• A part of CNN at its post-Gulf War peak
• Covering show business like it’s a . . . . business
• When celebrity breaks out, we break in!
For the next twelve years, spanning the nineties, I had a most amazing time as a CNN correspondent. “No heavy lifting,” is how I used to describe covering showbiz news. Sure, I did indeed get the late-night calls when a celebrity was arrested or fell ill and I’d have to “crash” a piece on deadline. But most of the time I was sent to movie junkets in far-flung places, reported on major pop culture social flashpoints, and interviewed just about every musician I admired — and some I didn’t.
Alright, occasionally there were mornings like the one where I sat in a TV van on Central Park West with the temperature in the teens, waiting for twice-an-hour live shots reporting on the hospitalization the night before of Michael Jackson on the eve of a live pay-per-view special. While shivering outside waiting for my stand-up I tried to think of a different way – every half-hour – to say, “Well, there’s been no new word from the hospital this morning, but here’s what we know from last night.”
Scott Leon was a terrific executive producer to work for. (Could his background in radio news have something to do with the simpatico we seemed to have?). In addition to overseeing Showbiz Today, he produced a weekly fashion program, “Style with Elsa Klensch” and between the two staffs of fashionistas and celebrity stalkers it was a toss-up as to how many divas he had to deal with.
The thing that really endeared me to Scott was his news philosophy. In keeping with the CNN mission of that time, he insisted on covering entertainment news no differently from, say, business news. Compared to the syndicated competition like Access Hollywood, we did far fewer puff pieces and far more reporting on trends and issues at the intersection of pop culture and society in general. I felt good about the segue I had made into showbiz.
The Showbiz Today talent bookers who were the “middlemen” between correspondents and the entertainers we would interview and/or profile would tell me sometimes that a certain musician – or their publicist – had requested specifically that I get the assignment. Now, I wasn’t naïve; that’s what any good publicist does to butter up a media person. But more than once a PR rep would marvel that I had actually listened to a new album before interviewing the musician. It was hard to believe that some reporters, if they did any research or prep at all, would only read the press notes provided by the label. (Of course, that’s why the notes were created.) But I wanted to have a real conversation with the interviewee and thought it was the least I could do, out of simple respect, to familiarize myself with the work.
In the CNN bureau across the street from Madison Square Garden my office mate was Bill Tush, an original employee of Ted Turner’s Superstation in Atlanta. Bill is an irrepressible wit. On days when we didn’t have a piece in the show we would go ‘round the corner to an Irish pub to drink lunch and crack wise about everything and everyone. Back in the office afterward, Bill would turn on Bob Ross’s painting show and fall asleep to the soothing descriptions of “happy little trees.” I would surf the web with the high-speed connection CNN had in the early ‘90s that beat anything Prodigy or AOL offered for home computers. (It was the merger of CNN’s parent company Time-Warner with AOL that brought my days at CNN to an end in 2001. In order to service debt, cutbacks and layoffs followed and Showbiz Today was cancelled.)
My favorite CNN New York story was one I didn’t witness because it happened before I arrived there. Ted Turner was showing his new bride, Jane Fonda, around the bureau and ran into Laurin Sydney. The Showbiz anchor was one of the many blonde women Turner seemed to like to hire and flirt with. She was coming out of her office with an armful of empty Evian water bottles for recycling when Turner encountered her and introduced her to Fonda.
“What are you doing drinking all that water, darling?” he asked Laurin. “You’re in great shape.”
“Why thank you, Ted,” said Sydney. “I do Jane Fonda every day. And, come to think of it . . . . so do you!”
After a pause, during which Laurin says she saw her whole career passing in front of her eyes, Ted and Jane fell out laughing.
The reel thing: