Sol Levine, 45, is a former executive producer with CNN, where he worked from 1982 to 2001. He was part of the 400+ laid off in January 2001 when Time-Warner merged with America Online. At CNN, Levine was producer of Crossfire, executive producer of White House coverage, and executive producer of an international news program called "WorldView." Before CNN, Levine was a senior producer at WRC-AM, and a freelance reporter for WAMU-FM and NPR. Levine is a graduate of American University. Currently, he is taking a break from daily journalism to write a book about politics.
Sol Levine: When I was producer of "Crossfire," sometimes we'd call offices on Capitol Hill and they didn't know what CNN was much less what Crossfire was. I would always reference Ted Turner because Ted was well-known as the America's Cup winner and people would then go, "Oh yeah." Our competitors used to refer to us as "Chicken Noodle News," because we worked so cheaply. We used older equipment. We covered things that they thought were beneath them. We were young, and CNN didn't spend a lot on our set. Slowly they began to look at us as a legitimate news operation. We were able to beat them on stories. By the time the Persian Gulf War came, we were better positioned in every way. Finally we were accepted as equals to the other networks. We were a scrappy, competitive bunch of journalists.
JournalismJobs.com: Tell me about some of the on-air goofs in the early days of CNN.
Sol Levine: There were lots of glitches early on. I remember my first week. The anchor tossed to a commercial and instead there was this blurry, fuzzy image of [weathercaster] Flip Spiceland's nose. Flip was looking into the camera and fixing his hair because he was getting ready to do a weather report. And that went on for almost 30 seconds before it went to black and then to a commercial. After that I began to wonder if it was a smart idea to leave NBC. But we got better.
When I was producer of Crossfire, we had a grand dragon on from the Ku Klux Klan. And host Tom Braden said, "Look at you. Why are you wearing that funny outfit?" To which the grand dragon said, "Well, your producer told me to." Which is not exactly true. I said he could wear it if he wanted. I asked him if he had one of those outfits and he said, "Yeah, do you want me to wear it?" And I said you can wear it if you want.
JournalismJobs.com: How did you get Michael Kinsley, currently the editor at Slate.com, to host Crossfire?
Sol Levine: Well, I was looking at the cover of the New Republic one week when he was the editor there and there was a very dumb-looking cow chewing its cud. And the headline was something like: "The Idiocy of Rural Life." So I thought I gotta call this guy. Maybe I can get a show out of it. I called Kinsley and he was very taken aback to be called by a television producer. And he refused to come on to talk about the subject because he was not an expert about agriculture. I said, "Why did you write about it?" And he said, "I know enough to write about it, but I couldn't debate somebody on 'Firing Line.'" And I said, "I think you're confused, this isn't Firing Line, this is Crossfire." Then he paused and went only like Michael can go: "Ohhhh." I couldn't convince him to come on, but eventually I convinced him to appear on another subject. He eventually took over when Tom Braden had surgery.
When I was let go by CNN and I was contacting my friends, I called Michael and said, "Guess what, I'm unemployed." We chatted for awhile and he said, "I have a great idea. Why don't you do the diary for Slate?" And I thought, that sounds like fun. But, the more I think of it, the more I think it might be Michael's revenge. Because Michael accuses me of ruining his life by putting him on television.
JournalismJobs.com: Why is that?
Sol Levine: Why? Because, at the time he declared, it's such a demeaning, dirty medium that's lowered the standards of our culture. That's a paraphrase. But I'm sure he'd back me up [laughs]. After I got off the phone with him about the diary, I thought, "Wait a minute" [laughs again]. No, I'm really looking forward to it.
JournalismJobs.com: What's the diary going to be about?
Sol Levine: It's got to have something to do with something I've done that day. There's a lot of latitude. They said to have fun with it, do what you want. But actually, I thought a lot about writing about Michael [more laughs].
JournalismJobs.com: What would you say about him?
Sol Levine: No way. Sorry...
JournalismJobs.com: Was Michael fun to work with?
Sol Levine: He was a lot of fun to work with, but he'd complain constantly about how I was turning him into a whore. I pointed out it didn't take a lot of convincing. In all seriousness, Michael is no such thing. I think of him as a very intelligent journalist and opinion-maker.
JournalismJobs.com: What's the biggest story you covered as an executive producer at the White House?
Sol Levine: I actually left the White House before the Monica story broke. So anything up to Monica you can take your pick. Clinton was a big story from day one. The screw-ups from early on, the scandals in the middle of the first term, losing Congress to the Republicans, his coming back to win, his chief campaign strategist getting busted for sucking the toes of a prostitute. I mean, it's hard to pick.... Whatever spin was before 1992, the Clinton folks put it into turbo-charge. Everybody would try to spin you. So you had to listen to every single word somebody was saying and notice what they didn't say in order to have some understanding of what was going on. They had what we called "Document Dumps." Five o'clock on a Friday, "Here's 2,400 pages about Whitewater. Have a nice weekend." And it got to the point where they finally agreed to warn the press on an off-the-record basis that there was going to be a five o'clock document dump. At CNN, we got a team of readers together so the pages could be split up and gone over by people familiar with whatever scandal we were talking about... The '92 Clinton campaign was definitely the highlight. The whole story of him overcoming every obstacle, to ignite the requisite number of voters on election day, that whole journey from New Hampshire. Remember all the scandals from New Hampshire? Gennifer Flowers, the draft, just to name two prominent ones. He was really a natural politician. Politicians often have to engage in persuasion. And sometimes when you're persuading, you have to bend the truth a little bit and it's an art form. If politics were an art form, Clinton was sort of like Da Vinci.
JournalismJobs.com: What was CNN like before MSNBC and FOX? What has changed due to the competition?
Sol Levine: I think the changes have been recent in the area of programming. There are a lot of other forces at play. Two mergers in three years with huge companies are pretty influential on how business is done. I think over time what has happened with the influence of FOX and MSNBC is that now personalities have just as much importance in the way they're programming the network. It used to be news in a plain brown bag. Now it's much more slick, which is good because I think CNN had the look of sort of like a college station for way too long. But they're also looking for a formula that does include popular personalities where before that wasn't that important.
JournalismJobs.com: Rick Kaplan, who headed CNN's domestic network until last fall, tried to make CNN more highly produced and glossier. Why didn't this work? Should CNN go back to its raw, hard news beginnings?
Sol Levine: It did work, in as much as it was designed to. We never lost the raw aspect of CNN. We were always out there getting the news, bringing it back, and putting it on the air. He just made the set look better. He also coordinated for the first time both the newsgathering and the news production sides of the network so that show producers could work directly with the people who assign the stories, and there was coordination there. And for years, there never was.
Kaplan did a lot stuff for CNN that's really gone unacknowledged. The main problem with Kaplan is he never really realized he was in cable as opposed to network TV. And while that brought with it certain benefits -- better coordination, a nicer-looking set, and so forth -- it also brought its drawbacks. He insisted on doing news magazine programs that turned out to be a failure. He insisted on spending a lot of time on the morning programs, which turned out to be a waste of time. His record was mixed, but he did bring a lot to the network.
JournalismJobs.com: International news is really what put CNN on the map -- the Gulf War, the Tiananmen Square massacre, Bosnia. And CNN used to have several international programs on its domestic network, the International Hour and WorldView, which you executive produced. Now there are none. Has international news lost its appeal?
Sol Levine: International news domestically has always had less appeal than national news. However, CNN has not eased up on international news. CNN has something like 20 international bureaus, more than I think all the other networks combined. Witness Lisa Rose Weaver getting the exclusive footage of the American crew boarding that charter jet just a couple of weeks ago in China.
JournalismJobs.com: How did you get your start? What was your first paying job?
Sol Levine: My very first job was as a freelance radio reporter for one of the local public radio stations in Washington, D.C., and then for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." It was a very exciting time for me. It was 1975, and I was also working as a bartender. I was in the middle of school. I had gone to American University, and I went there to play soccer. I had come from a high school where soccer was very popular. I was hoping to get a scholarship but instead I got kicked in the calf by a guy who was six-feet seven. He was trying to take the ball away from me and that ended my soccer career and marked the beginning of my career in radio. My father had been a journalist in radio and television. He started in the mailroom at WOR in New York and worked his way up. He was a writer and a producer and a copy editor and eventually he was the news director at WOR-TV. That was back in the seventies. I didn't realize until much later in life that I had basically followed in my father's footsteps. This is going to sound corny, but I thought journalism was a good way to help people, particularly people who were less fortunate or poorly informed, to make better decisions about their lives.
JournalismJobs.com: Did you major in journalism?
Sol Levine: I actually did finally major in journalism, and I was very fortunate because I studied with a man named Ed Bliss. Ed Bliss along with another guy wrote the standard text on writing for broadcast journalism. It's the text that's most used in classrooms around the United States. Ed Bliss was Edward R. Murrow's editor in radio, and was the first editor of the CBS Evening News in 1960. So I was really lucky to be studying with one of the founding pillars of broadcast journalism. He was a very encouraging man and taught me a lot. Except that he could never teach me how to spell. He almost killed me once when I misspelled "Wednesday."
Copyright © 2001 JournalismJobs.com, Inc. All rights reserved.
Other JournalismJobs.com interviews: