Wolf Blitzer: Give Me That Old-School Journalism
Wolf Blitzer anchors CNN’s afternoon “The Situation Room” and is CNN’s lead political anchor. During last year’s political campaign he also moderated numerous debates and anchored the Sunday newsmaker show (John King has since taken over).
Blitzer’s regular presence on the channel earned him a nomination in FishbowlDC’s poll of Hardest Working Washington Journo of 2009 (he lost out to Roll Call’s Shira Toeplitz.). Before joining CNN in 1990, covering military affairs and later the Clinton White House, he spent 15 years as a Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Post.
Blitzer, who started out in 1972 working for Reuters in Tel Aviv, recently discussed his career with NewsPro correspondent Elizabeth Jensen.
NewsPro: You’ve just come off a heady presidential election year. Election coverage at any news organization takes on a life of its own. How do you recalibrate in the first year of a new administration?
Wolf Blitzer: You are right — our 2008 election coverage was exciting and intense and, indeed, historic. We experimented with some new technology, including our magic map, and had lots of fun in the process. During this first year of the Obama administration, we have incorporated many of those breakthroughs in our day-to-day reporting in ‘The Situation Room.’ We also marked both the first 100 and 200 days of the new presidency with our National Report Card, which gave viewers a chance to weigh in on a whole range of questions.
We have tried to focus our attention on the most important domestic and foreign policy issues facing the country, and between the economy, health care, education, energy, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, there’s no shortage. In the end, good serious journalism is what’s most important. Our viewers have come to rely on us for that, and we don’t want to let them down.
NewsPro: In a new documentary, ‘Back Door Channels: The Price of Peace,’ you discuss your role, while working in Washington, D.C., for The Jerusalem Post, leading up to the 1979 Israel/Egypt Peace Treaty.
Blitzer: I had a rather modest role. In April 1977, I attended Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s news conference at Blair House across the street from the White House. I asked him what I thought was a fair question about breaking through the psychological barrier and establishing some direct human-to-human contact with Israel. I asked if he would consider an exchange of athletes, scholars, scientists or journalists. I was thinking of ‘Ping Pong Diplomacy’ as practiced earlier by the U.S. and China. Sadat said that would have to wait until there was an Israeli-Egyptian agreement ending the state of belligerency. Seven months later, in November, he stunned the world and announced that he would be going to Jerusalem to address the Knesset and make peace with Israel. On the eve of his departure, he was asked why he changed his mind, and, among other factors, he cited my question to him at Blair House. He said my question had ’germinated’ in his mind. The Washington Post did a piece about me entitled ’The Reporter Who Started It All,’ and I got some good publicity, which was very nice. I covered all 16 months of the Israeli-Egyptian peace process, including the Camp David Accords in September 1978, and the signing of the peace treaty in March 1979.
NewsPro: Some of your CNN colleagues and many of your cable news rivals feel quite comfortable playing openly partisan roles in the key debates of our times, and they’ve found ratings success doing so. Is there a future for down-the-middle journalism on cable?
Blitzer: I am a proud member of the Old School of Journalism. I don’t offer my opinions on the air. I try to be as responsible and objective as possible. As a result, the answer to your question is yes, I still very much believe there is a future for down-the-middle journalism on cable. That is what we do in ‘The Situation Room’ every day. I know that our CNN viewers want that, and I feel privileged that I can do that. Having said that, I think there is also a very good place for opinion journalism on cable. In my mind, it’s sort of like Old School newspapers: There was a clear division between the hard news pages and the editorial pages. News and Opinion were clearly labeled. And that’s the way it should be on cable as well.
NewsPro: Recently, 11-year-old journalist Damon Weaver called you his role model. What advice would you give him if he really wants to follow in your footsteps in journalism?
Blitzer: I gave Damon the same advice I give all aspiring journalists. You first need the basics — a good, solid education. Second, you need the curiosity and passion surrounding journalism. And, then, you need to practice. If you want to be a tennis player, you need to practice. If you want to be a cellist, you need to practice, If you want to be a reporter, you need to practice. Work for the school newspaper and radio/TV station. Get out there and report. Do it every day. If you have the basic skills and if you practice, you, too, will be a good journalist.