John Zarrella, CNNís Miami bureau chief, discusses his experiences working for CNN
May 12, 2000
May 12, 2000
(CNN) Ė On June 1, 2000, CNN celebrates two decades of journalism as a cable news network. CNN currently has 37 bureaus, employs more than 4,000 people and delivers the news in 10 languages. CNN International, the world's only global 24-hour news network, is seen in more than 150 million households in 212 countries and territories worldwide, through a network of 21 satellites. As the network prepares to celebrate its 20th anniversary, CNN correspondents are joining chats to describe their memories of the past twenty years.
John Zarrella, CNNís Miami bureau chief, joined CNN in 1981. Zarrella moved to the Miami bureau at its founding in December 1983. He has played an integral role in CNNís coverage of the Florida region, including Hurricane Andrew and the Cuban and Haitian refuge crises.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, John Zarrella, and welcome.
John Zarrella: Glad to be here talking about something other than Elian Gonzalez.
Chat Moderator: When did you join CNN?
John Zarrella: My early days. I'm giving away secrets here, age secrets. I first joined CNN in November 1981. So the network was roughly a year-and-a-half old when I began with CNN. I was brought in as executive producer of a morning show the network wished to do. And my responsibility was to put that program on the air. After a few months of development, we came out with a program in early Ď82 called "Daybreak." It was a three-hour morning newscast. So, for the early part of my career with CNN, I was behind the scenes as an executive producer.
Two years later CNN decided to open a bureau in Miami, and I applied for the job. I had pretty much had enough of working overnights, which is what is required of a morning show producer. You would go in at midnight and leave at 9 a.m. So I got the job as the Miami bureau chief. That was in November of 1983, and I have been here ever since.
Question from DawnL: Did you actually stay in Miami during Hurricane Andrew?
John Zarrella: Yes. Actually we were in North Miami at our bureau. At that point, during the hours leading up to Andrew making landfall, we all thought that Miami, the city of, was going to be the bullís eye. So we were prepared really to take the worst. But just before landfall, the storm jogged to the south. Still, we had winds of about 100 mph in gusts here in North Miami. And at about 4 a.m., just as Andrew was making landfall, we had to stop our live reports because the satellite truck was literally being lifted off the ground. We were concerned we would lose the dish on top of the truck, besides the fact that it was just plain dangerous.
Question from Meli: What is your best memory from your years in Miami?
John Zarrella: If you are asking which story was perhaps the greatest story I've covered, I would have to say it was the Challenger accident. For those of you who have seen -- even on TV -- space shuttle launches, you know where the countdown sits in front of the lagoon. I was standing there when Challenger lifted off. And 73 seconds later, when it exploded, those of us standing there really did not realize what had happened. All of the journalists looking up thought the vehicle would come out from behind the cloud. Then we saw the two solid rocket boosters spinning out of control. It was at that point that we realized what had happened.
We all ran back up to the press center. Of course it was total confusion. Members of the NASA staff, members of the media, everyone running wildly, not knowing what to do, where to go. Some people thought perhaps the vehicle would somehow survive and try an emergency landing back at the landing strip. They tried to get over to the landing strip. But NASA said, "No, there is no way to get over there."
It was an incredible morning and when I close my eyes, I can very vividly watch a replay of the hours and minutes before, during and after the explosion.
Question from Sunny1-CNN: John, how involved was Ted Turner in the actual news department in the early days?
John Zarrella: There are some very funny stories of those early days. Without naming too many names, I recall back in Ď82 when I was executive producer of "Daybreak." Ted Turner called down from his suite and asked me over the phone who was this particular person we had on the air. And I told him who the person was. And Ted said, "I want that person off the air right now." It was a reporter who shall remain nameless. I turned to our director, and I told him to dump out of the live shot. He looked at me, puzzled, and I said, "Just do it, go to black. Ted Turner is on the phone and wants this person off the air now." So that should give you some idea of the level of involvement from Ted in those early years. He watched an awful lot, particularly in the morning.
Question from DawnL: Ever have the urge to travel to war zones and those types of hot spots?
John Zarrella: I've traveled to a few that were hot enough. I have covered the Noriega case in Panama -- not the invasion but pre-invasion when Noriega was still in charge and had his goon squads running around tear-gassing and beating people. I also covered Haiti through all of the dictators and overthrows of dictators. And I covered events in Nicaragua during the Contra war. So I've seen my share of hot spots. But to actually go into a war zone, that is something that has never really been an obsessive desire of mine.
Question from deafnblonde: Did you have a chance to cover the Andrew Cunanan story from Florida? Can you tell us a little about that?
John Zarrella: I covered some of the story the day of the shooting, but did not cover the endgame when Cunananís body was found on the houseboat. As many of you know, I traveled to Cuba quite frequently, and I was on assignment in Havana when that story finally finished. So my coverage of the Cunanan case was really limited to the breaking news of day one.
Question from Meli: Is there a story or event that you would have liked to cover but didn't get the opportunity to and, if so, what was it?
John Zarrella: Gosh, we don't have enough time for me to tell you all the stories I would have liked to cover. I would love to have covered a political convention. I have never done that. I would have liked to cover the Persian Gulf War. My coverage of it was from the domestic side, traveling to military bases around the U.S. I would love to have covered events in Russia when the Soviet Union fell. And since I have always loved covering hurricanes, I can tell you that every one of them I missed, I wish I had covered.
Question from DawnL: How are reporters treated in Cuba?
John Zarrella: As a correspondent in Cuba, the people have always been extremely friendly, and that simply because they may not know that I'm a journalist. I don't always go around with a camera crew when I'm there. The government has always been responsive when we asked for interviews. I can tell you quite honestly that my experiences in Havana -- and I have been traveling there for well over a decade now -- have always been journalistically rewarding.
Question from Candyce-CNN: John, what's your most vivid recollection of your coverage of the Cuban and Haitian refuge crises?
John Zarrella: My most vivid recollection would be in 1994 when I was covering the exodus of Cubans during the rafters crisis. I recall standing on the beach in Havana del Este watching people build rafts. There was one group of about six people, men and women. And one of the men who was sitting there had no legs. We asked if he was afraid to be going on this makeshift boat. And he said "no," that his friends were going to tie him to the mast, so there was no chance he would fall overboard in bad weather. That is one conversation and one story from that crisis that I will certainly never forget, the desperation to leave that island as exemplified by that one man with no legs.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us today?
John Zarrella: Again, it would take all day to tell you all of the wonderful memories from 19 years at CNN. I have covered earthquakes, volcanoes, numerous disasters, the Pope's visit to Cuba and airplane hijackings. It has been an unbelievably rewarding two decades.
I just hope that all of you who have seen my work can see in my work the love I have and the dedication all of us have here at CNN to the network and our craft.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us.
John Zarrella: Once again, my pleasure as always. We'll see all of you in the next 20-year anniversary chat.
John Zarella joined the chat from the CNN Miami Bureau via telephone. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of the CNN at 20 chat.
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