CNN correspondent Richard Roth
May 16, 2000
(CNN) – When CNN first aired twenty years ago, a television station dedicated to just the news was unheard of. Those that took the risk, joined the company, pioneered the form know how uncertain success was. A lot has happened since then, and CNN has grown into one of the most watched news services around the globe. The standard in broadcasting major events, the name is recognized in 212 international markets and is imitated on cable and satellite networks. It even plays a role in major motion pictures.
Richard Roth reports exclusively on the United Nations, a position he has held for the past three years. During his tenure at CNN he has covered many major events, including the opening of the Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Gulf War. He has been with the network since its inception in 1980.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Richard Roth, and welcome.
Richard Roth: Hello, from the United Nations!
Chat Moderator: When did you join CNN? Please tell us a little bit about your early days at CNN.
Richard Roth: I joined CNN on April 1, 1980, which is April Fools’ Day, perhaps an omen for my 20 years at CNN. The early days still seem like yesterday. In some ways, it is remarkably similar to the CNN of the year 2000.
There is still a great rush and excitement of covering news on a 24-hour basis, and there is always fear that you will miss a story or a competition to get a story on the air. That still exists, even though many of our competitors have distanced themselves from covering general news.
The early days were filled with an excitement and anticipation of what was to come. The Democratic Convention started two months after we signed on the air, and we were just running around trying to cover the globe with fewer resources by far than we have today. But there was still a pioneer spirit.
Question from Eagle: What was the first major story you worked on?
Richard Roth: Well, Eagle, the first major story I worked on, I believe, was... hmmm.... major? Well, the first day we were on the air, baseball star Reggie Jackson was shot at on New York's upper east side.
Because this happened on the first day, and because I'm a Yankee's fan, I think this qualifies as a major story. :)
I believe the biggest story happened about six months after we went on the air. The hostages were freed in Iran on the same day as the presidential inauguration of Ronald Reagan. We had to scramble to cover their return to West Point, NY.
Question from LaDiva-CNN: Mr. Roth, is there a particular story that stands out in your mind, perhaps for its import, its pathos, any particular reason?
Richard Roth: A very significant story for me was covering the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. I was based for 60 days in Baghdad before the war, and I was on rooftops in Tel Aviv, Israel, where about 16 different missiles landed in separate attacks.
The story was so massive in its scope and importance, and I felt I was right in the middle of it. It will be something I will remember also because it was the most scared I had ever been in my life.
Chat Moderator: How involved was Ted Turner in the actual news department in the early days?
Richard Roth: Ted Turner kept his distance. We know that he had some input, offering ideas, and at times, firm suggestions, but there was never any time where he interfered in the news process. It was Ted Turner's unique, innovative, trail-blazing style, which I believe kept us going in the early days.
Question from Cory: Mr. Roth, have you ever been caught going on air with breaking news, especially at the State Department, when you were not sure about giving the facts, for example, if it was a matter of security to someone?
Richard Roth: I've never purposely broadcast anything that would endanger someone that I was not sure of the facts. However, in Israel and Iraq, I was "censored" by authorities, because they felt that CNN reports were tipping off the other country’s defense missile systems as to the location of where bombs were falling.
At the U.N., we understand that CNN has a great role to play in the world, and is seen by all governments and people, and we have to stay neutral to keep our credibility. Though there are times in breaking news where I would rather feel more comfortable with what I am saying than when there is more time to go over the information.
Chat Moderator: Did any of you have any idea how big CNN would become when you started out?
Richard Roth: That's a good question. When the paychecks arrived three days late in a scotch-taped envelope, falling apart, I had my doubts. :)
In fact, I threw away many savings by not investing in the profit-sharing plan for many years. I was a little concerned about this new network, but once it began, the pace of work was so intense I honestly did not give it much thought.
Question from Idpoirp: Mr. Roth, what in your opinion what the biggest crisis you covered?
Richard Roth: Other than the Gulf War, two other crises stand out. I was in China after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, and I was in several European capitals when communism started tumbling.
I was able to see my cameraman attacked, and our camera stolen in Prague in 1989, November 17. And one week later, I was mobbed by one million democracy supporters in the main square. It was quite a change in just seven days.
Question from Eagle: Mr. Roth, what single event in the world since your first day do you feel has had the biggest positive effect?
Richard Roth: Other than the Yankees beating the Braves twice, which occurred at Ted Turner's stadium, I would have to say the sweeping change in Russia and Europe, which catapulted democracy by leaps and bounds. While this may not be paying gigantic dividends immediately, I think down the road, it will prove to be a real landmark decade.
Question from Idpoirp: Wow, Richard Roth was there anytime during those episodes where you feared for your life?
Richard Roth: Yes. I was scared in Tel Aviv. It was more scary to be off the air when the air raid siren sounded, and Patriot missiles were sent up into the sky to hunt down scud missiles from Baghdad.
The attacks had been going on for two weeks, but it was only when I was off the air, with literally nothing to do but wait for our hotel to be struck, that I felt very uneasy. I remember taking refuge in a bathroom. In Prague, one year earlier, I remember being worried that state security forces were going to grab me, and more important, grab the tapes we had shot. I remember hiding them in a ceiling panel in my hotel room.
Question from Idpoirp: Looking back on where CNN started and where it is now, Mr. Roth, where would you say it will be in another 25 years?
Richard Roth: That's a good question! Where in 25 years? It's only a guess, but I believe that it will be still going strong, but even more split up in terms of people gaining access to the CNN brand through computers, television, etc.
It will be separate CNN channels, more of them, and you'll be able to get replayed newscasts when you want, etc. I think the news cycle will have sped up so fast, that journalists may not be able to produce the best story possible, containing the most important information, due to the rush to put it online, or on the air.
Chat Moderator: 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?
Richard Roth: I wish I had been a reporter in 1963 during the Kennedy assassination. I feel fortunate to have been at some other major events, so I don't really lose sleep about missing events. I saw some of the best.
I do wish I could have interviewed Cary Grant before he died. It was a goal of mine. I had been based in Rome, Italy, and when I returned, he had died.
Question from Cory: With new competitors joining you on the "Cable News industry" do you push harder to find the story that no one else has?
Richard Roth: Here at the U.N., I don't have to do that, because Fox and MSNBC are not here. There is so much news here, that I am constantly kept on alert. There is really no time to think, "What does someone else have?"
There's more than enough to go around. If I were covering a story with competition, perhaps I would try to do something, or cover something that was different. But not here, at the U.N., I have the place for television all to myself. And that's a good feeling.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?
Richard Roth: I can't believe 20 years has gone by! I can still remember walking into the World Trade Center on day one, to meet Mary Alice Williams, who was the bureau chief. I am so glad that I worked at CNN in that period of time, when no one knew us, and we had to prove ourselves, and now to see how we've become an institution.
That's a very good feeling. I do wonder the toll 24 hours of news has taken on me, health-wise, but it's been quite a ride.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today!
Richard Roth: Thank you for your questions, and it's nice to get thoughts from the outside world here at the United Nations!
Richard Roth joined the chat via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist for him. The above is an edited transcript of that chat.
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