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Mike Boettcher, CNN national correspondent, discusses his early years at CNN, including stories about the first broadcast in 1980

May 18, 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.

Mike Boettcher is a CNN national correspondent based in the network's headquarters in Atlanta. From 1981 to 1984, Boettcher worked at CNN as the network's national security correspondent, covering riots in Miami, the Cuban refugee boatlift, the Israel invasion of Lebanon, the Falklands War, and the kidnapping of General Dozier in Rome. Boettcher then went to work for NBC News as a correspondent and a contributor of reports to "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw", "Today", and "Dateline". He returned to CNN in 1999.

Boettcher has received numerous awards, including two national Emmys, two National Headliner awards and the top award from the National Society of Professional Journalists. He has received the Associated Press Award for Best Spot News Reporting and an award from United Press International for Best Documentary.

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Chat Moderator: Welcome to CNN@20 chat, Mike Boettcher. Thanks for joining us today!

Mike Boettcher: It's good to be here -- after 20 years.

Chat Moderator: When did you join CNN and what did you think about coming to work for this new and unusual network?

Mike Boettcher: I joined CNN in March of 1980, more than two months before we went on the air. And none of us knew what we were getting into, or what this would become. But as a 26-year-old kid at the time, I thought I had nothing to lose. Thank God, Ted felt the same way.

Chat Moderator: What are some good stories about the rehearsals?

Mike Boettcher: Well, we would actually cover real ongoing stories that they would use in mock newscasts. But there were still real-life risks involved. For example, in May of 1980, we covered the Miami riots for rehearsals and ended up getting shot at in Liberty City. And I kept thinking, "Is this worth a rehearsal?"

But the first few weeks before the CNN headquarters was opened, we were in the basement of a condemned house in Atlanta. The floor was covered with the wings of dead termites. The early accommodations were not good.

Question from Tvsingledad: Mike, was your family worried when you took the job?

Mike Boettcher: My wife, actually, and I, actually, had no idea that I would end up in those early days in all of these various places in the world where there were wars and revolutions going on. So it came as a shock to us when one day I ended up in El Salvador for the first time. But it was a good early indication that CNN was going to be an aggressive coverer of news, no matter where.

Chat Moderator: What do you remember about that very first broadcast?

Mike Boettcher: Well, I was standing on the docks in Key West, Florida when we went on the air June 1, 1980, doing a live shot from a massive satellite truck on the Cuban boat lift. And I can remember how close we came to not having that huge, old-style dish set up and put together in time, and how we had to improvise to get on the air.

For example, I couldn't hear anything the studio in Atlanta was saying to me. So I had to be cued by a Cuban immigrant whom we had hired to stay on a pay phone 500 yards away, and tell me I was on the air. But when the director in Atlanta yelled "cue him!" in the phone, this recent arrival from Cuba had never heard the word "cue." So it took about 10 seconds for him to tell me that I was on the air. Just an early snafu.

Question from Meli: What event sticks out in your mind the most from your years with CNN?

Mike Boettcher: The first significant event was the murder of the American nuns in El Salvador in December of 1980. That was a tough story to cover. Even more tough to cover was the situation in Beirut when Israel entered Lebanon and there was a full-fledged war there.

But perhaps the most significant thing in terms of CNN history was, I think, the Grenada operation by the U.S. For the first time, we fought our way into the network pool system of coverage from which we had been excluded for the first years of CNN. And then we knew we had finally arrived.

Question from Sunny1-CNN: Were you guys pretty organized in the beginning, or was everything pretty much chaos?

Mike Boettcher: Total fly by the seat of your pants. Total chaos. And everyone seemed to thrive on it. You have to remember that CNN was staffed primarily by very young people led by a handful of very experienced people. And in those early days, it had the feel of a college campus almost, a freshman year in college. We all worked very hard. But we also had a reputation for playing very hard. And somehow it all worked.

Question from Tvsingledad: How much animosity did you experience from the traditional network news-gatherers?

Mike Boettcher: A few made fun of us, called us "Chicken Noodle News." But I must say, most of the network crews we worked against helped us tremendously. Without the permission of their bosses in New York, they would often lend us equipment that we didn't have so we could get our stories done.

Question from Chicago: We often hear that CNN is a "liberal" news organization. How true do you think that is?

Mike Boettcher: Not at all. In this network are people of varying political stripes. I have had Democrats mad at me. I've had Republicans mad at me. I have had Israelis mad at me. And I've had Palestinians mad at me. And when you get to the point that everyone's mad at you in this business, that is probably a good thing.

Question from Andy_UK: How do you think that CNN will develop in the next 20 years?

Mike Boettcher: I think CNN will expand even more internationally -- will become even more of a global network than it already is. And I believe that in that time frame, the traditional network newscast will probably not exist, and that the CNN audience in the U.S. will fill that vacuum, and that we will be reporting more online than we do on air.

Question from Tvsingledad: Do you believe "the CNN effect" -- the idea that news feeds on itself and the coverage of the story "becomes" the story? Is this a significant problem in reporting now? Like the Elian riots being exacerbated by CNN coverage?

Mike Boettcher: That CAN happen. A frenzy sometimes does develop on a story. And people who were anonymous suddenly become news stars. And the story perhaps takes on a life larger than it deserves. On the other hand, audiences feed into that cycle, because they tune in in much larger numbers to a dramatic incident than they would to an insightful story. So there is enough blame to go around on that one.

Question from Tvsingledad: Who is the biggest prankster at CNN?

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Mike Boettcher: I would say that I was one of the bigger pranksters. But I was never in Atlanta that much because I was always traveling. But, as a group of people, the directors were the biggest pranksters, I believe, because they had to deal with chaos almost from minute to minute and had to have a great sense of humor to handle everything that went wrong. And I would also say that Don Miller, one of the early anchors, had a great sense of humor.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts or memories you'd like to share with us today?

Mike Boettcher: You know, I left CNN in 1984 and was at NBC for 15 years, and just returned here a year ago. I just remember thinking when I walked into the door here last year, how far this place has come from that little, condemned white house with the termite wings on the floor, and how proud I was to have been a small part of that.

Chat Moderator: Thanks for joining us today, Mike Boettcher.

Mike Boettcher: You are welcome.

Mike Boettcher joined the chat from CNN Center in Atlanta. CNN provided a typist for Mike Boettcher. The above is an edited transcript of the CNN@20 chat.


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