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Carl Rochelle, CNN correspondent, discusses CNN at 20

May 23, 2000
Web posted at: 3:37 p.m. EDT

(CNN) – June 1, 2000 marks the twentieth anniversary of CNN. When the network debuted in 1980, a round-the-clock all news format was untried, and industry competitors didn’t expect the fledgling operation to last the year. A decade later it was still broadcasting and gaining a following. Coverage of the unrest in China and the Gulf War transformed CNN into a news leader and spurred the growth that now reaches into more than 78 million U.S. homes and more than 212 countries and territories.

Carl Rochelle is a veteran of reporting in Washington political circles. He has been on the scene of many major breaking stories for the network since joining CNN in 1983. He was one of the first western reporters to enter Saudi Arabia just after the invasion on Kuwait. He has covered the presidential campaigns of both Reagan and Mondale. And as a pilot he is only one of a few civilians to have made flights in the backseat of an F-18 from a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Carl Rochelle, and welcome.

Carl Rochelle: Hello to the audience.

Carl Rochelle: I am on Interstate 81 near Hagarstown Maryland, on the way back to Washington, D.C., from Wilkes-Barre, PA., where I was covering the crash of the charter plane that killed 19 people.

Comment from ZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzZz: Drive safely Carl, bad to talk on the phone and drive.

Carl Rochelle: I'm not driving and speaking on a cell phone. I actually have a professional driver, who works on the Washington assignment desk. In another life, he drove a truck.

Chat Moderator: When did you join CNN? What were your earliest experiences?

Carl Rochelle: It has been, let’s see, it was 16 years in March. I'm going on the 17th year. There weren't many of us correspondents, or many CNNers in the beginning. We all did a lot of jobs.

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I reported, occasionally did some anchor work, could sometimes cover two or three stories a day, and was expected to be able to cover almost anything, which is what I have ultimately done throughout the 17 years at CNN.

And to give you some sense, I have Air Force One certificates from three different presidents, Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. I spent four and a half years as the Pentagon beat correspondent. I have covered many more airline crashes than I care to recount.

I was the pool correspondent on the first actual deployment of the Pentagon pool. It was in 1987 to the Persian Gulf. And the mission was the reflagging of the Kuwaiti tankers. It was called "Operation Earnest Will."

I happened to be on the destroyer USS Kidd, watching the stern of the tanker Bridgeton about two miles in front of us, when the Bridgeton ran over a mine.

No one was injured, but it was probably the most exciting and newsworthy part of the assignment. The ship made it safely into port. We filed the story and went home.

I was on the Pentagon pool during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the first western television journalist to go into Saudi Arabia after the invasion. It was only five or six days after Iraq had invaded Kuwait.

We were on the ground at Dahrahn Air base feeding pictures and stories back to the United States and to the world. I wound up spending the better part of seven months in and around Saudi Arabia until the war was over.

A couple highlights of that assignment:

I had a chance to fly an actual combat air patrol in an F-15 with the Royal Saudi Air Force. I was on the Battleship Wisconsin in the Persian Gulf when the air war started. We fired 24 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles at targets into Iraq. And according to some of the officials on the ship, those were some of the missiles that John Holloman, Peter Arnett and Bernie Shaw were describing going down the streets of Baghdad. So it has been an interesting time.

Question from DStraub: In the early days of CNN, were there any employees who thought that it wouldn't be successful?

Carl Rochelle: In the beginning when CNN signed on the air, I was working with ABC. And most of us figured that CNN would be lucky to last for the first year.

And four years later I was working for CNN. I thought it would last, I thought it was a good concept. CNN was doing what the other networks seemed to be pulling back from, that is, covering news.

All around, the other networks were closing bureaus and cutting back on news coverage to much lower levels. Their programming was entertainment; our programming was news. And it is a concept that still works today.

When there is breaking news, we welcome it. Many of the other networks consider anything short of a major story to be a nuisance, because they have to interrupt the entertainment programming.

Question from Nikkadaem: Are their any stories that you wish you could have covered but where unable to for one reason or another?

Carl Rochelle: Some of the space launches. I haven't covered a great deal of aerospace. But I did get to see the shuttle launch with John Glenn. But if I said I think I could do more, I would appear greedy.

I have done so many stories about so many different things, presidential campaigns, traveled with both Mondale and Reagan when they ran for president. I have covered conventions. I have covered wars, riots in the streets. I vacationed with the president at Martha's Vineyard and Jackson Hole Wyoming. And I’ve had my share, I think, of all the great news stories that have been covered by CNN.

Of course, we would all like to cover all of them, but there are enough to go around and for me to have some of the coverage too.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: Do you have any interesting stories from the Reagan White House?

Carl Rochelle: Most of the anecdotes about Reagan are pretty well known. One story from Helen Thomas, when Mr. Reagan was having his audience with the Pope, she looked over and noticed that he was slumped over.

She said, "Oh my God," and started writing in her notebook, wrote the time, with the assumption that he might have had a heart attack and died. Then she noticed that he had just dozed off.

After that the White House tended to build in a little extra time to recover from jet lag on overseas trips.

A better anecdote from Bill Clinton: I happened to be on Air Force One for the infamous "haircut flight," where President Clinton held up traffic at LAX while he was getting a haircut.

I was very pleased to be on Air Force One that day, because it usually meant you were going to get home early. But then I noticed the press plane pulled by us, take off, and head home.

We all thought that there must be some major world event to keep Air Force One on the ground so Mr. Clinton could have secure communications with whomever he needed to talk to.

Dee Dee Myers later came back and when we asked her why the flight was delayed, she said, "The President was getting a hair cut." By the time we got home, it was big news.

Question from Roaring Flyer: As the war correspondent in Saudi Arabia, did you meet with the ordinary Saudis in order to know what they thought of the Gulf War?

Carl Rochelle: The answer is, "Yes, but very little." The Saudis had brought in a number of people from their U.S. Embassy, a number of people from within the country, who were not only English speakers, but very familiar with U.S. customs.

I did get out and around the country a bit. But most of the people that you dealt with were officials or people in some of the souks, which is like a shopping center. But I don't speak Arabic. And that made it a little difficult to mix with people on the street.

I did enjoy good relations with the people I worked with in Saudi Arabia, and found it to be a very interesting country, and its citizens to be very polite and very welcoming to our presence there.

Question from Chatter: What do you think of the new CNN, with shows like "Cold War" and newsmagazines?

Carl Rochelle: I prefer the newscast part of it myself. I'm more of a hard news person than I am a magazine format person. But that's just my personal taste.

And I think there is a place for what we are doing with the longer form programming. And, in fact, I had a piece on last evening on "Newsstand" that allowed more in depth reporting of the charter crash that I was covering in Wilkes-Barre, PA.

Question from Frank: How would you compare Iran/Contra to the "impeachable" offenses of President Clinton?

Carl Rochelle: I think they were both very bad. I think that both raised serious questions about the values of the person who was in the White House.

The principle difference is that the allegations of involvement by President Reagan in Iran/Contra never went beyond allegations. And the questions raised about President Clinton were essentially found to be valid.

And even though many people believe that he has been a good president, equally as many, or more, question his moral judgment.

Chat Moderator: Now that the first 20 years have passed, where will CNN be in another 20 years?

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Carl Rochelle: I think CNN is going to continue to lead the way in news coverage. I think people find the ability to turn on their television anywhere in the world and be assured that if there is important news, CNN will be there, is an extremely valuable concept.

Last week I was in Munich Germany at an International Air Transport Association Crisis Conference. And I could tune in CNN International and see what was going on in the world. And many of the 250 worldwide airline representatives who were there said they did the same thing at home.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Carl Rochelle: I think it has been a terrific 17 years. I would like to be here 17 more. I don't know if that will happen. But I really believe that CNN does an incredibly good job of covering the news. And I'm proud to be associated with the organization, and keep watching.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Carl Rochelle: Goodbye until the next time.

Carl Rochelle joined the chat via telephone en route from Wilkes-Barre, PA., to Washington, D.C. CNN.com provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.


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