Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Complete John Roberts Q & A


From Carrie M.
What type of story do you most enjoy reporting? Is it politics, war from the front lines, breaking news, human interest stories, or something else and why?

JR: To be honest, I like them all. Politics is great because you’re covering the evolution of the nation. Wars are non-stop adrenaline, as is breaking news (though without the bombs and bullets) and human interest stories are rewarding (particularly a story like Hurricane Katrina). Wars are probably the most interesting stories to cover – there are so many aspects to them. But every time you go to one, you push your luck, and luck can only be pushed so many times before it jumps up and bites you big-time. I’ve lost some good friends in Iraq.
From Fran M:
Where does he like to go on vacation?
JR: We do a lot of beaching – Outer Banks or Martha’s Vineyard in the summer – Caribbean in the winter – my daughter just loves the ocean. My son goes to school in Colorado – so we always try to make a point of getting in a few days of skiing every winter. My favorite vacation of all time, though was two weeks in Tuscany. We had a great house on a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean. It was just magical.
From Phebe:
What’s on your nightstand? What are you reading for pleasure, for work and what’s your most recent read?
JR: A lamp and Bose wave radio are the permanent fixtures. Temporary occupants right now include Vali Nasr’s Shia Revival, Barack Obama’s Audacity of Hope, Time and Newsweek, and the latest issues of BikeWorks and Guitar Player magazines.
Shia Revival is my latest read…just finishing it. I work on my motorcycles myself a lot, so I read BikeWorks for tips on repairs and modifications, and Guitar Player has some good lessons to further my playing. My problem is that I read so much research during the day, and work such long hours that by the time I pick up a book at home, I read for about 15 minutes, then fall dead asleep. It can take me weeks to finish a book.
From M. Silva:
Who is the most interesting person you have interviewed?
JR: I think Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf back in 1999. He had survived an assassination attempt, taken control of the country and was in the middle of a nuclear standoff with India. It was pretty compelling stuff.
From Pixie:
If you could select ANY topic to cover in-depth for a 2 hour special, or a series of specials, what would the topic be?
JR: I think the climate change crisis facing the world. It’s probably going to be the most important story of our lifetime, and lifetimes to come.
From Cheryl:
As a journalist, what is your honest opinion, about the progress in Iraq?
JR: As I said on This Week At War last weekend, I believe that we are beginning to see a faint glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. The open question: Is it success? Or an oncoming train? Things in Baghdad have become marginally better in just the past few weeks. Now the challenge is to sustain that and build upon it. But when I was there in October/November, it was a total disaster.
From Aruna:
Do you want the "more important" story to take precedence over the "breaking news" and how is the distinction made, if any?
JR: It’s a tough call. Some stories are important. Some are ‘interesting’. I’ll always lead with the story that’s most important to our viewers. It’s often a judgment call, which is why, on occasion, you’ll see three different leads on the network newscasts.
From Fran:
How does he balance his work with his family?
Fran – it’s a real challenge. If I put in less than a 12 hour day, it’s a real rarity, and travel takes me away for weeks at a time. The trick is to make the time you have together really count. So – on the weekends, I’m a real homebody. Sometimes when I’m up in New York, my wife will come up and visit. She’s doing that this week. No question – it’s tough, but many people have it a lot tougher than I do, so I’m not going to complain too much.
From Copperfish:
Who do you look up to in this profession? Why?
I look up to Edward R Murrow – who really was a journalist sine qua non. As popular as he was for his work on CBS Television, his reporting from London was incredible. He could tell pictures with words that even the images themselves can’t equal. Of course, I also admire Cronkite, the late Peter Jennings and Brokaw as well as Ed Bradley, Diane Sawyer and Leslie Stahl. But I also look up to my colleagues at CNN, who each and every day put their all into their jobs. They really are an inspiration.
From M. Silva,
As a Washington correspondent, what event did you cover that had the greatest impact and significance to the American people today?
JR: I think it was Hurricane Katrina. I wasn’t actually covering it as a White House Correspondent (though I still was one), but it had a huge impact on this nation.
From Sheryn in NJ:
What stories have kept you up at night?
JR: Global threats – terrorism. Also human suffering. Oh, and economics. Nothing will keep you awake at night like the thought that your retirement investments could tank..
From Aruna:
There is such a large, expansive audience for cable news (in general) and stylistically, it's impossible to please everyone. Sometimes, there is confusion between programming and journalism (among networks) and whether or not the distinction is made for any particular demographic or taste. What do you hope to convey as a journalist as you do reports?
JR: I endeavor to tell people what happened through the perspective of my experience. That means adding a lot of context and perspective to my reports.
From Pixie:
Do you prefer the in depth coverage, like 'This Week At War' or anchoring and covering several stories, but less in-depth?
JR: It’s great to be able to do both. I don’t have to make a choice at present, and if I did, it would require a lot of careful thought.
From Book Asylum:
You've been a substitute anchor on most of the live weekday shows over the past year. What are the challenges of filling in for the regular anchor on a live broadcast?

JR: For me, the challenge is working in different time slots. Each show has its own distinct ‘voice’. Mornings require a different tone than AC360. The SitRoom is non-stop breaking news and politics. This Week At War is ruminative and analytical. Filling in on so many shows is great exercise. It’s kind of like cross-training. You work different muscle groups on each one, so you get a terrific workout.
From Book Asylum:
What's a typical day like at the DC Bureau? (Is there such a thing?) Are correspondents responsible for developing their own story leads or are assignments give out from the various bureaus?
It’s kind of like the weather in Florida. There’s a certain level of consistency, but it can change dramatically in a moment. Much of the news in Washington, of course, is driven by what’s happening on Capitol Hill. But things can blow up in a heartbeat. Just look at the US Attorneys scandal. One minute…barely a blip on the radar. Suddenly it’s the lead. And, of course, there’s all the fun of politics and the Presidential campaign. It’s a tremendous amount of work to keep up on it all, but it’s great to have a front row seat to history on a daily basis.
Story development is combination of what’s on the daily schedule, and what correspondents can dredge up by working their sources.
From Megan in Toronto, Canada
If CNN ever opened a Canadian branch and you could continue doing everything the same as you are now, would you come back to Canada or stay in the US?
I still love Canada (particularly British Columbia – my favorite place – even though I broke my leg skiing at Whistler), but the U.S. is my home now. I became an American citizen a week after 9-11 and plan to spend the rest of my life here. Unless, of course, CNN opens up a Tuscany bureau.
From Lori in Chapel Hill:
More and more news reporters have blogs these days. Do you have a blog, or have any interest in blogging?
No blog myself, though I do contribute to the 360 blog from time to time.
From Sheryn in NJ:
What advice would you give to aspiring journalists trying to break into the news business?
Do it for the right reasons. Do it because you love the job, not because you want to be on TV. If you don’t have the journalistic skill set, you’re not going to last long. This business can eat people up. Also – get a degree – either in journalism, or a related field – law, political science, international relations, etc. So many people are trying to get into this business that only the truly talented and knowledgeable will last.
From Quitty:
What is a must-have in your suitcase when you travel on assignment?
Baby wipes and anti-bacterial hand cleaner. I learned that embedded with the Marines during the invasion.
From Pixie:
Are you based in Washington? Do you prefer Washington or New York?
I’m based in Washington. I live about 15 miles outside. It’s a great place to work. The center of power for the nation…a large city, but not too big. New York is terrific too, but I like space, and there’s not much of that in NY.
From Copperfish:You started in the music industry as vee-jay, was it hard for you to shift to a more serious field which is journalism? If yes, why?
It wasn’t – and here’s the reason why. I actually started reading news at a tiny radio station in Owen Sound, Ontario. I actually did the hog reports, then went on to cover city council, etc. I worked as a deejay for a couple of years, then moved over to TV. The first show I worked on was The New Music – a magazine show, which, as I stated in a question above was like a Rolling Stone or New Musical Express for TV. When CityTV launched Much Music, I agreed to help start it, with the caveat that on my 30th birthday, I would leave and go back to hard news. So - music journalism was really a departure from where I started, and I never lost my ‘jones’ for news. It took a while for the media to get over the transition though, but I think by now, they have. When you look at my career in total, I have spent 25 years in news and 5 years in music journalism.
From Megan C., Toronto, Canada
What do you find the biggest differences to be between your work for Canadian news outlet programs (i.e. Canada AM, MuchMusic) and American news outlet programs (AC360, Special Investigation Unit, CBS)?
Hi Megan. Great to hear from folks north of the border. The differences between what I do now and MuchMusic are pretty obvious…that was music – and this is news..! But as you know, MuchMusic, and particularly The New Music program that I hosted go deeper than music videos. The New Music was like a Rolling Stone magazine for television. We covered a lot of social and lifestyle issues as well as music. I traveled to Jamaica a few times to trace the emergence of Reggae music – even attending the funeral of Bob Marley – and we went to Trinidad twice to cover Carnival there. Canada AM was fairly close in tone to the American morning shows, though we spent a lot more time on politics. It was almost as if you took one of the Sunday shows like Late Edition and put them on weekday mornings. There’s a tremendous amount of creative energy at CNN. At AC360, David Doss, Kathleen Friery and Jamie Kraft are always pushing the envelope in how to approach news. The folks at Special Investigations Unit are tremendously talented as well. Sometimes they spend months on a special (such as Death Squads) – other times (like Fatal Journey), they can turn something around in a weekend. As I mentioned in one of the above questions, I think there’s less difference overall between the Canadian and American approach to news. I think we’re all pretty much on the same page now. Except…what the heck is a chesterfield?
From Cindy:
What is the funniest thing that has ever happened to you while you were reporting in the field? I think the funniest thing happened last summer during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. We were trying to get into Sheba Farms – which is at the center of the lingering dispute between Israel and Lebanon. We tried several routes, but each time we ran into a road block and were told it was a “closed military area”. Well, we had become famous in Israel for getting into closed areas, so we backtracked, then got onto the patrol road right along the border. Now, that road is lined with motion sensors, cameras, you name it. And it was completely exposed to gunfire from the Lebanese side. Our camera crew was in an SUV – and my producer and I were in a taxi! So – you can imagine the picture….here’s us – in our taxi – traveling along what was probably the most dangerous piece of road in the entire Middle East. We went along the road for about 5 miles, and were just coming up to this really cool village that actually straddles the border. That’s when out of nowhere, three Hummers filled with heavily-armed very pissed-off Israeli soldiers pulled in front of us. Oy vay! There was much shouting on their part – explanations on our part….a lot of back and forth. It turned out they had been following our journey with the sensors and cameras that line the border road. They considered arresting us, but they decided we were too crazy to arrest, so they escorted us out of the area and let us go.
From Lori in Chapel Hill:
We all got a chuckle last month when you told Anderson, as he flinched at the frog, that you needed to fire a few rockets at him. As a seasoned war correspondent, do you flinch when you hear rocket fire?
If it’s sporadic, you do flinch. It’s a natural reaction to an unusual noise. But during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, I became so used to it that I could sleep through heavy outgoing artillery fired. The Air raid sirens always woke me up, though.
From Sheryn in NJ,
How do you spend your weekends when you are not on assignment?
I like to play music, ride my road bicycle – or my motorcycle and spend time with family and friends. My wife and I have a lot of dinners with our good friends.
From Cindy:
I watched your Special Investigations Unit story on Death Squads Saturday and I found it very disturbing. Do you think that these squads are getting worse or do you think that the things that the military is doing is working?
US military officials told me on Friday that there IS a reduction in so-called “extra-judicial killings” in Baghdad. They don’t yet know if it’s a trend, though. They could just be laying low – waiting to see how the new security plan goes. Or – they’re trying to figure a way around it.
From Pixie:
Would you rather be reporting from the studio or in the field?
I like both. I particularly like anchoring from the field.
From Patti Mc:
Mr. Roberts, I would like to know what responsibilities come under the auspices your title "Senior National Correspondent"? What stories come to you and which do not, that sort of thing.
It tends to be a lot of politics – big picture, analytical pieces on what’s going on in Washington, but really, the sky is the limit. I can basically cover anything that floats my boat. It’s great..
From Quitty:
When you travel to a place like Iraq how do you prepare for the prospect of getting kidnapped? Does CNN provide some type of training?
Anyone who goes into a war zone first has to go through a third-party ‘hostile environment’ training course that CNN provides. We learn all kinds of things, from first aid, to survival tactics to evasive driving to what to do if you’re taken hostage. It’s a really good course.
From Book Asylum:
When you went to Iraq last fall, were you originally scheduled to be there a month? Or did the assignment and situation demand a longer than anticipated stay?

I was supposed to go for just a couple of weeks, but we discovered that I’d be arriving as the Eid holiday began. During EID, government offices are closed for an entire week. It would have been impossible to get a visa in Jordan. So, we moved my departure up by a week. Then, when I was there, CNN approached me about the Death Squads special, so we added another week to my stay. It turned out to be just over a month that I was there. It seems like a long time, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to tours of duty people like Arwa and Michael pull. Not to mention of course, the men and women of the military.
From Marcia:
Since your originally from Canada how would you compare the Canadian media to that in the US?

I don’t think there’s as much difference now as there used to be. When I first started in television, back in 1979, the American media was already much more mature, and had adopted high-energy production techniques to augment newscasts. Canadian news was much more staid. The issues were different as well. In Canada, there were a lot of stories about fishing, lumber, the French-English situation, native rights, etc. and of course, a lot of politics. We’d cover City Hall every night, for Pete’s sake. When’s the last time you saw coverage of a mill rate debate?
These days, there’s not a lot of daylight between US and Canadian news. Marshall McLuhan – a famous Canadian futurist talked about the “global village”. It’s pretty much upon us now.
From Lori in Chapel Hill:
Your SIU program "Death Squads" was very tough to watch, though extremely informative and compelling. Was this story something that presented itself through "This Week at War," or was it something you personally wanted to cover more extensively in a special report? Will you be doing more SIU special reports?
It was an opportunity that presented itself while I was in Iraq. The SIU people (then CNN presents) came to me and said they had some footage that pointed to connections between the death squads operating in Iraq and elements of the Iraqi government. So we broadened it out from there, with interviews and embeds with the military. I thought the end result was extraordinarily compelling. And yes, hard to watch. I hope to be doing more of that in the future.
From Cassie:
How do you decide whether or not to go and report a dangerous story?
It depends on what the level of danger is. If you know that there’s a good chance you or someone else could get killed by covering it, that’s something you want to consider very carefully. That said, Iraq is SO dangerous ALL the time, you’re taking your life in your hands every time you walk out the front door.
From Duck:
What does JR enjoy covering more, the international or domestic stories (i.e. political happenings)?
I have to tell you – I love traveling the world. There’s really nothing like it. That said, though, it’s extremely important to cover domestic stories. I get to do both right now, so I’m a happy camper..
From Sue from New York:
With the advent of cable TV and news available 24/7/365, viewers have become conditioned to immediate access to information, stories and breaking news. Without biting the hand that feeds you (and the hand that signs your paycheck), what's your take on the 24-hour availability of news, and the "quality versus quantity" argument?
Sue – you’re correct. Quantity doesn’t always equal quality. And it’s sometimes frustrating to have to sift through reams of information on line – or on air just to find what you’re looking for. That’s what I like so much about AC360. It really ‘surrounds’ a topic in such a way that you come away with a pretty good understanding of it.
From Book Asylum:
Does the proliferation of blogs make your job as a journalist easier, harder, or no impact?
Blogs have actually given more ‘flavor’ to my reporting. They are really a terrific way to find out what people are thinking. I scan a number of blogs every day – particularly conservative blogs. The media is frequently criticized for a liberal bias. Reading conservative blogs and listening to radio programs like the Laura Ingraham show helps me to understand what they’re looking for in terms of coverage.
From A Viewer in Virginia:
How did you end up at CNN? Did you approach them or did they approach you about a job?(Please tell him that he adds much journalistic credibility to CNN.)

Hey, thanks very much for your kind words – CNN really is a terrific place to work. I was the White House Correspondent at CBS before coming here. One day, I ran into CNN President Jon Klein at the White House. He and I had worked together a decade before at CBS. We got together for lunch and started talking about the future. I’d been at CBS for nearly 15 years, it was time for a change and CNN had a great opportunity for me to cover many of the subjects that I love – politics, world affairs, the military. It was a perfect fit – so here I am.
From Cindy:
I really enjoy your work on CNN, on AC360, and your special reports. I've seen you in many places around the world. I would like to know out of all the places that you have been what is the scariest thing that has ever happened to you while you were out in the field?
I think the most frightening thing was in Belgrade, during the Kosovo war. I was at the Chinese embassy the night it was bombed. The typical NATO pattern had been to bomb a target, then come back about an hour later and bomb it again. My crew and I had been at the embassy for about an hour, when suddenly we heard the telltale sound of another bomb coming in. It’s a weird ‘ripping’ sound that’s almost like fabric being torn. We all thought we were dead. But the bomb hit a hotel just down the street. It did almost kill a friend of mine from another network, who had just driven into the hotel’s driveway.
From Lori in Chapel Hill:
What a time to be a White House correspondent -- between Clinton, the 2000 election and the Bush administration. As a reporter, was the transition between administrations difficult? You certainly had lots to report on! Anything about your years in the White House that you wish to share as your most memorable?
There are so many great stories, I don’t know where to begin. There was elephant polo on a Clinton trip in India – bungee jumping in New Zealand – Pisco sours in Peru…..
As far as stories go – the trips to Russia were amazing – as was President Bush’s first meeting with Putin in Slovenia. I think the most memorable though, had to be 9-11. But here’s the rub. I was supposed to be the pool correspondent on Air Force 1 that day, but skipped the trip to Sarasota because of a story I had to do in DC the day before.
The transitions can be a challenge. I had been covering Gore and had to quickly learn all of the people in the Bush camp – without the benefit of having been with them on the campaign.
From Xtina:
What is your opinion of the line being blurred between giving news and giving opinion; and if the "opinion news" shows such as Beck, Olbermann, O'Reilly, Daily Show... are a positive influence on teenagers or could these shows be harmful in them forming their own critical thinking of world issues.

I think opinion is good, though I prefer observation. One thing I think the growth of opinion shows has done is allow traditional journalists to speak their minds a little more. Katrina helped change that. We were allowed to express a little outrage during that story - and I think it’s a good think.
As I pointed out way back at the beginning – I listen to talk radio. I like to find out what people are thinking. The problem can be, though, that some of these shows (not naming names) thrive on outrage they create. And, it is very important for people to listen to others, but maintain their independence and form their own opinions based on the facts. Otherwise, they risk becoming lemmings to the manipulation of others.
From Sue in NY:
Here's a three part, past-present-and-future question: Of your current work, which interview or story are you the most proud of (and why)? What story or person would you most like to do in the near future (and why)? Last part: what story or individual interview from any time in the 20th century (that you did not cover) would you have like to do, any why?
So far, it’s Katrina, because we got results. We accomplished what the media is supposed to do.
I’d like to interview the leader of a peaceful and stable Iraq. Because right now, that person doesn’t exist.
I would liked to have covered D-Day. It has been reported on so much from a historical perspective, to have actually been there would have been a unique experience. Surviving it would have been good, too.
From Purple Tie:
How do you feel about CNN and other network news shows covering more tabloid news such as Anna Nicole Smith and Brittany Spears? Do you think they put these stories on because people really want to see them or do people really want to see it because it's on so much?
The ratings prove that people want to see those kinds of stories. And I don’t think we should be “above the news”. Everything in balance though.
To be honest, I am concerned that many people shun substance. They want to know more about Britney’s breakdown than they do the education bill. And it takes a scandal to get interested in Washington.
As a nation, we seem to care less and less about important things – while our global competitors become more serious.
Historian Will Durant’s wife Ariel issued a cautionary note – writing: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”
From Carrie M.
How do you view the future of television news? The internet has changed so much. Bloggers and online news sites have become many peoples primary source of information. They can get the news they want when they want it. And they can be selective. Where does that leave broadcast journalism?
What I like about the explosion of internet news and blogging is that more and more people are becoming interested in current events and politics. For a number of years, it looked like younger generations were losing touch with the world. I think the more that people are aware of events around them, the better off we are. So I welcome blogs, the Daily Show, internet news, etc. The challenge for us is to give our news programs more context and perspective than people can get from other outlets. I think in the future, you’re going to see a rich synergy between broadcast and the internet. Just look at the way CNN and CNN.com are integrated.
From Fran M.
What does he do to cope with the trauma and stress of his job?
I spend a lot of time with my family and friends. I also like to relax with my guitars, take a long ride on my road bicycle, or drive my Harley on the backroads. When I’m not working, I like to completely get away from the news. With my BlackBerry attached to my belt at all times, though, it’s pretty tough.
From Lori in Chapel Hill:
You have had such an extensive and rich career in television news, not only as a reporter but as an anchor. Of all the historical events you have covered over the past 10 years, is/are there any one or two stories that are most memorable to you?
I think the two most memorable have been Hurricane Katrina and the Israel-Hezbollah war. Katrina, because in a few hours, a city in the United States became no different than the type of scene I’ve witnessed in some of the poorest areas of the world. I don’t have to rehash the whole failure of the federal, state and local governments to respond…you know it well. Suffice it to say it was a real eye-opener for me. Also – my embed during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict. We walked into Lebanon – about 10 miles – on an overnight march. Talk about feeling exposed. I was so exhausted, I kept falling asleep for the next three days. But it was an amazing opportunity – for which we won a prestigious Headliner Award.
From M. Silva:
What kind of motorcycle do you ride?
I have two. Both Harleys. A 2005 15h anniversary edition FatBoy and a 2007 Road King Custom.
From Cassie:
At what point does a story become too dangerous to tell?
When telling it would actually put lives in danger. Coming to that determination is very complicated, though.
From Jenn:
Was there ever a story that you covered that left such an impression on you that it just stuck with you for while, emotionally? If so, what was it?
Stories of human suffering get me the most. Katrina, earthquakes, the tsunami, famine – they all change you. But I’m also haunted by an IED attack the army unit I was embedded with responded to in Iraq. It was terrible. You can actually feel something like that affecting your thinking.
From Stephanie:
As a fellow Canadian, I am wondering what drew you to American national and political news. Was it just how the opportunity for advancement was presented? Or was that the goal all along, to be a national correspondent/anchor with a major American network?
Stephanie….it was more of a fluke than anything. I was working in Toronto when an American agent called me up and asked for a tape. I was simply interested to see what he thought. A couple of months later, he called and said he had a job for me in Miami. And the rest, as they say….histoire

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