxes, and it was all new technology that we were using. The thought was, they have a White House Situation Room in the West Wing of the White House, and I was a former White House Correspondent for seven years during the Bill Clinton administration in the 90s, and I got to see what was going on in the White House Situation Room. And our other players did as well. We wanted to do something that would show real live TV, breaking news, happening now, coverage that was new and distinct, and we wanted it to be the command center for news. We had a concept and we worked hard to prepare for it. We finally launched in August 2005, and a week or so later, we had Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. And for the next several weeks, we were obviously all riveted on that one story. And the new technology, the new video, all the new techniques we were doing played really well, and it got launched with a terrific…—I mean, we hated the Katrina story because of the devastation and the death, but it was a story that was well-suited for what we were trying to do. And we’ve advanced it and changed it over these past 15 years, but we’ve had a concept that works well with what I like to do, what CNN likes to do. It’s well suited to my own particular interests, and I’ve really been thrilled to see it unfold.
What has been your toughest professional challenge over the past 15 years?
The toughest professional challenge is keeping up with this pace. Because the news cycle is so intense. You come in in the morning and you think you have a pretty good idea of where the news is going. But by 5 o’clock and 6 o’clock, when I go on the air, I have a two-hour show Monday through Friday, very often at 4:30 or 4:45 or 5:30, all of a sudden there’s a bombshell and it happens all the time nowadays, that we just throw out the rundown that we worked really hard on during the day, to get ready for a bunch of stories. And some stories will never get on the air, because there’s a bombshell, there’s a big story that has just emerged. And that’s a big challenge. Fortunately, I’m blessed with a terrific team of producers and writers and hardworking journalists. Our executive producer Jay Shaylor leads a terrific team and we’ve mastered the ability to go out there and call an audible at the line of scrimmage and go with it. And it’s been a huge challenge, but we do it really well, and I’m very proud of the way we’ve stepped out to that. Dealing with this pace of news is really intense.
The other thing obviously that’s been intense these past couple of years are the attacks that we’re getting all the time. When the president of the united states says we’re the enemy of the American people. It’s so sad to hear that kind of talk from the president of the United States. Because we’re clearly not the enemy of the American people. We love the American people. That’s why we’re reporting the news as fairly and as responsibly as we can, to help the American people know what’s going on. Which is the tradition of journalism. That’s a new ingredient that we have to deal with. That’s certainly not a pleasure to have to deal with that ingredient.
I’m a news junkie, so I love the news. So I’m thrilled to be able to combine my passion. I’ve always been a news junkie, ever since I was a little boy growing up in Buffalo, NY. And I feel so blessed that I can make a living doing something that I really love doing and I’m so passionate about. It’s a great thrill.
Who have you learned the most from in your career?
When I first came to CNN, and now I’m in my 29th year at CNN, I had come from a print background and TV was relatively new to me. And Bernie Shaw really was very helpful to me. He was our lead anchor, Bernard Shaw, and I just watched him, I learned from him. We had terrific correspondents early in my career who would spend some time mentoring me. We had a State Department correspondent named Ralph Begleiter, who went on to become a professor at the University of Delaware. He was very helpful to be. He was like a teacher. At the Pentagon, I was brought in as CNN’s Military Affairs correspondent. This was in May of 1990. A few weeks later, Aug. 1, 1990, Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait and we had Operation Desert Shield. That started for six months, and then Operation Desert Storm, the liberation of Kuwait. And I learned a great deal from my colleagues. I was really thrown in with not a lot of TV experience, into a huge war story. When Bernie Shaw was in Baghdad, and he said, “The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated,” and Peter Arnett was there, John Holliman was there. All of these much more experienced TV reporters really helped me a lot in understanding what TV News is all about and understanding what CNN is all about.
CNN is unique and distinctive. And I didn’t really appreciate it when I first joined CNN but I’ve learned about it over the years, is that it’s not seen just in the United States or Canada or Mexico. We’re seen in some 240 counties and territories around the world. People are watching all over the world, and they’re interested all over the world. It’s something that when you work at CNN you really understand and appreciate, that you don’t only have a domestic reach, a national reach in the United States, you have a worldwide reach.
Which of your competitors do you most admire?
I admire all of them. I think that they are smart, hard-working. They’ve got strong shows. I don’t think all of them are equal, some are better than others. But I have great respect for my competition. I take a look and see what they’re doing all the time, and I want to make sure that we stay fresh, that we stay on top of the news. And it helps to have good competition. It makes me a better journalist, knowing that I’ve got strong competition. If I didn’t have strong competition, I could relax and take it easy. Spend a lot of time playing golf or whatever. I don’t play golf, by the way. I work hard, and I work hard in part because I do have excellent competition, who are also working hard. And that makes me a better TV news person.
What do you now know about the business that you didn’t in January 2004?
What has really changed over the past 15 years has been social media, the impact that social media has had. When I first started at CNN, and certainly even 15 years ago, we would look at wire services–AP, Reuters, UPI—and if there was breaking news, we would get it right away, courtesy of the traditional wire services. But now, all of a sudden you’ve got Twitter and all of these other social media platforms that didn’t exist 15 years ago that are on top of the news. And some of them are good, some of them aren’t good, some of them are really excellent, there’s so much more availability of news out there that you have to check. It’s a lot of work to check it out. We always want to be first, obviously, but more important, we want to be right. And so, we’ve got a lot of standards and practices here at CNN that we go through to make sure that if we’re going to report something on our own that is 100 percent right, and if we’re going to attribute it to another news organization, the New York Times or the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal or one of the other networks, we want to make sure that we have confidence that they know what they’re doing as well, even if we haven’t ourselves independently confirmed it. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot more intense today than it was 15 years ago because of the enormity of all of the various news organizations that are out there online.