I was working at a radio station when CNN went on the air. An all-news cable television network? I remember telling friends it would never work.
Five years later, in 1985, I got a job at CNN. My starting date was April 15, which means, for what it's worth, I can celebrate the source of my income and pay taxes on it the very same day.
CNN was still a work in progress when I got here, broadcasting from the basement of a former country club in Atlanta. Founder Ted Turner still roamed the halls. I was just about to enter the building early one morning when the door opened in front of me, and a man wearing a robe emerged. He offered a greeting as he walked out toward the parking lot, and when I turned to watch him disappear, I saw the name "Ted" on the back of the robe. I later learned that Ted Turner had an apartment in the building, and sometimes stayed overnight. Where he was going in that robe that morning, I still don't know.
CNN shared its building with another Turner network, TBS, the television home of World Championship Wrestling. The matches were held on another floor, but everyone shared the same cafeteria. Standing between two wrestlers in a cafeteria line is a little like driving a Volkswagen between two Mack trucks. Despite their fierce in-the-ring personas, most of the wrestlers seemed quite good-natured in person. Just the same, I made it a rule not to object if anybody cut in front of me.
I started out as a newswriter for CNN's sibling network, CNN Headline News (now HLN News and Views). At the time, the program schedule was pretty easy to remember: 30 minutes of news every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There was no time to sit on your, um, laurels, because a new deadline was always looming. Some people called Headline News a "boot camp" for TV journalists. It certainly provided basic training in the importance of writing things quickly.
In 1987, CNN and Headline News moved into the CNN Center in downtown Atlanta. In a previous life, the structure housed an indoor amusement park, a fact that inspired an endless stream of wisecracks. It was a large building that reflected CNN's growing prominence. Maybe it was a little too big for me; at the end of my first day there, I had trouble finding my way out.
After a decade at Headline News, I moved "up" to CNN. I use the word "up " literally; the CNN newsroom was two floors above Headline News. It was the same kind of work, but in a slightly different setting, kind of like starting a new grade in the same school. CNN writers tended to be a little more "seasoned," which is a nice way of saying "older." At Headline News, people talked about who dated who the previous night. At CNN, the office chatter was more likely to center on topics like, "My teenage son is trying to drive me insane."
When people hear about my job, they sometimes ask where I've traveled. The truth is that most of the traveling is done by anchors, correspondents, producers and videographers. My work-related travel is generally limited to trips to the coffee-maker, and to the place you have to visit after you've made too many trips to the coffee-maker. Exceptions came in 2000, when I helped with election coverage. I went to Iowa for the caucuses, which raises the question: why do Iowans wait until the coldest time of year to show off their state to the rest of the country? Is it some kind of practical joke, or just a way to discourage outsiders from moving in and taking over? I also went to Philadelphia for the Republican National Convention. While CNN reporters and technical crews worked amid the hoopla of the convention hall, writers and copy editors toiled in a makeshift trailer park about a block away. Writing television news is not a glamorous job.
Glamorous or not, writing for CNN gave me a chance to work with some great people including anchors like Chuck Roberts at Headline News and Wolf Blitzer, Kyra Phillips, Don Lemon, Rick Sanchez and of course, Fredricka Whitfield at CNN. It also gave me a front-row seat to history in the making. In the past quarter-century, I've written about the AIDS crisis, Iran-Contra, the fall of the Soviet Empire, Desert Storm, Monica Lewinsky, Y2K, hanging chads, 9/11, the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, the election of the first black President and thousands of other things. Even the water-skiing Santa Claus who seems to turn up every December. I've seen unknown people become famous, and I've seen famous people fall into obscurity. I've seen issues that seemed very important one year seem very unimportant the next year, and vice-versa.
The funny thing is that no matter how much I see, I still can't predict what's going to happen next.
That's the fascination, even after 25 years.