Oral Histories

Wolf Blitzer

Interview Segments on Topic: Journalists Roles

Wolf Blitzer Biography

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.

Transcript

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.

INTERVIEWER:  Yeah.

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:  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:  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.