CNN’s Zahn to speak on media’s role post 9/11 | AspenTimes.com

CNN’s Zahn to speak on media’s role post 9/11

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Paula Zahn has a pretty good window on the world. As the host of CNN’s “American Morning,” Zahn quizzes a lot of key people making news on any given day.

And she’ll be sharing a little of what she sees through her television window during a speech at an Aspen Institute benefit dinner at the Hotel Jerome on Saturday, Aug. 3.

“I’m going to explore some of the challenges that journalists have been faced with post 9/11,” Zahn said. “One of the most interesting things as a journalist now is asking tough questions without being accused of being unpatriotic.

“There was a time after Sept. 11 when we had some very tough questions for our elected officials, about the war, about anthrax, and they were very appropriate questions to ask. And yet there was a backlash that the press got.”

So far, no one has accused Zahn of being unpatriotic.

“But I can think of a couple of interviews that I have done where I might get an e-mail saying I have gone too far,” she said. “I am an American first, of course. But I do think that when you have someone on from the Pentagon and they are waffling, you need to take it to the next step and get your answer.”

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Zahn wants to be tough, but fair.

“I think there is so much cynicism toward the press right now that you have to prove day in and day out that you are worthy of people’s trust, and I take that very seriously,” she said. “I’ve been doing this over 20 years, and people expect a fair interview from me, and they come back because of that.”

Zahn, 46, started her broadcasting career in 1978 in Dallas. After working at stations in San Diego, Houston, Boston and Los Angeles, she joined ABC News in 1987. Three years later, she became the co-host of CBS This Morning with Harry Smith and anchored the coverage of the Winter Olympics before landing at Fox News Channel.

In September 2001, she left Fox and signed a contract with CNN to start on-air in the spring of 2002.

“But my first day of work ended up being Sept. 11,” Zahn said. “My husband was downtown, my kids were at school. I watched CNN in stunned silence. And then I called my boss and asked him, ‘Where should I go, where is the bureau?'”

Zahn had never been to the CNN studios in New York, but she got on the air that day and has since been holding down the morning show, which CNN says has steadily improved in ratings.

And Zahn, like any personable host of a national television morning show, has had to deal with some celebrity trivia lately, such as a controversial “sexy” promo ad that was pulled after 48 hours, a lawsuit from a home landscaper that made far more national news than was probably warranted, and frequent cruel and very public snipes from her old boss at Fox, Roger Ailes.

But Zahn said it’s all worth it.

“I love what I do,” she said. “I’ve never been more productive, more stimulated. When I walk off the set after a three-hour live show, I feel I have communicated something important. This is a very complicated world we are living in, from the tensions in the Middle East to the war in Afghanistan to the economy, and there is a lot of important information to sift through.”

Zahn thinks “American Morning” has done a good job recently with its coverage of hormone replacement therapy as well as its coverage of the Catholic Church.

“Of all the morning shows, we had the deepest coverage in the crisis in the Catholic Church,” Zahn said. “We had very good success in bringing on priests and bishops to talk about priests moving from parish to parish. And it has just been fairly recently that family members have been comfortable talking about their experiences from abusive priests.”

And Zahn relishes getting a chance to talk with world leaders such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

“I had 20 minutes live on the air, which is unprecedented for a morning television show,” Zahn said. “I covered a broad range of issues, including whether Egypt was eclipsed by Saudi Arabia in the peace process, about the fact that he is in control of the press and how there were accounts of Israeli actions that were absolutely untrue, and about a recent car bombing.”

Her exchange with Mubarak on CNN on June 30 went like this:

ZAHN: Is there ever any justification for an 18-year-old, a 19-year-old, a 30-year-old strapping explosives to themselves and blowing themselves up to kill innocent civilians in the process?

MUBARAK: Look, we are against killing innocent civilians. By all means we are against that, if it’s on the Israeli side or on the Palestinian side. But look, why are they doing this? We should see the cause. The cause is that the people are desperate from the present situation. They cannot work. They cannot live. They cannot find medicine. They cannot send their children to school, so the people, they are desperate …

ZAHN: So on one hand, you’re condemning suicide bombings, but you’re saying you understand why you think they happen?

MUBARAK: I tell you, we have to cure the cause, which needs the people to make suicide bombs. We have to find the cause and deal with the cause so as to avoid and put an end to the suicide bombing.

Zahn is proud of that interview and of the work she has been doing since September.

“There are all different venues to practice journalism in, but I can’t think of anything more interesting, more challenging, and some days more maddening, than what I do for a living,” she said. “I think we have a clear and important role to play. And I think there is real value to what we do.”

[Brent Gardner-Smith’s e-mail address is bgs@aspentimes.com]

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