Charles Bierbauer, CNN senior Washington correspondent, discusses his 19-year career at CNN.
May 8, 2000
(CNN) Two decades after R.E. "Ted" Turner dedicated the cable news network to America, CNN will celebrate its 20th anniversary. Viewers will have an opportunity to revisit some of the most momentous news events of the past with the CNN journalists who first brought them to the air.
Charles Bierbauer, CNN's senior Washington correspondent, covers critical public policy issues. As CNN's senior White House correspondent for nine years during the Reagan and Bush administrations, Bierbauer had spent more years at the White House than any U.S. president except Franklin D. Roosevelt. He has also traveled with presidents to all 50 states and more than 30 nations. A past president of the White House Correspondents' Association, Bierbauer has received the Oversees Press Club award and the gold and silver medals of the Houston Film Festival. He has shared in several CableACE awards at CNN.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Charles Bierbauer, and welcome.
Charles Bierbauer: Thanks, apologies for the delay.
Chat Moderator: When did you join CNN?
Charles Bierbauer: I came to CNN in 1981, a little over 19 years ago, during its first year on the air.
Question from Sunny1-CNN: Did any of you have any idea how big CNN would become when you started out?
Charles Bierbauer: I don't think any of us knew what CNN would become. We were all pretty much taking a chance on something new. I remember when I came to Washington and started my assignment at the Pentagon, having to explain constantly what CNN was. So I suppose we were all surprised to some degree when it just grew and grew.
Question from Sunny1-CNN: Charles, do you have any funny stories about the early days at CNN that you can share with us?
Charles Bierbauer: In the early days, every one did just about everything imaginable. There were not all that many of us. So if there were no one on the studio camera, someone would grab it. It was a little wild at times, but that was part of the challenge.
Question from Bosco: A recent Reagan biographer portrayed him as not very bright, an airhead, if I recall. Did you see him that way?
Charles Bierbauer: The Constitution only requires that a president be at least 35 years old, and a native born American citizen. There is no IQ test for the job.
Mr. Reagan may not have been a genius, but he had a political genius for knowing what he wanted to achieve, and being able to communicate it. He had a rather dedicated staff who saw to it that those messages-taxes are too high, government is too big, the Soviet Union is the 'evil empire' were effectively communicated.
Question from mrcpa: Was it hard to get the Washington insiders to pay you all attention (respect) in the beginning, and how does that compare to today?
Charles Bierbauer: It was quite difficult in the beginning. Much of Washington had not been wired for cable and many of the people we were dealing with did not even see our work. That has changed considerably as the technology enabled us, not only to reach Washington, but around the world. Certainly the Gulf War made everyone aware of what CNN was capable of doing. But by then we had been doing it for ten years.
Chat Moderator: How does it feel to know that you have spent more years at the White House than any U.S. president except Franklin D. Roosevelt?
Charles Bierbauer: That's a funny line that someone thought would look good in my biography. And it's true that I spent nine years there, while Presidents may only spend eight. It was an extraordinary experience-a chance to be a genuine witness to history and, in some cases, have a small role in it through my reporting.
Question from Compudoc: Mr. Bierbauer, what do you feel was CNN's "defining moment?"
Charles Bierbauer: Many would point to the Gulf War, because that is when most people really took notice of us. We were in a position to do things that other networks could not, particularly in reporting from Iraq. But I think there were others earlier.
One was the explosion of the shuttle Challenger. CNN was the only network live. So I'd say it was when we made decisions to do what the other networks did not want to invest their time in doing, and that made us stand apart from them.
Question from Candyce-CNN: What was your most awkward or embarrassing moment?
Charles Bierbauer: If it were really embarrassing, I'd best not talk about it. There are things that go wrong that are unavoidable. Technology is part of that.
One moment that viewers could not see lingers with me. It was at the Democratic Convention in New York. As the new nominee Bill Clinton was coming off stage, I was in position to corner him and chat with him for about three minutes. But neither I nor my producer could get anyone's attention in the control room to get it on the air. That was awkward.
Chat Moderator: How would you compare CNN 19 years ago to CNN today?
Charles Bierbauer: Well, we're bigger, of course. Much bigger. We're better because we have that much more experience. Perhaps then we were sometimes hungrier and more enthusiastic and less bureaucratic. Inevitably, any organization with thousands of employees stretched around the world becomes a bit more cumbersome. We hope that our reporting, though, is unaffected by that.
Question from Candyce-CNN: I remember the phrase "Chicken Noodle News" from the early days. Was that about the early philosophy that Ted wanted good news?
Charles Bierbauer: No. That's not what Chicken Noodle News meant. It was a derogatory slant on the letters CNN. And it did not sit well with Ted Turner. I remember Ted, years later, at lunch one day saying how unfair he felt that was, and noting he had not called the other networks such slurring names.
Chat Moderator: What has been the most memorable story you have covered for CNN?
Charles Bierbauer: Even before I came to CNN, I had spent a significant part of my journalistic career in Europe covering the Cold War. I'd been based in Moscow and several other European capitals. So there was a continuum in being first the Pentagon correspondent, and then the White House correspondent.
When Ronald Reagan went to Berlin and said, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," I had a strong personal attachment to the story. I think having spent a quarter century as a journalist watching the Cold War at its chilliest, seeing the Soviet Empire crumble was the most significant.
Question from Sunny1-CNN: How involved was Ted Turner in the actual news in the early days?
Question from Bosco: Was ‘The Ted’ ever hands on enough to call and criticize a report or reporter? Ever happen to you?
Charles Bierbauer: Two men initially shared the responsibility for getting CNN on the air, along with the hundreds who did the grunt work. But it was Ted's grasp of what could be done with satellite television, and Reese Schonfeld's background in news that drew the two aspects together.
Ted did not get much involved in the daily news operation. Once, he decided he'd deliver an editorial. It did not go over very well, and I don't recall him doing it again. I never had an encounter in which Ted got involved directly with what I was doing, though he was always interested to know what you were doing when he dropped by.
Question from Compudoc: Were there ever stories that you were covering where you felt "too involved?"
Charles Bierbauer: A journalist has to always guard against the kind of personal involvement in a story that might bias his or her coverage. I mentioned the Cold War coverage. That's a case where involvement really meant experience. If I sensed there was a story in which my personal leanings made it difficult for me to be objective, I'd defer to someone else doing the story.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
Charles Bierbauer: Twenty years is a fairly long time in this business, particularly in that aspect of it that changes so swiftly. When I came to CNN, we were learning to master the satellite technology that gave us a dominant position in world news. But the Internet was over the horizon. Now all of us file for television and the Interactive side of CNN, and radio. And none of us, well, at least not I, can tell you what the next development will be.
One of the things that attract journalists to the profession is the uncertainty of it, the fact that no two days are alike. That's certainly been the case at CNN over the now more than 19 years I've been here.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.
Charles Bierbauer: Thank you. Let's do it again in, say, 20 years or so!
Charles Bierbauer joined the CNN@20 chat by phone from CNN’s Washington, D.C. bureau. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.
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