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Chuck Roberts, CNN Headline News anchor, discusses the debut of Headline News on January 1, 1982

May 17, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

(CNN) – 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.

Chuck Roberts anchors weekday afternoon newscasts on CNN Headline News, the CNN News Group network that offers 24-hour news programming in continuously updated, half-hour segments. A 19-year veteran of CNN Headline News, Roberts anchored the original newscast when the network launched on January 1, 1982. In addition, Roberts has hosted CNN Headline News' election coverage for each election since the network's inception.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Chuck Roberts, and welcome.

Chuck Roberts: Hi everyone! Thanks for joining us. And thanks for putting up with ME for 19 years.

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

Chuck Roberts: I got a call in August 1981 to come south from Omaha and join a still-dark network which Ted Turner directed should be on the air 160 days after he conceived it. Most of us took pay cuts and all of us felt a little uneasy about giving up a secure job for the great unknown. But we were quickly rewarded with the challenges of tackling international news and filling 24 hours of programming, which most critics really didn't think we could do. Proving everyone wrong was the most fun of all.

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Chat Moderator: What is your best memory from your years at CNN?

Chuck Roberts: Struggling with small budgets. We launched in a studio over an old swimming pool. At night, crickets were sometimes louder than anchors. And passing storms would knock us off the air. But for every indignity, there were triumphs like live shots from the Air Florida Flight 90 crash in 1982, and the Challenger explosion.

The most vivid and gratifying memory is a letter I got from a housewife in Romania who told us that under government censorship, she learned from CNN Headline News that the communists had fled. I framed that letter and everyone who walks into my office sees it.

Question from Mg: What was the original Headline News lineup?

Chuck Roberts: We had co-anchors for the first two years, so we needed about 15 different people. Early names include Denise LeClair, Rick Brown, Dan Hackel and, of course, the late, great Don Harrison. Somehow the anchor chit-chat and the tosses between us slowed down the pace. And Ted's mission was a get-to-the-point newscast. So we went to single anchors in ’84.

Question from Tsion: What is your favorite part about being a reporter?

Chuck Roberts: The competition. Standing in the rain waiting for an interview and getting the most out of that interview is a terrific rush. Beating the competition with a good, comprehensive, fair story is my greatest contribution. The most fun of anchoring is ad-libbing over video I've never seen before, and checking myself so that I don't use my own emotions or bias, and yet still convey the urgency of a breaking story.

Question from PlagueRat: Mr. Roberts, how would you respond to the common comment, "The media is composed of liberals, and CNN is more liberal than most"?

Chuck Roberts: If you could listen to the arguments in the newsroom on a daily basis, I think you would appreciate how dedicated we are to being "political agnostics." I think at Headline News, there are just as many conservatives as any other ideology. And I know that for my part, its not a cliché to say that I leave my political philosophy in the parking lot.

It’s always possible -- if you have four sound bytes from, say, George W. Bush and one of them makes him look silly -- an opponent of Bush might want to run that unflattering one. Our job is to choose the one that's most representative, not the one that makes him look good or makes him look bad.

Question from Mg: Do you write your own copy?

Chuck Roberts: I get there about two hours before I go on the air. I help write for the first show, and then pretty much am tethered to the desk for six hours. If I didn't join in the writing, I'd feel lost and wouldn't be able to hit the ground running when the red light came on. In other words, part of my job is being up-to-speed on the news and contributing to its production

Question from Tsion: Mr. Roberts, what was your favorite story to cover over the last years?

Chuck Roberts: The scariest for me was the Challenger explosion because for five minutes, we had no idea what the Hell was going on. And I had to ad-lib in a vacuum.

The most harried is election night, when I'm forced to remember the first names of more than 200 members of Congress, governors and commentators. In short, it is like juggling four balls in the air simultaneously and not being distracted by commands being shouted in your ear.

Question from Capitalist: Why aren't you live anymore?

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Chuck Roberts: It's not productive for us to do every weather toss, every sports tease, every lifestyle intro live. We can do a master show covering all those evergreen items and then concentrate on breaking news. So five out of the six hours I'm on the air, my task is fine-tuning, updating or completely reworking the breaking stories. And I don't have to worry about saying, for the fifteenth time in a row, "the nation will expect fair to partly cloudy skies tomorrow."

Question from Tsion: Mr. Roberts, what advice would you give to a hopefully future reporter?

Chuck Roberts: If you want to be on the air, the best training is in radio news. Pacing, ad-libbing and being able to marshal all of your facts into meaningful prose is best learned off camera first. Also, nothing is a good substitute for the writing skills you learn on a high school or college newspaper. In short, before you hit the camera, you have to have the fundamentals of voice and writing, because you will be called on to fill dead air. And you will be called on to compose a story on the fly, narrating over video you have never seen.

Question from Mg: Do you still share a dressing room with Lynne Russell?

Chuck Roberts: Lynne and I are very good friends. She is a terrific colleague and a hoot to work for. She has a wonderful sense of humor and is very generous.

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Question from EricRudolph: Do you watch the competition at work?

Chuck Roberts: All the time. It’s critical for us to see what MSNBC and Fox have that we are missing. And we're not compelled to try to beat them by minutes if the story would be better and more complete five minutes down the road. But I must confess that both of those news outlets do a great job with spot news. And I admire and respect the fact that they have done it with a small budget.

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

Chuck Roberts: Sure. I never expected to stay 19 years in one place. But to watch something grow and to be kind of a stage mother as new journalists arrive and people go on to other things has given me a lot of joy. I am proud of how we have matured, and very grateful for our loyal audience. By the way, you are always welcome at CNN Center to see how we "make the sausages," as they say. Write, call or visit often.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us!

Chuck Roberts: Goodbye everyone! Thanks for watching!

Chuck Roberts joined the CNN@20 chat by telephone. The above is an edited transcript of the chat.


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