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As change sweeps CNN, Wolf Blitzer stays steady

When CNN hired Wolf Blitzer from The Jerusalem Post in 1990 to be its Pentagon correspondent, the first thing his new employers tried to do was "teach" him how to be a TV performer.

"They sent me to coaching and voice lessons and all sorts of stuff — it was making me crazy," Blitzer said. "And I remember saying to my wife at the time, 'I'm never going to make this. ... I think I made a huge mistake in taking this job.' "

But when Blitzer told his boss, Bill Headline, CNN's Washington bureau chief at the time, about his misgivings, Headline surprised the veteran Middle East correspondent with his answer — "Forget everything."

"Ignore it all, just be yourself," Blitzer remembers his boss saying. "He said I'm not sending you to any more of these consultants, these coaches. Just go and look into that camera and talk to whomever you want to talk to — and just tell them the truth. … I think it worked out."

The longtime Maryland resident is celebrating 20 years at CNN this summer, and still going strong. This Sunday marks the fifth anniversary of "The Situation Room," the innovative two-hour daily newscast that he anchors from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays.

With CNN launching a controversial overhaul of its prime-time lineup this fall, using hosts like disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Blitzer and his "Situation Room" newscast seem to matter more than ever to some analysts as touchstones of trusted journalism on a cable "news" landscape of increasingly partisan and shrill ideologues and showbiz performers.

"Wolf Blitzer is like the last of the just on cable news," says Samuel G. Freedman, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism professor. "At a time when even CNN has been struggling to stay true to its vision of reported news rather than opinion-tainment, if I may coin a phrase, he exudes intellectual honesty and journalistic integrity. Let's hope that's not a recipe for future unemployment."

At a time of major institutional change, with such recognizable names and faces as Christiane Amanpour, Larry King and Lou Dobbs leaving the network, Blitzer also provides the channel's most visible link to the days of the network's greatest glory in 1990 and 1991, when it dominated in coverage of the air war in Iraq and the fall of the Soviet Union — two of the biggest stories of the last 20 years.

"It was Aug. 1, 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait," Blitzer says when asked about his early days at what had been known to some critics as the Chicken Noodle Network. "I was the Pentagon correspondent, and all of a sudden, this is a huge story. I mean, I went to the Pentagon thinking it's the end of the Cold War, they're going to close some bases, maybe build some missile systems or whatever. But all of a sudden, for six months, it's Operation Desert Shield, the buildup to 540,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. And then in January '91, the war starts. During that whole period, I was on television 12, 14 hours a day doing my reports from the Pentagon."

At 62, Blitzer is still putting in 12-hour-plus days and expecting the nights on air to get even longer as the nation approaches a hotly contested set of midterm elections this fall.

Up in his Bethesda home early enough to catch the 7 a.m. hard-news openings of the network and cable morning shows and start sorting though BlackBerry messages and a daily sunrise batch of some 100 overnight e-mails, CNN's lead political anchor says he still reads The New York Times and The Washington Post in print form before diving into other newspapers and blogs online.

"Usually by 8 in the morning, I'm on the treadmill for one hour," the son of immigrants from Poland says. "I'm running, watching TV, flipping channels — "CNN American Morning," "Today," "Good Morning America," see what the competition has. … In between all of that, I've already been e-mailing with the producers. They've got ideas. I got ideas. Sometimes you gotta nail down reporters, producers and guests early."

By the time Blitzer sat down for this interview last Wednesday at 3 p.m. in his office at CNN's Washington bureau, he had already been to the White House for a series of on-background interviews about a report released that day saying 75 percent of the oil spilled in the Gulf was gone. And while no one was saying "mission accomplished," the administration was trying to push the notion through reporters like Blitzer that the summerlong nightmare of oil gushing into the Gulf was essentially over.

Blitzer wasn't automatically buying it, but he wanted to hear what the people selling it had to say firsthand.

"Remember, I'm a reporter," says the University of Buffalo history major who earned an M.A. in international relations from the John Hopkins University. "I was our Pentagon correspondent. I was our White House correspondent. It's in my blood."

Before the interview, Blitzer had also met with a team of four producers. Each was armed with a laptop, and all five of them looked at their screens and punched keys as they discussed the lineup of that night's show. Analysts and correspondents like Gloria Borger and Jeanne Meserve walked in and out of the room, updating stories and lobbying for airtime with Blitzer even as he also a kept an eye on the nine TV screens on the wall facing his desk. Every so often, he'd amp up the TV volume to catch a report on one of the news channels — and everyone would stop and listen for just a few seconds.

Two hours might seem like a lot of time, given the 20 minutes or so (after commercials) that a nightly network newscast has, but before the 45-minute budget meeting in Blitzer's office ended, the producers and anchor were debating where they could cut 10 seconds here or 20 seconds there out of one or another stories to make the budget work.

"I tell my staff we don't put crap on the air," Blitzer says. "If we don't have it hard, we're not going to put it on the air. And just because the competition is running with it, that doesn't mean we have to run with it. We're going to check it out, we're going to vet it. As important as it is to be first, it's more important to be right. And it makes me ill when we have to go on the air and apologize or correct."

And that might be one of the greatest contributions of Blitzer's "Situation Room" — that for all of its stylistic innovations in terms of making information the very environment of the newscast with walls of imagery and endless banks of screens, the nightly broadcast has been such a bulwark of traditional journalism that it has influenced one realm of cable news for the better — daytime.

Analysts routinely now differentiate between the more informational approach most cable channels take in daytime versus the heated, partisan opinionators of prime time. Even Fox News emphasizes that Bret Baier, its 6 p.m. anchor, presents news and information rather than opinion. (Baier does, however, follow Glenn Beck, one of cable's most extreme opinion merchants.)

"Wolf is probably the most respected straight arrow in cable news," says David Bohrman, CNN's Washington bureau chief and the primary architect of the Blitzer show. "Everyone knows they're going to get a fair shake from Wolf. … He's the one you want to be with when news is going on. He'll help you sort it out."

While Baier's "Special Report" swamps "The Situation Room" in the U.S. Nielsen ratings, Blitzer's 6 o'clock hour is also carried on CNN International, which reaches 267.3 million homes and hotel rooms in more than 200 countries and territories. There is no way to accurately measure that international audience, because no centralized service like Nielsen serves all those countries. But it's likely that no American newscast — on cable or network — is as watched as Blitzer's when you add in the worldwide audience.

Still, with all the highly publicized audience erosion, reinvention and comings and goings at CNN these days, Freedman's concern about the future for Blitzer's brand of journalism is not unfounded.

"I'm under no pressure whatsoever to weaken our journalistic standard," Blitzer says when asked about the changes at CNN and how they might be affecting his work. "I feel no pressure to tabloid and do missing young women stories and do anything like that. They want me to do serious hard news but in a smart way — and make sure we do it in a way our viewers will appreciate."

Nor is it unreasonable to wonder about the future of Blitzer himself at a network that has hired Spitzer and is said to be on the verge of replacing Larry King with Piers Morgan.

"I'm in a long-term commitment that CNN has made to me — and that I have made to CNN," Blitzer says. "I get paid to do what I love doing. I wake up in the morning with a certain body of knowledge, and when I go to sleep at night, I'm smarter. … I'm a news junkie. How much better does it get than to ask newsmakers tough questions — and find out what's going on, and drill and drill and drill?"

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

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