Kaplan shoots the breeze with Students

By The Columbia Chronicle

CNN President speaks about scandal, modern media and the power of journalism

Does CNN (Cable News Network) stand for the “Columbia News Network?” Given the ties Columbia has to the all-news cable outlet, it just might.

Rick Kaplan, president of CNN, had some candid conversations with Columbia students in an “off the record” session on Nov. 13. His visit did much to answer speculation that Kaplan will soon play a larger part at the school.

The Journalism department, the Journalism Club, and FasTraX sponsored the event at Ferguson Hall. Kaplan told aspiring journalists one thing to help get them into the field in the late-morning meeting. “One skill: Come out as a writer and you will be successful, big-time,” said Kaplan, who took over as head of CNN in August of last year. “It doesn’t matter where you graduate from…we care about how well you write.”

Ironically, it was Kaplan himself who sought out one of Columbia’s own on the beginning of his career. About 28 years ago, Kaplan came to Ed Planer, chairman of Columbia’s Journalism department, looking for work. “Ed was really the force behind NBC News. I went to talk to him about working in news gathering. He was very supportive,” Kaplan said. “He actually would have let me come work there, but at the last minute CBS decided that they didn’t want me to leave.”

Apparently, it worked out for both of them anyway. Kaplan, who was made an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois a week earlier, brushed upon a broad range of subjects in the two-hour discussion. He hit upon how the media has changed, internships, CNN’s controversial mustard-gas story, new roles for the media, and sensitive concerns. “Anytime you deal with an issue where there’s emotion on both sides, anytime you deal with an issue that involves somebody’s personal rights, those are all touchy issues,” Kaplan said. “Anything can be a touchy issue.”

Kaplan also recollected about campaigning for Eugene McCarthy with Journalism department faculty member Rose Economou. “Rick and I go way back,” Economou said fondly. “We’ve stayed in touch over the years after the McCarthy campaign.” Economou also hopes that Kaplan will further his role with the school. “We want him to have a more formal relationship with the school. We’re looking to get Rick more involved with the school on a higher level,” she said.

That includes teaching a class next fall at Columbia. “He made that commitment [last] Monday,” said Economou. She added that he would likely instruct a class in a seminar format that is geared toward news and is open to all students.

Woodie T. White, vice-president of College Relations and Development said, “Certainly we’ll benefit having him associated with Columbia in some way.” Whether that includes Kaplan having an even larger role with the school, White said he couldn’t go into details. White noted that there are about 50 Columbia alumni working for CNN in some capacity.

Kaplan worked on such shows as “Nightline,” “PrimeTime Live” and “World News Tonight” before coming to CNN, now in its 18th year on cable. He talked about the days that CNN used to be referred to as “Chicken Noodle News” and how they’ve grown to be the largest news outlet, now with eight divisions. Kaplan boasted that the network has more news bureaus (36) than any other news channel. Kaplan concluded the session with a powerful statement on how the media can affect people’s lives.

He spoke of how he was working on a story about exposing the leader of a white-supremacist group in South Africa. Kaplan and his crew waited with bated breath as they knew that the man’s wife would soon inform them of his reaction to the piece.

When they talked to her the next day, she said she had tip-toed into the bedroom and found him awake. She asked if he had seen the story, and he said that he had. “And you know what?” he said. “I’m wrong.” It’s that power of the media that keeps him going, said Kaplan.

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