AHEAD OF THE PACK Wolf Blitzer uses name, nose for news to scoop competition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Washington -- As President Clinton toured the USS Eisenhower recently, he passed through a hallway lined with the photographs of dignitaries and hotshots who had previously prowled the decks of the aircraft carrier.

Occupying a place of honor, in the middle of this row of famous souls, was a framed picture of a smiling face known to every Navy officer sitting desk-bound at the Pentagon, dreaming of a command.

The face of Wolf Blitzer.

It became famous during the Persian Gulf War as that of the newly hired Pentagon correspondent for Cable News Network. Those were the days when CNN was on top of the world, and Wolf's reports were being watched in 11 million American living rooms -- and every foreign ministry in the world.

Pretty heady stuff for the former Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.

These days, Wolf covers the White House for CNN, and "covers" is a mild word for what he does. CNN is a 24-hour-a-day network, and the Clinton administration is a 24-hour-a-day kind of White House. So let's just say Wolf is on the air a lot.

You notice this if you travel with the president, because after the first family, and maybe the Gores, the one who gets more squeals of recognition in crowds than any of Mr. Clinton's top aides -- and more than all the other White House correspondents put together -- is Wolf Blitzer.

Looking at the network ratings, it doesn't entirely figure. In peacetime, CNN is not such a hot commodity. At any given moment, only around 30,000 television sets in the country are tuned in to CNN. But, then Wolf has a few things going for him.

First, there's that face, a face that seems to fill the TV screen: the big head, the blond hair flowing back like a mane, the beard, and that toothy grin that makes him look, well, wolfish.

He's friendly and conversational on screen, too, making it easy for him to connect with viewers. He also breaks stories constantly, big stories. And even when he isn't actually breaking story, he tends to sound like he is.

Then, there's Wolf's tireless energy. At 46, he charges around the White House with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter. After four years of being on CNN five or six times a day, he still gets a kick out of being on the air.

"I love this business," he says, while striding out to the front lawn of the White House to report on troop movements in southern Iraq. "It's exhilarating -- especially when you have news, as I now do."

Finally, there's his name. Wolf Blitzer. Just say it a few times. Wolf Blitzer. CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer. White House Press Secretary Wolf Blitzer.

This last moniker is tossed around behind Wolf's back in the White House press room, where feelings about Wolf are conflicted. Affable and even-tempered, he is held in almost universal affection personally. Yet Wolf is also the living symbol of a network that Mark Knoller, CBS' respected radio correspondent, dismisses as "the semiofficial government daily."

Others refer to CNN derisively as "Clinton News Network."

Needless to say, these are not compliments.

Pressure to produce

CNN's constant appetite for news leaves Wolf in a position where he is constantly looking for new stuff to announce, however incremental. And going live as he does, with almost no time to analyze the information he's been given, Wolf often risks being seen as the voice of the Clinton administration.

"CNN is an insatiable furnace," says ABC White House correspondent Brit Hume, explaining the delicate balancing act Wolf faces each day. "If Wolf Blitzer has something, even if it's just the Clinton administration version of something, he's called upon to deliver. White House officials know that. There's not much Wolf can do about it.

"The truth is that Wolf gets stuff and gets it ahead of the rest of us," he concludes. "So, you have this cheerful, upbeat guy, with a style of broadcasting that's easy to take -- and he's on the air constantly. He serves the needs of CNN perfectly. But he and CNN can be made to serve other interests."

Once in a while, Wolf himself unwittingly illustrates this point:

Last month, as a U.S. armada was on its way to Haiti, Wolf referred to "the multi-national" invasion force off-shore.

There was no "multi-national" invasion force except in the imaginations of administration spin doctors, who wanted to remind the public that this distinctly American force had the blessing of the U.N.

You heard it here first

Still, Wolf delivers the goods, breaking stories day after day.

It was Wolf Blitzer, after all, who first reported that Mr. Clinton was sending Jimmy Carter to Haiti. It was also Wolf Blitzer who first reported that a deal had been struck -- and that Mr. Clinton would shortly be addressing the American people. Wolf even got Richard Nixon's death first.

Those are scoops any journalist would be proud of, and Wolf is as proud as the next guy.

He grew up in Buffalo, attended college at the local campus of the State University of New York and received a graduate degree from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. At 24, he joined the Reuter wire service and was posted to its bureau in Israel.

"It was a terrific place to break into journalism," he says. "It was a hot story -- terrorism, wars, travel -- and I was single."

He recalls a virtual hazing from the more senior, mostly British staffers in the bureau.

"I'd go to the Suez Canal and write a 1,000-word story, and [the editors] would trash it and move maybe a paragraph [to the wire]. Then they'd say, 'Have you considered another profession?' "

But it was in his blood. His next stop was as Washington correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, a job he held for 16 years. (When he wrote for Israeli publications, Wolf would use as his byline "Ze'ev" Blitzer -- the Hebrew word for wolf.)

After the Jerusalem Post was sold in 1990, he was recruited to CNN by a producer who had often had him as a guest commentator on the network's talk shows.

The big break

"My first assignment for CNN was the Pentagon, which I thought would be a quiet beat," he says. "I was sent there on May 8, 1990. On Aug. 1, Iraq invaded Kuwait."

For the next six months, Wolf Blitzer became a ubiquitous presence in American households. "That was the break," Wolf concedes.

Two years later, as Bill Clinton was about to win the presidency, CNN tapped him as White House correspondent.

And so Wolf went to live in Little Rock, Ark., for 2 1/2 months, getting to know the Clintonites. It's an important fact to remember when people assume he just sits in his booth in the press room and fields calls from White House officials.

Here's another one: Wolf has a list of 80 or 90 people, many of them outside the White House, whom he tries to call every week, just fishing for stuff. "What's going on?" he'll ask them, in a phrase that every novice reporter who's ever covered a police department has uttered a thousand times. His frequent scoops inevitably make him the target of resentment in the White House press room.

"Quite frankly, there is a large amount of jealousy," concedes Reuter correspondent Gene Gibbons, who has been known to " throw things across his office when his editors, who watch CNN constantly, call him asking about a Wolf report. "I'd love to have the pipeline he does."

Wolf himself attributes his success to hard work, stressing how many phone calls he makes to cajole information out of sources.

But there's also little doubt that Wolf benefits from the way the game is played in Washington, where administration officials often favor certain reporters when they want to get information out, float a trial balloon or put a particular spin on a story.

Recently, another prominent White House correspondent (who didn't want his name used because he didn't want to offend Wolf) was interviewing a high-ranking administration official while CNN blared in the background in the official's office. Suddenly, Wolf came on with a report, and this official began yelling to the television set, "Attaboy, Wolf!" Another official in the office, added, "Go Wolf!"

When the reporter expressed disgust, the official replied, "If you had to go on television 10 times a day, you'd report what we tell you, too."

But if CNN's relentless need for news sometimes makes Wolf's job harder, the network also gives him an advantage no other network or publication can match: CNN's global reach. The network is watched at the foreign ministries around the globe, and heads of state, particularly dictators, have found CNN a more potent communicating tool than diplomatic cables.

Ferdinand Marcos, Muammar el-Kadafi and Saddam Hussein have used CNN to broadcast speeches, that were, in fact, little more than negotiating sessions with the State Department. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III candidly acknowledged that he used CNN to communicate with foreign governments if he was in a hurry. Others do the same.

"When U.S. troops invaded Panama in 1989, the Soviet foreign ministry did not send a formal protest through diplomatic channels," notes media critic Tom Rosenstiel. "It called CNN."

It was during the Persian Gulf War that CNN's unique access came under question. When CNN camera crews were escorted by the government to the sites of what Iraq said were civilian casualties caused by U.S. bombs, some fellow journalists wondered whether the network had struck a bargain with the devil.

This question arose again in the past few days, when CNN again aired reports from Iraq of human suffering caused by American-led sanctions against that nation.

Blowing the 'lid' off

Wolf steers questions about such matters to the big bosses in Atlanta, thus underscoring one of the most endearing qualities about him: his apparent obliviousness to all this talk that swirls on around him.

"We know people are watching us all over the world, not only in homes, hotel rooms and bars, but in foreign ministries," Wolf says. "That's a unique feature of CNN . . . but I try not to worry about that. I try to present the news as fairly, as accurately and as honestly as I can."

And he never gives up trying to beat the competition. Perhaps the most characteristic Wolf story in this regard came the night Former President Richard M. Nixon died.

Early that night, the White House press office had issued a "lid," ++ which means no more news is expected from the president. But Wolf knew Mr. Nixon was gravely ill. So he hung around. It got to be 8 o'clock. Then 9. Then 10. Finally, Wolf was the only one in the press briefing room. They had all gone home.

But not Wolf. "Pretty soon, I'm the only one here," he recalls. "I told myself, 'OK, if he's not dead by 11, I'm outta here.' "

But then around 10, he starts to notice things. A White House speech writer who was hanging around sneaks away. A White House communications technician suddenly appears. "I could smell it," he recalls.

Frantically, he starts working the phones. He gets a close aide to the president on the phone. "I can't say anything," the aide says. "We've got to wait for the [Nixon] family to announce it."

"I don't want to wait," Wolf says. "I want to announce it!"

Finally, he gets this official -- and a second source -- to confirm that the former president is dead and that Mr. Clinton will soon make a statement. Nervously, he goes out to the lawn, where his camera crew is waiting. It has to be right. Wolf was the one who, during the gulf war, claimed that U.S. air power had "decimated" the Iraqi Red Guard. That story proved to be a little premature. And this is a president.

If you get that wrong, he says, "you're in trouble. He's either dead or alive. There's no in between."

Wolf goes with it. He's right.

As he's telling this story, a CNN producer tells Wolf that fire engines are on the way to the White House. Holy cow! Without a word, he leaps up, rushes outside to check it out.

The report about the fire engines turns out to be bogus. Minutes later, Wolf comes back. Disappointed.

But all is not lost. He's being interviewed. His face brightens. "So where were we?"

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