Wolf Blitzer is CNN’s lead political anchor and the anchor of The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, CNN’s political news program that provides up-to-the minute coverage of the day’s events. During the 2008 presidential election, Blitzer spearheaded CNN’s Peabody Award-winning coverage of the presidential primary debates and campaigns. He also anchored coverage surrounding all of the major political events, including both conventions, Election Night and the full day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
In addition to politics, Blitzer is also known for his in-depth reporting on international news. In December 2010, he was granted rare access to travel to North Korea with former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as the world watched tensions mount between North and South Korea.
Blitzer reported from Israel in the midst of the war between that country and Hezbollah during the summer of 2006. In 2005, he was the only American news anchor to cover the Dubai Ports World story on the ground in the United Arab Emirates. He also traveled to the Middle East that year to report on the second anniversary of the war in Iraq. In 2003, Blitzer reported on the Iraq war from the Persian Gulf region.
Blitzer began his career in 1972 with the Reuters News Agency in Tel Aviv. Shortly thereafter, he became a Washington, D.C., correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. After more than 15 years of reporting from the nation’s capital, Blitzer joined CNN in 1990 as the network’s military-affairs correspondent at the Pentagon. He served as CNN’s senior White House correspondent covering President Bill Clinton from his election in November 1992 until 1999.
Throughout his career, Blitzer has interviewed some of history’s most notable figures, including former Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Regan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford. Blitzer has also interviewed many foreign leaders— the Dalai Lama, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former South African President Nelson Mandela, among them.
Among the numerous honors he has received for his reporting, Blitzer is the recipient of an Emmy Award from The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his 1996 coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing and a Golden CableACE from the National Academy of Cable Programming for his and CNN’s coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He anchored CNN’s Emmy-award winning live coverage of the 2006 Election Day. He was also among the teams awarded a George Foster Peabody award for Hurricane Katrina coverage; an Alfred I. duPont Award for coverage of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia; and an Edward R. Murrow Award for CNN’s coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He is the recipient of the 2004 Journalist Pillar of Justice Award from the Respect for Law Alliance and the 2003 Daniel Pearl Award from the Chicago Press Veterans Association.
Blitzer is the author of two books, Between Washington and Jerusalem: A Reporter’s Notebook (Oxford University Press, 1985) and Territory of Lies (Harper and Row, 1989). The latter was cited by The New York Times Book Review as one of the most notable books of 1989. He also has written articles for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.
INTERVIEWER: You didn’t train to be a journalist as an undergraduate and therefore didn’t take my journalism ethics class so in the absence of that kind of formal training in journalism ethics, as you just sort of begin your career as a reporter where does your sense of—what ethical journalism is—where does that come from? How did you recall picking up on ideas about what it means to be a ethical journalist?
BLITZER: I really didn’t have any journalistic training—undergraduate or graduate—I never took a journalism course, I never worked for the school newspaper, the radio station. I was a history major, undergraduate, I studied international relations in graduate school, and I just fell into journalism. I got a job, somebody said, do you want to be a foreign correspondent and I was thinking of going on to the PhD in international relations but foreign correspondent sounded intriguing, I had always been a news junkie ever since I was a kid growing up in Buffalo, so I heard about this job at the Reuters News Agency, which is a British news organization and to my utter amazement, I applied and I got this…it was an entry level training program, they paid me, it wasn’t an internship, they didn’t pay me a lot but they paid me. But I was really blessed in the early days, learning from some really veteran journalists who inspired me, worked with me, trained me, ridiculed me, would very often make fun of me. It was almost like a hazing process to a certain degree, these were old time British journalists, really experienced. Nowadays, human resources would become involved because of the way they used to do it. But they inspired me and they also gave me my initial understanding of what journalistic ethics are all about and they trained me what is right, what is wrong, how far can you go, what shouldn’t you do and I think those initial guidelines, those initial instructions I had back in 1972-1973, a long time ago, they’ve stayed with me ever since.
INTERVIEWER: Can you remember any specific ones or specific instances where a story was being covered and it was talked about; here’s a delicate matter and this is why it’s a delicate matter?
BLITZER: Early on, it was June 1973 and I was then working out of the Tel Aviv Bureau of the Reuters News Agency and the Chancellor of West Germany, Willy Brandt, was making the first visit to Israel by a German leader since the Holocaust—since the end of World War II so it was a huge story. Will Brandt comes to Israel, first German Chancellor to visit the Jewish State after WWII, I was the low man in the Tel Aviv Bureau, the low person. He was to be there for almost a week and everybody was divided who would cover his address before the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. He would cover his meetings with Golda Mier, the Prime Minister, he would cover you know, all sorts of other things. He was going to go visit Masada, this mountaintop, Roman fortress from 2000 years in the desert. A lot of German college students had come in the 60’s and 70’s on archeological digs and he was going to go visit the Masada -- Jewish Zealots 2000 years ago, instead of giving up to the Romans, they committed suicide basically; fought and died. It’s a very historic event, so Reuters said, you go and cover this. So I remember driving down from Tel Aviv and we got there very early, it was June so it was already hot and he was going to be landing, I think at the top of Masada around 8:00 in the morning, so I was there by 6. We went all the way to the top on these cable cars and as he was coming down in his helicopter to land on a flat area, a gust of wind—all of a sudden, out of the blue this happens In the desert sometimes, appeared out of nowhere and began lifting and jolting his helicopter, it was an Israeli military helicopter. And as it was maybe 20 feet off the ground, you could see it was not in a good position. There were about 70 or 80 journalists who were there covering it, and we were behind a little barrier but you know, here I was a young kid and I’m saying to myself oh my God, the chancellor of Germany, the foreign minister of Germany, the Israeli leadership, they’re in this helicopter and it looks like—it touches down and the wind begins to push it and it’s about to go over the precipice. Go over the side and then there’s like a 2000 foot drop to the bottom of this mountain and I said to myself wow. Miraculously, amazingly, there was this 3 foot wall right at the edge and the wheels of the helicopter caught that wall and the helicopter stopped and didn’t go over—even when the wheels caught it, we thought the wind was still going to blow it over and all these people would die. It stopped, and the next thing I knew, Yigael Yadin who is Israel’s foremost archaeologist at the time, you know former chief of staff of the Israeli army, deputy Prime Minister. He pushes Willy Brandt, the Foreign Minister of Germany, and they all get out and they were okay. I think the foreign minister broke his arm. Chancellor, Willy Brandt was okay. He was shaken but not hurt. So Yigael Yadin, to his credit, sees what’s happening, sees the media’s there, we’re on top of this mountain and he immediately says, are you okay? And Chancellor Brandt says I’m okay. The foreign minister was not okay so they took him aside and he says, let’s go on the tour, are you ready to continue this tour? And Willy Brandt says yes, and so they began the tour and he says, well here are Judean archaeology students. And so I had a dilemma. What do I do? Here I am at the top of this mountain, do I continue for what was supposed to be about an hour, hour and a half tour or do I try to break the story of what happened out there—there are no cell phones in those days. One of the things I’ve learned…taught me early on, when you see breaking news in those days, you’ve got to find a telephone and you’ve got to call and start dictating the story, that was the only way to do it, there’s no Internet, nothing like that. When I got there at 6:00 in the morning at the bottom of Masada there was a little coffee shop or a little tourist shop. And I remember that there was a payphone, and one of my mentors at Reuters always said, look for a payphone, make sure you have a lot of coins, because you never know when you’re going to have to make a call. So in Israel the payphones, I don’t know about now but in those days they had tokens that you’d put in and they’d last for 30 seconds or 45 seconds, and then it would swallow it up and you’d have to put more in, so you can put a bunch in. And I only had maybe 5 or 10 tokens, not many but I figured if it was an emergency—it never dawned on me, everybody thought this was just going to be a little sight-seeing you know, color story, ‘the German Chancellor visits Masada,’ we didn’t know that he was almost going to die. So I had to make a decision—do I stay on the tour or do I get to that one phone and break the news. And I said to myself, you know I work for a wire service 24 hours a day, it’s now 8:00 in the morning, people are interested. So I left. I saw what was going on, I ran to the trolley car, and the Israeli soldier says, nobody’s allowed to go down and I started screaming and I said please, you’ve got to let me go down, I work for a wire service, I saw AP was there, I saw UPI was there and I didn’t know what they were going to do but I had to get down there. And finally I talked him into taking me down. I get to this one payphone and I put my tokens in and I call the Tel Aviv Bureau of Reuters and Colin Bickler who was then the senior—one of the senior guys, he’s on the other line, he was originally from New Zealand, he had just come to Israel from Vietnam because the Vietnam War was winding down, the Middle East was winding up and I said, “Colin, I only have a few of these tokens, here’s my number at this payphone, call me right back, please,” it was a bad connection and he said, “What’s going on?” I said, “just take this number down, I’ve got a big story, call me right back” and then he said, “What is happening?” and I said, “Write down the number”—and I used some bad words. And I said just write down the number and I gave him the number and by the last number, I wasn’t sure he had heard it, I didn’t know if the connection had gone through, it was really scratchy, and I hung up the phone. I’ve got no more tokens and I’m waiting for whatever…it seemed forever. Finally after a few minutes he connected with me, the phone rings, now it’s on his dime so he can talk as long as he wants. So he said what’s going on? I told him what was going on he said alright, they did a bulletin—news alert, whatever they called it—they called it bulletin in those days, ‘a helicopter carrying West German Chancellor Willy Brandt nearly blew off the top of Masada, the Chancellor was shaken but not hurt.’ That was the news alert. And we filed it, it caused a big stir, especially in Germany and Europe, United States. You know, it was a big story. So then the journalistic dilemma, the ethical question came up, cause I started giving him color, and I started giving him more details, he started moving more paragraphs on the wire, it was our job. The other journalists started coming, running down from the trolley car from the top. There’s one phone there, that’s it. Now, Colin Bickler said to me, “If you hang up the phone—I don’t want you to hang up the phone until his helicopter has gone, he’s back out of there, he’s gone, you’re going to be under enormous pressure because everybody—AP, UPI, New York Times, and all of the German media, they’re all going to want to use this phone. You’re going be fired if you get off the phone. You’re staying on this phone until the helicopter is safely out of the way.” So you know, I did it, I stayed on the phone, I had all these other journalists who wanted to kill me basically, because they wanted to… That was one of the ethical dilemmas I faced early on. Was it the right thing? Did I do the right thing in refusing to give up that one line or should I have shared with the competition? I think I did the right thing, it’s a competitive world out there, we were reporting the news. If that helicopter upon taking off, a second time would have crashed, and helicopters are not smooth all the time, we wouldn’t have had any way of communicating that, there’s no live Israel television news or radio—nobody was broadcasting this live or anything. So I learned at that time that it’s a competitive business—the news business. I didn’t do anything illegal, I didn’t lie to anybody, I didn’t steal anything. I was the one who got to that phone first and I just couldn’t get off until the story was over, basically. So that was an early ethical decision.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a good story. Can you remember other things along those lines?
BLITZER: Over the years, there’s been a lot of questions about journalistic ethics that I got to deal with. I’ll give you another example of an ethical problem that we had. Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait, August 1, 1990, I’m CNN’s Pentagon correspondent. That day, we had known that the Iraqis were moving troops from the Iranian border to the Kuwaiti border. For a week they had been building up a presence north of Kuwait. First 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 Iraqi troops including their so-called Elite Republican Guard, were now on the border with Kuwait in the days leading up to the invasion. And U.S. intelligence was monitoring it, they were watching what was going on, and I was a Pentagon Correspondent. That day, I remember having lunch with the Chief of Naval Operations, he was new on the job, and I asked him I said, “What’s with the Iraqis and Saddam Hussein moving and massing troops?” And he said, “Well, our intelligence estimate is that he’s threatening the Emir of Kuwait, wants to raise the price of oil because they need the money. But our intelligence estimate of the U.S. government is, he’s not going to invade a fellow Arab country. There might be some tension along the borders and border skirmishes, but just designed to exert pressure on the Emir of Kuwait.” That night I was having dinner, a few journalists were invited to dinner with a high ranking CIA official—one of these off the record kind of dinners—and I asked him the same question I said, what’s going on with the Iraqis on the border. And he basically said the same thing the Chief of Naval Operations said, “You know I think maybe he’s trying to intimidate the Emir, raise the price of oil, we don’t think he’s going to invade a fellow Arab country, that’s the estimate of the U.S. government.” Fine. Driving home, about 10:00 at night, now 10:15 and as I’m pulling in my driveway my beeper—in those days you had beepers—goes off and it vibrates, and I look down it’s my news desk. And I go to my study in my house and the news editor says, “Wolf, Reuters is quoting sources in the Persian Gulf as saying Iraqi troops have crossed the border and have gone into Kuwait. We don’t have this can you check it out?” And I said “Hey, I just had dinner with a high-ranking CIA official; I had lunch with the chief of Naval Operations. There may be some border skirmishes but they’re not going to invade a fellow Arab country…” I gave him the whole U.S. government estimate. Fortunately my editor said “Look, do me a favor, check it out, see what you can find out, it’s a big story.” I said okay. So what does a journalist do in Washington to check out a story like this, which could be a huge story or it could be just nothing. I said to myself—I work in reverse, let’s assume it’s true. And I said if it’s true, then I have a good source in DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) at the Pentagon who’s in charge of the Persian Gulf. He’s not at home getting ready to go to sleep at 10:30 at night or whatever, he’s been called back to the emergency room—the tank—whatever they call it there. There’s a crisis at the Pentagon, he’d be at his desk in his office. So I said you know what, I’ll just call his direct number at his office, see if it just rings or if there’s a pickup. I was sure that it would just ring but I said I have got to try it, it’s my job. So I call that direct number and to my utter amazement, on the first ring, I hear a very agitated, “Yea.” And I knew it was him. And I said, “You’re working.” And he said “Yea.” I said, “Reuters is quoting sources in the Gulf as saying the Iraqis have crossed the line and gone into Kuwait. What can you tell me?” And he hesitated for a while. There was a pertinent pause. But after 15-20 seconds whatever, he said—and I’ll never forget it cause I wrote it down in my notebook. He said, “Wolf it’s a lot worse than that.” I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “Not only have they crossed the line and gone into Kuwait, they are moving through Kuwait like a knife goes through butter. The is a full scale invasion, the Emir of Kuwait has already fled, their tiny air force has flown into Saudi Arabia, this is a disaster. Cheney, he’s Defense Secretary, he’s in the National Military Command Center. Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chief, they’ve all been alerted.” I said, “What time was it when it was breaking?” He said, “About 8:00 our time.” And I said, “Wow.” So, this was a reliable source, someone I had worked with over the years, someone I knew well, I knew he was working, I felt confident calling back CNN and saying, this is what we can report. A source at the Pentagon tells CNN, x, y and z. I do that, I do it on the phone, we do breaking news, the whole world is watching obviously by then. CNN’s not only in the United States but it’s live around the world. The Bureau Chief Bill Headline—that’s his real name—calls me up a few seconds after I hang up the phone and says “Wolf, I know you’ve been working all day, take a shower, put on a clean shirt, get back to the Pentagon, you’re going to be live all night.” And of course I do that. So I’m walking into the Pentagon and you see the parking lots filling up, they’re coming in, all the workers. In those days, if the Russians wanted to know if there was a crisis they could signal their satellites over the parking lots at the Pentagon. If they see a lot of cars, they know there’s a crisis. So it’s now midnight, I’m on the air and I report what I knew. I didn’t know a whole lot more, I had spoken to one or two more people but I really didn’t have much more information and I remember the anchor saying to me, follow-up questions—“So Wolf, what’s the Bush Administration going to do about this?” The first President Bush. And I felt like saying, beats me, I don’t have a clue. But you can’t say that on television so I said, “Well, in the week leading up, officials were saying treaty alliance with Kuwait, there’s no formal recognition of any treaty, pact, or anything like that. The Kuwaitis, the Saudis, they never wanted to have U.S. troops there, they wanted them to be over the horizon, Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean or someplace. So I said there’s probably not a whole lot the U.S. can do right now, that’s what I said, something along those lines. We had a little exchange like that, I come back to my office and even before I could sit down, my phone was ringing, pick up and it’s a high ranking Pentagon official—very high ranking and he said, “Wolf, we’re watching you in the National Military Command Center, we just saw your report.” And that didn’t instill a whole lot of confidence in me that they were in the National Military Command Center watching my report—I’m saying to myself, don’t they have better things to do than watch? And he said, “Don’t you know what you’ve just done?” And I said, “Help me.” He said, “You have basically told Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi military leadership to not only go through all of Kuwait, but to continue moving towards the oil fields in the eastern provinces in Saudi Arabia and continue to take over the oil in Saudi Arabia because there’s not much that can stop them. Kuwaitis can’t stop them, Saudis can’t stop them, and the U.S., you basically just told them, really doesn’t have any military capability in the region.” And I said, “So what are you going to do about all of this?” And he said, “Well, the president has authorized me to tell you that he is not ruling out any option, including the military option in stopping the Iraqis and making sure that this does not survive or whatever.” I said, “Can I report that?” “Yes, you can report that.” Now, it was clear to me that they wanted to send a message to Baghdad. In the olden days they would go through some Swiss Embassy or send a diplomatic message…they didn’t have the time in this because they were moving. It was daylight, it was now morning in Kuwait and the Iraqis were moving and the fastest way they could send a message to the Iraqis was through me. This military guy had said to me, he said “Whoa, when you’re standing at the Pentagon in the briefing room with a map of the world behind you, the American flag behind you, the podium, seal, department of defense behind you and they’re watching you in Baghdad as they were, they don’t see you as CNN Wolf Blitzer private journalist, they think you are the Pentagon. They don’t understand that you’re just a reporter. They think you’re the United States and when you just say there’s not a whole lot the U.S. can do—at least in the short term to stop this, they’re going to be encouraged. So, the dilemma I faced, I said to myself, I know they’re using me, cause they want to send a message; on the other hand, there’s news. The President of the United States—I have just been told by a senior Pentagon official—issuing a warning that all options are on the table, including the military option in stopping the Iraqis. Now, if the President of United States conveys that message through an official at the Pentagon to me, do I report it? Or do I not report it? My attitude was I report it. It’s news. Am I at the same time being “used” to send a message? Of course, I understood that. But I understood also that I had to get the news out and obviously we know what happened in Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm in the 6, 7, 8 months that followed. But it was an initial ethical dilemma that I had and I think I made the right call on that one. I’ll give you one more ethical issue that came up later, in January of 1991—if you’re interested. Are you intested?
INTERVIEWER: Absolutely, yeah.
BLITZER: The war starts. The air war starts and the U.S. is pounding Baghdad. In retaliation, Saddam Hussein sends scud missiles into Saudi Arabia and into Israel. Some of the first scud missiles that he launched landed in Israel; and I remember the first one that landed in Israel—the Israelis announced and the U.S. announced, Iraqis announced the scud missiles fired landed in Israel. Now, I had worked in Israel for Reuters news agency, I knew Israel, I was curious—where did that scud missile hit? What kind of damage did it cause? So I call up my sources in the Pentagon and they tell me, the scud missile lands in Ramat Gan which is a suburb of Tel Aviv, not far from the Diamond Exchange, the Diamond Mart. I knew exactly where it was. It hit a building but didn’t cause any loss of life, a couple people were injured—nobody dead, caused some damage to the building. And I report, I go on the air and I say the initial scud that lands in Israel landed in the suburb of Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan near the Diamond Exchange. I come back to my desk, I get another angry phone call from the senior Pentagon official saying “Wolf, what are you doing?” And I said, “Help me, I don’t know, I must be doing something wrong.” He said, “Why are you becoming a spotter for the Iraqi military?” I said “What?” He said, “Why are you telling them where their scud missile lands? Don’t you realize that if they adjust it…they were aiming for the Israeli Defense Ministry, which was about a mile away from that spot. You’re telling them that they have to adjust their calculations a little bit and they’ll hit the Israeli Defense Ministry which is what they were trying to do and you basically just told them how to do it.” And I said I didn’t realize that. So I faced an ethical dilemma, do I suppress this from now on—specific details where the missile lands? I consulted with our CNN executives, our news executives, and we all made a decision and then all the major news organizations agreed with us that from then on, whether in Saudi Arabia or in Israel or any place else, we wouldn’t say where the missiles landed. We would just give a generic—they landed in Central Israel, wouldn’t say what cities or anything. Where they landed in Central or Eastern Saudi Arabia, we wouldn’t say Riyadh or Tehran or anything like that cause we didn’t want to start becoming spotters for the Iraqi military. So we suppressed that—now was that a journalistically ethical decision? In my opinion it was because as much as we’re news people, we’re also human beings and we don’t want to do anything that’s going to allow people to die, whether U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia or Israelis—we’re not going to do anything like that, so we made the call that we were going to suppress and not give the specific location of where these scuds are—he launched a lot of scuds, we knew where they were landing. But after that first burst by me, nobody else ever reported that. Again, we would just say generically where they landed.
INTERVIEWER: Did you explain to viewers that you did that, that you were suppressing?
BLITZER: Yes we did. I was totally transparent with the viewers and I would say, we know where these missiles are landing but we’re not going to tell you and here’s why. My belief over all of these 35 years—almost 40 years of being a journalist has always been, if you’re transparent with the viewers or the readers, listeners; if; you’re honest with them, you tell them why you’re making these decisions, they’ll accept that. It’s only when you try to conceal something and mislead or whatever, that you get into journalistic, ethical trouble. But if you’re honest with them, they’ll appreciate it. Now, over the years there have not been many cases where we’ve suppressed information for national security considerations. There have been times, and it’s going to be a great case that the government makes, when we do that, but it almost always has to be--lives are at stake.
INTERVIEWER: There must be so many instances when you’re dealing with the military though where you’ve got these tricky issues to negotiate about—their preference would be, I’m sure in every case, tell us first what you want to report and we’ll tell you if we think you should report it. I’m sure you don’t do that on a routine basis but, people must routinely tell you things that they want off the record and then you’re going to have to decide whether you’re going to agree to that.
BLITZER: On the issue of ground rules, I’m always—and I’ve always been, this was instilled in me at Reuters when I first became a journalist; be precise with your sources. If they say it’s off the record, make sure your definition of off the record is the same as their definition of off the record. If it’s on background, in other words I can’t mention their names but I can report it, make sure that they understand what background means and you have the same understanding they have. If it’s on deep background; you know we have all these areas, if it’s on the record, just be precise and know that they may not know a government official or someone, what all these terms mean. So just be precise with them, so if you are going to report it, they won’t be surprised. And all these years later, I’m exactly like that. So if I go into a meeting with someone and he or she starts talking and giving me information, I always make sure look, are we talking on the record are we talking off the record? Are we talking background? Deep background? And sometimes I have to give them a little explanation, a tutorial on what all that means. Beause I said, I don’t want us to get into a fight afterwards about what I’m reporting and not reporting so I’ve always been disciplined on that level.
INTERVIEWER: Do you feel like those people in general, they’ve been trustworthy over the years in the sense that when they tell you that something really shouldn’t be reported that it really is because it’s a national security issue as opposed to their just covering their behinds?
BLITZER: I would say that some are trustworthy, some are just political nervous nellies or whatever and some really do have…if it’s a very, very sensitive issue, you really have to dig deep and sometimes you have to get multiple sources. We always had an expression, I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times—I’m not a cynical journalist but I am a skeptical journalist. I remember one of my early mentors in journalism said to me, ‘be skeptical, rule of thumb, if you’re mother tells you she loves you, get a second source.’ So I’ve always been skeptical but not cynical, and I think there’s a difference.
INTERVIEWER: Can you talk a little bit about the embedding issue with the Iraq war, and my sense of it is that journalistic access to the battlefield was really limited during Desert Storm and that journalists were frustrated by that and so people weren’t satisfied with the rules of engagement during that conflict. So then we have the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and journalists wanted more.
BLITZER: There was no one embedding in the first Gulf War.
BLITZER: All of our journalists were stuck basically in Riyadh or Dhahran. Only later were they allowed to go in. The 24th mechanized infantry went into Iraq, where the Marines went into Kuwait. They didn’t take journalists along on the ride. All that changed in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq and did have embedded journalists. David Bloom of NBC, Walter Rodgers of CNN, they went in, they had the live cameras and reporting as they were driving towards Baghdad. I was in Kuwait at the time, acquiring our coverage for 4 or 5 weeks before the actual war started and then during the war but it was a very different situation. Was it perfect, the embedding arrangement? No, it wasn’t perfect. It was certainly a lot better than it was in 1991 when we basically had virtually no access to the frontlines.
INTERVIEWER: Did CNN then try to negotiate with the Pentagon about these rules?
BLITZER: It wasn’t just CNN.
INTERVIEWER: Express some unhappiness about the locations?
BLITZER: All of the television news networks are part of the pool—a network pool we call it—whether with the Pentagon, the White House, Capitol Hill and we go in as a team. And this kind, when you’re negotiating access in rules of engagement, stuff like that, it’s not just CNN. It’s CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, we all go in together, all the bureau chiefs in Washington they make their presentation. Cause we have an interest, all the news organizations having access. The government, whether it’s the Pentagon or whatever, their interest is limiting our access, so we fight it out with them. And some administrations are more open than others, but that’s just the nature of the beast. It’s not just CNN, it’s all of us as a group.
INTERVIEWER: But how do you think that all worked out?
BLITZER: I think it worked out better than in 1991 but it wasn’t perfect. 2005, I went to Iraq and embedded with General Abizaid who was then the U.S. military central commander and we spent a week. We went to Mosul, Fallujah, and Baghdad, all over the place. Did I have access to everything? No. Were there classified meetings that he went into with his general and said you have to stay out? Of course, I understood that. But I did have access to troops and areas that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. I would have just, flying into Baghdad, I’m going to see what I can see. I wouldn’t have had access to those kinds of military facilities, Iraqi military, that I had because I was embedded in his group.
INTERVIEWER: What about the concern that the reporters would get too chummy with the soldiers, they’d be dependent on them for their safety so it would be harder for them to ask the tough questions, to be more objective. Do you think any of that was a problem?
BLITZER: I don’t think there was a problem. I was a Pentagon correspondent covering wars, I think the soldiers, the rank and file, they liked having media there. They want us to tell their story. They’re proud of what they’re doing and they want us to get the access and they know not everything is going to be a great, positive story, but they don’t care. That’s my impression over the years in working with rank and file troops.
INTERVIEWER: Okay. In more recent years you’ve done a lot of coverage of politics, moderating debates and so on. I was hoping to ask you how you think or if you think coverage of politics has changed from when you first started out to now, and how has it changed? Has it changed for good or for ill?
BLITZER: The coverage of politics?
INTERVIEWER: Yeah. And of politicians.
BLITZER: I think we’re much more aggressive now than we were 20, 30, 40 years ago. We want answers and we want information and we have so many better techniques—in going through financial records, you know with the Internet and statements—almost everything, so if Donald Trump for example, wants to be a serious presidential candidate; his whole life of business, personal, political is going to be exposed. And it’s now relatively easy to get access like that. You have to look at previous speeches and interviews and flip-flops, stuff like that. In the old days, you used to have to go to libraries, collect research, archives. And it was much more difficult, so it’s really changed a lot and now there’s—another thing that’s changed—there’s so many more organizations. Partisan organizations. Some of them partisan, others are just objective think tanks or whatever, that are looking at this stuff and I admire people who are willing to go into politics and expose themselves and open up their lives and their businesses and their financial statements and income tax returns and let it all hang out. Because if you want to do that, you know, go ahead do it.
INTERVIEWER: That raises the question, should anything be off limits or is everything out in the open?
BLITZER: In this day and age, if you want to be president or you want to be a senator or governor, there’s very little that’s going to be off limits. Maybe in the 60s and 50s, 40s, there was a journalistic gentleman’s agreement that you don’t talk about women, you don’t talk about this or that—I’m sure that was the case. In the last 20 years, I don’t see much, if anything is off limits. I think that’s the big change.
INTERVIEWER: When you look back at the Lewinsky scandal, do you think it was too much coverage? That it proved to be—Clinton had to spend so much time dealing with the fallout—
BLITZER: I covered that every single day. From the day the story broke until the impeachment and the trials. You can look back and say it was ridiculous or you can look back and say, what was the President of the United States thinking when he had an affair with a young woman who was an intern at the White House? I remember when we first got word that this was going on I said, that’s impossible. President of the United States? And low and behold we eventually learned the truth, the whole truth and so much more than we ever wanted to know about in that Ken Starr report. I was the network television pool reporter when Bill Clinton, a few days after the story had broke, was in the Roosevelt Room in the White House in the West Wing and he looked at the cameras. He was basically looking at me cause I was representing the television networks and I was the pool representative there and he said, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky.” I was there when that happened and I remember it very, very vividly. It was a huge story for a year. Did we go overboard in the media? Were we ethically challenged or whatever? This was all new territory, not just for me but for all my colleagues. I don’t think we had ever covered a president involved in a sexual scandal like this.
INTERVIEWER: Well what about what I think of as the European argument that Americans are silly about this kind of stuff. That people in public life tend to have these big egos and part of what goes with the big ego is the big sexual appetite and this seems to be their foible and that really, we should just look at; are they competent, are they doing the job we elected them to do and look the other way about this stuff. They think, who cares. It’s their private life, none of our business.
BLITZER: No. I guess that’s the difference between the Americans and the Europeans. In Europe—you’re right, I was just in Europe the other day—they don’t really care if their leader had multiple marriages, multiple affairs, whatever, that’s human nature, we just want to make sure that our jobs and the economy is well run and national security works. And certainly in Italy and Spain and France it’s like that. They’ll report all this, but it’s not going to be a big issue for those people. But here, we’re Americans you know, it’s obviously a different culture, a different attitude, and a much bigger issue for us.
INTERVIEWER: That sort of raises the question, does the media make it a big issue or is the public interest in it drive the media to cover it more?
BLITZER: I think it’s part of both. I think the media—the public is interested, the media will report it. The public then becomes more interested, the media reports more of it, they want more details. So it’s sort of a two-way street but I think by and large, the American people have a different attitude towards these things than the Europeans by and large do. That’s just a fact of life.
INTERVIEWER: Another thing I wanted to ask you about, in terms of the way the world of journalism has changed and the speed of it and the concern that in the rush to get things out there and to be first that, the concern you often hear is that we’re not checking things as carefully as we would in terms of corroboration, making sure you know and just like, put it out there. And then if we have to correct it later we will and there’s a danger that we can make very big mistakes.
BLITZER: I think that’s a huge problem. I think there is enormous pressure of a competitive nature. And with the web and all the websites and the bloggers and getting stuff out there and matching it and rushing to print before you have all the evidence, I think that’s a huge problem. And it’s much worse now than it was because of the new platforms that are out there reporting stuff. Sometimes they’re just making it up, sometimes it’s real. But I’m from the old school that says—usually, almost always, if it’s too good to be true, it’s almost never true. Occasionally that’s not true. I don’t want to burned, I’d rather be second or third than be first and wrong. And I think that’s our attitude at CNN. We would rather be right than be first and wrong. You want to be first, you want to break the story, but you want to be sure you have it right. The other night when I got that call at home to get to the bureau because the president was going to be making a statement from the East Room in the White House, we didn’t know what it was. Once they said it wasn’t Libya, it wasn’t Kaddafi, we had to suspect it was Bin Laden. I didn’t know if he was killed, picked up, whatever, but I began to think, why would the president go into the East Room of the White House instead of the briefing room. It’s a much more formal setting. You would have to walk through that corridor. Why would he be making a ten minute speech and why would he be doing it on a Sunday night at 10:30, of all times if it weren’t something huge—it would have to be huge. And I was told it’s huge, we can’t tell you what. So my gut instinct was, it has something to do with Bin Laden. But you know what, I didn’t want to report what my gut instinct was, I needed the facts. So until we had it, we didn’t report it, even though for maybe 20 minutes, 15 minutes, whatever it was, I began to suspect this is something to do with Bin Laden. Otherwise, why on a Sunday night would he be addressing the nation suddenly from the East Room of the White House?
INTERVIEWER: I also wanted to go back to the run up to the Iraq war. When people look back now, I know both the New York Times and the Washington Post printed these sort of mea culpas that we were too credulous, we focus sort of over much on the administration’s case for the war and not enough on those—the skeptics who are saying wait a minute, he doesn’t really have the weapons of mass destruction. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of evidence of any kind in cahoots between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. When you look back on that coverage now, how do you evaluate it?
BLITZER: I think we could have done a better job. It’s hard you know but we did have skeptics on my shows, I had Dr. Hans Blix, he was Iran’s weapons inspector. I had Dr. Muhammad ElBaradei, the nuclear…IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) director general. I had skeptics who were saying, well it’s not true. Even some members of congress, Senator Bob Graham of Florida was a skeptic and I had him on often. On the other hand, when the President of the United States, Vice President of the United States, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, head of the intelligence, CIA, they’re all telling Congress and the American public and the United Nations, here is the evidence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—you’ve got to report that. If he CIA director says that…if Colin Powell, who’s the Secretary of State, goes before the United Nations security council with his pictures and diagrams, you’ve got to report that. Should we have been more skeptical in our reporting? Probably, certainly now that we know that there were no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and there was not much of a nuclear program at all, no biological or chemical weapons. They had a capability to develop them but they didn’t have any. And Saddam Hussein wanted us to believe that he had it so to intimidate his enemies and to try to deter the U.S. and the others from invading them, so he didn’t deny it. But certainly, journalism is the first draft of history and we do our best, sometimes we get it right, sometimes we don’t. Can we always do a better job? Yes. Could we have done a better job then? I’m sure we could have. It wasn’t as if we totally ignored the other side. And remember, we were also getting confirmation from all of the other allies that Saddam Hussein had this. You’ve got the British and the French, they were all agreeing with the U.S. Even some of the Arab countries; Egypt, Syria, they weren’t disputing. You did have the French who were saying, he may have it but there are other ways of dealing with it other than going to war. You don’t necessarily have to go to war, you can put him in a box and contain him, sanctions and diplomatic pressure—stuff like that. So there was a dispute about whether or not the invasion was necessary. And I reported all of that but…scholars like you will continue to study that and see if we could have done a better job.
INTERVIEWER: I think one of the things—the philosophical issues underpinning a lot of this in terms of how journalism is practiced is you know, when important people make announcements, we come running as journalists right? And we report what they say. But then what if they’re lying? There’s not a good way for journalists to feel comfortable about pointing out that people aren’t telling the truth without feeling like they’re injecting themselves into the story.
BLITZER: Although lately, we have tried. If I’m doing an interview, or other anchors at CNN are doing an interview—Anderson Cooper or whoever, John King, Candy Crowley—whoever and we’re interviewing somebody and we know that person’s not telling us the truth, or withholding something, we challenge them. In a polite way, we don’t just say, ‘you’re a liar’ or something. We say, that’s not true, here’s the evidence. That’s our responsibility to do that. We’re not just stenographers. We want to make sure we get the information and first and foremost on our minds is our viewers out there. We’re their representative. We have to ask the questions they want answered and if we know that someone is not telling us the truth, it’s our job to point that out and we do.
INTERVIEWER: Another thing I wanted to ask you about had to do…we’ve had coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Katrina and the Tsunami and earthquake in Japan, and these are instances where the dilemma of how much the reporters get involved in helping victims of disasters. The argument is you know, be a human being first, be a journalist second. If someone needs your help, help them. The critics say there’s some grandstanding involved, you’ve got reporters on TV and they become the story and they’re looking like heroes. Do those kinds of issues get discussed?
BLITZER: There may be some reporters who are grandstanding but I know for a fact that some of our reporters, they’ve done really amazing things. Whether it’s a story like that or Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti… We have one, Dr. Sanjay Gupta who’s a neurosurgeon, but he’s also a journalist. He’s saved lives. He’s taken off his journalistic hat and gone into the operating room and tried to save lives because he knows, as much as he’s a journalist, he’s a doctor first. And as much as he’s a doctor, he’s a human being first. Most responsible journalists—there are some who are you know, movie stars and grandstanding but I think most, if they can do something to save somebody’s life you know, forget about the journalism.
INTERVIEWER: I guess the critics say, then do that stuff off cameral. Don’t do it on camera, cause otherwise you draw too much attention to yourself.
BLITZER: I could understand that, on the other hand, the viewers and the readers—they’re interested in that. It would be suppressing news if a reporter did something that was really important as saving somebody’s life, what’s wrong with letting everybody know about that? I don’t have a problem with that—if that’s news. If Sanjay Gupta goes out there and the U.S. Navy doctors say, we don’t have a neurosurgeon, we’ve got a sailor who’s about to die, can you help us? I don’t have a problem with Sanjay doing that, and I certainly don’t have a problem with letting our viewers know that Sanjay did that. I don’t think that’s an ethical problem as far as I’m concerned.
INTERVIEWER: Advice on the ethics side to young journalists like the ones we just graduated here today?
BLITZER: My advice is, be honest. It’s the same advice your parents gave you when you were in kindergarten; honesty is the best policy…tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. Don’t embellish, don’t make it up. Don’t have any political agendas. Make sure that the aggrieved party has a right to comment before you go to air or go to press. And don’t be used to allow anyone to die or be hurt, be sensitive to that.
INTERVIEWER: One of the things we talk about a lot in journalism ethics class is, in this economic climate, how much the sort of, business tail is wagging the journalistic dog. I don’t have as much of this…I know how that’s playing more at newspapers than on broadcast news. How much have you seen that at CNN, where you’re not covering stories because of budgetary constraints or covering them less or just having to choose?
BLITZER: We’re blessed at CNN because the company is making a lot of money. We have a huge budget. I don’t know how many hundreds of millions of dollars I mean, it’s a big, big budget and if there’s news, the money is there. We are expanding. We’re hiring people. We’re opening up new bureaus all over the world and we’re doing very creative stuff on the web at CNN.com or CNN Radio, CNN International, we have CNN Español, we have CNN in Japan and Europe. We’ve got a lot of channels out there and across the platform, we’re doing a lot more and do we work within budgets? Of course, but when there’s news, the top executives say, whatever it costs it costs. If it means sending 100 people to Egypt to cover the Tahrir Square liberation and all that stuff, we do it. If it means sending 100 people into Japan to cover the earthquake and the Tsunami we do it. Or if it means doing whatever we’ve been doing in the last two weeks on Pakistan and the killing of Bin Laden in Islamabad and Abbottabad and all that and beefing up our presence in Afghanistan, we do, if there’s a war, whatever. Other news organizations that are losing money, especially print, they’ve cut that. I’m blessed at CNN, we don’t have to worry about that.
INTERVIEWER: This is good news for the girl who had the “Hire me Mr. Blitzer” writing on her cap today at graduation.
BLITZER: We are hiring. We’ve been looking for good, young, smart talent.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe we could just end with this tonight if you would just talk about the things that you’ve done in your career of which you’re most proud.
BLITZER: Well, it’s almost 40 years now, if I look back, since I finished graduate school, I’ve been proud of all of the journalistic work that I’ve done. In the 70s and 80s, covering the Middle East. I’ve been proud of when I was a Pentagon correspondent, the military stuff that I covered. I was almost 8 years—7 years as our senior White House correspondent during the Clinton administration. I’ve been anchoring shows for the last 15 years at CNN, Inside Politics, Wolf Blitzer Reports, Situation Room, Late Edition I did for 11 years—our Sunday show. I’m very proud of all that work, I think we did a good job. Was it the greatest journalism ever? No. But it was important, I’ve been blessed to cover some of the most important stories in our lifetime in the last 30 or 40 years, I was there covering whatever big story there was at CNN in ’70, I’ve been with CNN now for 21 years. So, television, that’s a long time to be at the same place and whenever there’s been a big story, they said, Wolf, get there. And so, if you’re a journalist, you want to have a front row seat to history. You want to have access to newsmakers; you want to interview newsmakers and ask tough questions. You want to get the news first. I’ve always been a news junkie, ever since I was a little boy growing up in Buffalo and you know what, I’ve been so privileged that even if I had become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or anything else, I would have still been a news junkie cause I love this kind of stuff, ever since I was a little boy I loved it. So if you’re passionate about it do it—and I’ve been passionate about it. And even at this stage I love what I’m doing and look forward to doing it for many more years to come.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, I’d say you’ve had not just a front row seat, but the best seat in the house.
BLITZER: I have a great seat, great seat.
INTERVIEWER: Alright, well thank you so much.
BLITZER: Thank you.