History in the Making
CNN's Wolf Blitzer, B.A. '70, covers the world through history lessons learned at UB
Story by Jim Bisco
Photo by Rhea Anna
"I'm just Wolf."
This is, in a nutshell, the self-description of the man who has come to symbolize the round-the-clock, round-the-world immediacy of TV news delivery. The Cable News Network's familiar personality, Wolf Blitzer, has the look of a professor and the manner of an everyman. There is no veneer to the network's most prominent anchor and reporter. He is not enamored with his voice or his appearance. His reporting and interviewing possess an intelligence, probing curiosity and knowledge passionately conveyed with the natural pauses and thought leaps that are typical of everyday conversation.
"What you see on TV is what you get if you speak to me," he observes during a recent interview from his Washington, D.C., base. "I don't put an air on, and I try not to talk down to the viewers. People watching CNN by definition are interested in news. I'm going to give them the news and do it in a way that I try to make as understandable and as easy for the viewers as I possibly can."
The esteemed newsman has won many awards for his earnest reporting: an Emmy for his coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing; an American Journalism Review Best in the Business Award for "best network coverage of the Clinton administration" and a number of awards named for legendary journalists like Lowell Thomas, Ernie Pyle and the late Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Blitzer shared his winning approach to coverage of world events over the past several decades as a guest in UB's Distinguished Speakers Series on October 2. Honored as the first alumnus to be part of the series, Blitzer, a 1999 recipient of a SUNY honorary doctorate in humane letters, expressed his gratitude for the role UB played in his career.
Born in Germany, Blitzer immigrated to Buffalo with his family when he was barely a year old. Raised in North Buffalo and in the suburb of Kenmore, Blitzer stayed in the area to earn his bachelor of arts degree in history from UB.
"I spent four of the most important years of my life-very formidable years from ages 18 to 22-at the University at Buffalo, from 1966 to 1970. It was a very tumultuous era. The Vietnam War was obviously happening at that time. [UB] was a very politically charged campus," he recalls. "I made lifelong friends and got a good education. It gave me an opportunity to go on to graduate school and pursue the kind of career that I've been doing ever since, so it was clearly very significant in my life.
"If somebody would have said to me going back to my days at Norton Union at the old campus that I'd be doing this 30 years down the road, I would have thought that they were crazy," he relates. "It's not as if journalism was a lifelong goal of mine. I did not work for the Spectrum. I did not work for the UB radio station. I never took any journalism courses either in undergraduate or graduate school. I just sort of fell into it after graduate school and, to my amazement, I discovered I had a knack for it."
Unsure of what he really wanted to do, Blitzer majored in American history. "I always liked history, politics, current events and world affairs. And history seemed, from my high school days, to be something that I was pretty good at. When I looked at the various majors, history became my first choice. UB in those days had excellent history professors, which I'm sure they still do. Professor Adler, Professor Plesur, Professor Yearley, they were very significant parts of my life. It turned out to be a good major."
Indeed, it proved to be an education that he has carried with him to his award-winning reporting. "What I really learned in history at Buffalo was the whole notion of revisionist history-that there's a conventional wisdom of what happened, and then a group of historians will come out and start revising that history and come up with a totally different explanation for what happened and back it up with original research and sources. It was the first experience that I had learning about revisionism and history," he explains.
"It's something that I see happening even today," he says. "For example, I went out and covered the Iraq War in March and April. There was an initial assessment of what happened and what didn't happen. And even now [six months later], we're getting a revisionist history of [those events]. I was thinking about that the other day. The lessons I learned about scholarship and history in Buffalo are still very much a part of my life today."
After UB, Blitzer pursued a master of arts degree in international relations from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He "fell into" the role of reporter when he seized an opportunity and went on to an 18-year career as a print journalist for the Reuters News Agency in Tel Aviv and as the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.
After reporting on a wide range of major breaking stories around the world and authoring two books, Blitzer made the transition to television in 1990. "I had been a guest on a lot of TV shows throughout the '80s, whether the McNeil-Lehrer Report, Nightline or CNN, so it was a slow introduction into the world of broadcast journalism," he says.
As CNN's military-affairs correspondent at the Pentagon, Blitzer was sent to Moscow, where he became one of the first western correspondents to be invited into the KGB headquarters to view the agency's intelligence operations. He subsequently reported on the transition of power from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin and on the state of the Soviet military.
Soon after, the name Wolf Blitzer entered the public consciousness through his tireless coverage of the Gulf War, reporting as many as 12 times a day from the field and bringing CNN into its own as a news power. He subsequently served as CNN's senior White House correspondent, covering President Bill Clinton from his election in November 1992 until 1999.
Today, he is the anchor of CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports, a weekday evening broadcast focusing on the day's top news, featuring live interviews with leading newsmakers and live debriefings with correspondents around the world. He also hosts Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, the only Sunday talk show seen in more than 212 countries and territories.
Blitzer notes that his strong worldwide network of contacts has been a career-long development. "You're only as good as your reputation," he says. "People are not going to confide in you and give you sensitive information if they think you're going to mishandle it and betray them. My feeling is that you treat your sources with respect as you treat your viewers with respect."
Hailing the Alumni Choice Speaker on the evening of October 2, outgoing UB President William R. Greiner acknowledged Blitzer's continued support and interest in his alma mater. His most recent donation is the gift of his speaking fee to UB's new Institute for Jewish Thought, an interdisciplinary center for the study of Jewish intellectual history. The gift will endow a lecture series at the institute to honor his late father, David Blitzer. Wolf Blitzer's wife of 30 years, Lynn, and his mother, Cesia, were in attendance.
"Life is great," he concludes in the interview from his Washington office. "I get up in the morning and look forward to going to work. It's a dream come true when you think about it."
He chuckled when he recalled his start in the business. "One of my old professors said to me, 'Do you want to be a foreign correspondent?' And I said, 'You know what? That sounds pretty good. Maybe that would be fun.' And one thing led to another. I started covering stories-terrorism, war-and I've been doing it for 30 years. Not too shabby."