When C.N.N was first launched 25 years ago, many were skeptical about the success of the 24 hours news channel concept, What could you say to them now?
It is interesting that I myself was one of those. Back then, I was still working with the B.B.C ; I laughed and posed the question : how could a TV channel broadcast round-the-clock when it took most people a full day to prepare the news material for a half-hour of news. I believe that what Ted Turner (C.N.N founder) did was really remarkable. Although he was not a journalist, but he was a man with vision. His conviction was that news and events were too valuable to be left in the hands of a few big players. He also believed that international news were as important to Americans as the local news. Now, and after 25 years, most countries of the world own networks that are modeled after C.N.N . In addition the network is expanding in terms of the worldwide services and languages of broadcasting it serves. Also, most of the viewers find 24 hour news format useful as some viewers want to watch their daily news at 6P.M while others may prefer it at different times, especially the travelers.
Did C.N.N contribute to the end of the news broadcasts that are offered through the concept of "appointment television?" In other words, did you roll the carpet from under the classical evening news?
We did change the classical concept of watching news. Yet, we should not forget that millions of people still watch the news in specific and defined times of the day in Europe and the United States Although we should always remain modest and keep our feet on the ground, we did revolutionize the way news were presented. And many imitated us afterwards.
In C.N.N International, you are often concerned about being watched by "business travelers", are they your prime targeted viewers.?
No, and we also don”t target mass audiences such as "Al Jazeera" in Arabic for example. We target the most influential 5-10 % of world viewers. They are often decision makers, often traveling, reside in fancy hotels and use fancy cars, speak English as a second or third language, and also those who have an international approach. It is noteworthy that the major segment of our viewers are not Americans as American travelers or expatriates make up only from 2-3% of our viewers.
What was your success recipe at C.N.N?
Continuous re-creativity. We never let our advanced position stop us. We always feel that we need to re-create, re-evaluate, and upgrade. We feel that we should be of importance to peoples” lives in order for them to watch us, they have to have a good reason to turn on our channel. This is done through what we call " restless improvement."
Surely, you should feel under a lot of pressure due to the large responsibility delegated to you as head of the news channel where the world get its news?
If I let myself for a moment think that the network will not operate without me if I was not personally there, I would not be able to sleep or even ride an airplane. Things do not work this way. We have a number of qualified personnel in various sectors, they are the people running the network as we give them all the space and freedom they need, however we all have one thing in common…we all care about what we do. This is not to say that we do not make mistakes of course.
Do you think that the C.N.N International owes it to the Gulf War in 1991 for its fame?
Historians of TV news broadcast could possibly convince that we owe it to the Gulf War. It is true that we were watched extensively in newsrooms and other places during that war. Nevertheless, C.N.N had been present in its international version since 1985 when the war erupted. In 1991 we were watched in 7 .5 million households, now we are watched in 185 million households worldwide. Never the less… For me, the Gulf War was not an enjoyable experience. At the time, I was still working for B.B.C and C.N.N surpassed us daily as they were faster and smarter than everyone. They produced better journalism.
Undoubtedly, you have become a part of the lives of people in the Arab World. However, some see you as a mouthpiece of the American Administration, and that you have had your own pre-conceived agendas with regards to Palestinian issues, and now in relation to the Iraq issues. What are your comments?
I am acquainted with these opinions. True, we belong to a private American company and based in Atlanta but this does not mean we hold certain viewpoints. Our case is no different from B.B.C, which is despite being the "British Broadcasting Corporation", it does not have an agenda. We are not "voice of America." For me, I see a gap between what really goes on one hand, and the beliefs or opinions of people. Some people think that our coverage is not favorable to Israel, and others think that our coverage is not favorable to Palestine. We are journalists, therefore, we should not aim to favor either party. Judge us by what we did yesterday , what we are doing now and what we will do tomorrow. Do not judge us by what you imagine.
A large portion of people , especially in the Arab World, can not accept that media is at the end result a business. They say that to seek profit negatively eats away at professionalism for the sake of interest and superficial excitement. How could they be convinced otherwise. ?
By example. Editorial integrity is proven not promised. Only through the quality of our reporting could we prove our credibility and that we are not enslaved to ratings , viewers” opinions, and advertisers. However, this does not mean we have to produce boring television. The challenge our journalists face is the same as the one you do : how to make the subject interesting for people to follow. We are not ashamed of profit making, but this not our sole concern. We are strongly concerned with our brand which was built over 25 years.
How do you respond to those who say that Fox News, has taken many of your viewers ?
We should realize that with the exception of one or two platforms abroad , "Fox News" is an American broadcast institution that is largely restricted to the United States. Thus, it does not represent a threat to us. They have undoubtedly came trough to a large segment of viewers who prefer their way of news presentation. However, there is a misrepresentation when we compare the ratings for both C.N.N and Fox. More people watch C.N.N daily, weekly, and monthly. Viewers of Fox news on the other hand watch it for longer periods than our viewers-who tend to be moving constantly. After all, they are only one TV channel while we have 14 different services. Each of us does it in his own way, the viewer finally decides what to watch.
There are many comparisons between Fox News and C.N.N. In a recent report about Arab Media, it was said that "Al Arabiya" is the C.N.N of the Arab media, while Al Jazeera is the Fox News of the Arab World . What do you think?
Every writer has the right to announce his opinion; as journalists we know that such classification are easily made. The viewer”s choice should be the decisive factor here. By the way, I do not accept the analogy you have just mentioned.
I do not speak Arabic. Perhaps, you could be a better judge. I am not sure though of the correctness of that analogy, I am not also sure that either Al Arabiya or Al Jazeera may accept it.
What are your expectations of "Al Jazeera International" which will be launched soon?
I can not assess a channel that I have never watched.
The B.B.C has announced that it will launch an Arab TV news channel soon. Do you have similar intentions or will your presence in Arabic remain restricted to your Arabic website?
I do not think so. It is true that our current Arabic web site is limited; however, the most important thing for us now is to have CNN in as much languages as possible. Perhaps, in the next years we will take larger steps than merely an Arabic site, but at present I have no announcements to make with regard to this.
Ok , but what about the Arabic site. How do you assess it , do you have an idea about the criticism against it, to what extent are you aware of its contents, and what are your expectations for it?
It was designed to secure a presence for CNN in a very important language. I do not know of any criticism, but I am sure you would inform me of any. The site is not at the same level with competition with regards to the number of employees and resources. Yet, I am very proud of this modest service so far.
What is the "Pipe Line" service that you have announced that it will be offered by CNN?
They are pipes of news and events that are transmitted over the internet broad-band round-the-clock. It is a service that could be offered through financial subscriptions that will enable the subscribers to view the reports and watch the events through their computers as soon as they want to with no commercial advertisements breaks..
Let us talk about your personal life. You are known for sending your employees emails early in the morning sometimes. How do you divide your time between work, following other media outlets, and such an interview for example, which has already eaten a lot of your time?
(laughing) how did you get to know that ? Anyways, surely I could not follow all what is in the media. I do follow many, but I also watch movies, and enjoy leisure time. I strongly depend on my "Blackberry" to remain connected to work where I can receive and send mail. I do not sleep a lot, If I am not traveling, I wake up around 6 am, , exercise and watch CNN. At 8 am I arrive to the office and then start meeting with the staff. I do not usually go out for lunch, but rather eat at my desk. I then continue work until 6 pm. Then I watch some news, and stop the day”s work. As for your question about the interviews, I believe that it is always necessary to have such critical and intricate interviews on the condition that the interviews remain respectable and revolving around the nature of our work as journalists. This profession is getting to be less popular these days.
You are the honorary president of the International News Security Institute. What are the causes of your concern for such an issue?
I care about the journalists and the profession of journalism a lot. There is a fearsome rise in the numbers of the killed journalists. This year 81 were killed, and in the last two years more than 250. I try to raise the awareness In order to protect more journalists.
What do you think about the appointment of local correspondents by international news agencies and channels in different areas and specifically in Iraq, while denying them appropriate guarantees and insurances? About a month ago, in Asharq Al Awsat, we have published a story of an Iraqi correspondent who was employed by the Washington Post in Iraq without insurance or contract?
CNN does not discriminate at all between its employees or freelancers with regards to support, training, or insurance. In Iraq, we have a large bureau and several staff including a group of Iraqis who are all treated equally. As for the other institutions, they should revise their policies if they were unfair.