Pamela Benson, B.A. 1976
Since earning her B.A. cum laude in political science and speech communication from UB in 1976, Pamela Benson has traveled with political leaders around the world broadcasting the news they make.
A producer with CNN from its inception, back when the idea of an all-news network seemed like Ted Turner's folly and naysayers referred to CNN as the "Chicken Noodle Network," Benson has been a groundbreaker in the broadcast-news field.
Today, of course, CNN is regarded by many as the news network of record. Its programs are seen around the world and watched by heads of state-who often get up-to-the-minute information from CNN reports about events that are occurring in their own countries.
Benson's interest in politics began to develop during her years at UB, where she was influenced by her sister, Debbie ('74), then student government president, to become involved in student government herself.
"The atmosphere at the university was very liberal and quite activist," Benson recalled during a recent interview from her Washington office. "During my involvement with student government, we had a lot of ethnic organizations that wanted to be funded with student fees. There was a lot of debate at the time about how a limited amount of funds could be allocated. There wasn't even a football team because students voted that they didn't want to use their fees to support one. There was also the women's studies college. There was a real debate about such alternative education, a lot of questioning as to whether that type of academics should be funded. I chaired a student-faculty commission to review all those colleges. At the time, most of them were deemed worthy of being part of the university. It was a very open atmosphere, with a lot of experimentation in courses and such. Very diverse. And that was my attraction to the whole university."
The Buffalo native also remembers being stimulated by her UB coursework, as well as by several particularly influential professors. Claude Welch of political science, for instance, "was a wonderful lecturer, very concerned about his students' feelings." And speech communication professor Mary Cassata still stands in Benson's memory because of her personal approach: "She had parties at her house with her students, and she would meet us at the rathskeller to discuss issues."
Benson's interest in journalism was influenced by her brother Al ('76), who was managing editor of the Spectrum while at UB. What really solidified her interest, however, was her involvement from her sophomore through senior years as a volunteer in the public affairs department of the university's radio station, WBFO. "That was a great experience. It convinced me that I really did want to pursue a journalism career."
Attracted to broadcast media, Benson started looking for a radio job after graduation. She was hired as a writer at WEBR in Buffalo, when it became the nation's first public radio station to feature an all-news format. For the next four years, she worked at several Western New York radio and TV stations as a news writer, editor, reporter and producer. Then, one day, while thumbing through a trade periodical, she was riveted by an article discussing the proposed launch of an all-news cable TV network.
"I applied, and a couple of months later they offered me a writer's job. I went to CNN in April 1980, before they went on the air, and I've been there ever since. We went on the air on June 1, 1980. My claim to fame is that I co-wrote the first show that ever aired on CNN: a 6 p.m., one-hour newscast."
At CNN's Atlanta headquarters, she soon advanced from writer to producer. After a year and a half, she requested a transfer to the network's Washington bureau to become involved in the political reporting scene that she found so compelling. Benson spent most of the '80s at the Capitol, eventually becoming executive producer of daily news. By the end of the decade, though, she felt the urge to get out into the field.
"At the time, CNN wanted to create a State Department producer's position," she relates. "I had always had an interest in international news and I knew Ralph Begleiter, the correspondent with whom I would team as producer, fairly well-one of the best in the business-so I decided it would be a great opportunity for me." (Benson's career at CNN also impacted her home life; she met Judd Ginsberg, CNN State Department producer and her husband of 11 years, at the network.)
In June 1990, Benson was named to her present position of executive producer of international affairs. She was involved in reporting a number of earth-shaking stories that unfolded around that time, including the collapse of the Soviet Union, the independence of Eastern Europe, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Since then she has maintained a pivotal role at CNN International, the English-language extension of the network, which is now available in more than 200 countries. CNN I programming is more of a traditional newscast and includes a mix of some CNN domestic programs, such as Larry King Live.
"There are no ratings systems in other countries like there are in the United States, but we know we're watched-because we get a lot of mail," Benson observes. "We know that governments and heads of state are particularly interested. Most of them have direct satellite capabilities to receive CNN I. King Hussein of Jordan has called CNN to comment on stories we've done."
The Mideast peace talks and the end of the Cold War have dominated much of CNN I's news. A show on CNN domestic called World View airs many of the segments on international issues that Benson and Begleiter produce.
"We do longer, more analytical pieces," Benson explains. "When something happens, we take a more intense look at why it happened, with a more international focus. It's not just what the U.S. is saying, but also what the allies that have an interest in that particular issue might be saying. We also do a weekend talk show, called Global View, which is only seen on our international network."
It is with great pride that Benson has watched CNN's success since those modest early days. "Tiananmen Square was a defining moment as CNN cameras caught it live, and the Gulf War was the most defining moment," she recalls. "That's where we really established ourselves as the news network of record."
Moments that personally stand out for her include Ronald Reagan's trip to the "evil empire"-Russia-in 1988. "It opened up a country that had been so tightly closed. It was really fascinating being there. I've made five or six trips there since, and it's been remarkable seeing the changes which have taken place in that society. And I was in Madrid for the Mideast peace conference; to see something actually come of that process has been an exciting thing."
Monitoring the pulse of the international political scene from her producer's chair may sound like a demanding workload in terms of keeping up with issues and personalities, but it's the whirlwind pace of broadcast news today that Benson finds most challenging.
"There is such a feeling among media that you have to be out there first, that there is a danger in not taking the time to analyze a report," she observes. "Do we know enough to report on this story yet? Yes, we have the pictures and, yes, we can show those pictures, but we really have to be careful about what we say is going on and not jump to conclusions, like in the downing of the TWA jet, for example.
"It's also put a lot of pressure on government officials, especially on international issues. There used to be some lead time before they had to respond to events because it took time for TV pictures to come back and it took time for reports to be written. Now things are so immediate. I don't know how many times I've called the State Department to ask for a reaction on something and they've said, 'Well, wait, I just saw it for the first time on CNN. I haven't even heard from my embassy yet on what happened. You guys know more than we do.' And that's a little scary."
Jim Bisco is a veteran Buffalo-area writer.