For Richard T. Griffiths, vice president and senior editorial director of CNN, success is built on high standards, long hours and forward thinking. Being in the right place at the right time helps, too.
Griffiths and his family emigrated from England in 1974 for his father’s job developing telecommunications technology. This provided Griffiths with the opportunity to attend and graduate from an American high school, an experience that set him on an “extraordinary path,” he said.
He went on to college at UNC-Greensboro as a sociology major. While he was a student, he worked various journalism jobs to pay his expenses through college. Yet success as a journalist left less and less time for classes, and ultimately Griffiths chose work over completing his degree. The choice hasn’t held him back.
Griffiths’s path to CNN was circuitous. He worked in Greensboro as a news director at WGBG Radio; as a motel desk clerk at Howard Johnson’s; and in numerous positions at WFMY television, the CBS affiliate.
Griffiths and his wife moved to St. Louis, where he worked at KTVI, the Fox affiliate, doing long-form programming. For the work, he was honored with an Emmy and a Peabody award. This program was canceled due to lack of funding.
From there Griffiths went to work for WFAA, an ABC affiliate in Dallas, Texas, where he helped develop one-hour newscasts.
“That may seem remarkable now,” he said, but “up until then, every newscast was thirty minutes.”
Soon, CBS was chasing WFAA’s ratings–and Griffiths. Wooed to the network’s Los Angeles office, Griffiths worked with such luminaries as Bob Schieffer and Charles Kuralt, who taught him “to do great storytelling.” He was promoted to senior producer of the the network’s Atlanta bureau, where he remained until it was closed in 1991.
The CNN job was the culmination of Griffiths’s years of hard work and tenacity. Among his accomplishments there is development of “The Row,” the network’s “core storytelling and quality control vetting.”
“People turn to CNN because they want to know if [the news is] true,” Griffiths said. “CNN stands as a brand where there’s tremendous trust.”
Timeliness remains a critical news value, but as social media collapses time, other standards prevail.
“It used to be when I was at CBS, if we were two minutes behind NBC or ABC in breaking important news, there’d be hell to pay. Well, now, the whole paradigm has shifted. The news is out there. Maybe we do break it. Maybe we don’t break it. But the fact is, people come to CNN to find out, is it true.”
Interviewee: Richard Griffiths
Date: March 17, 2015
Location: Halls of Fame Room, Carroll Hall, University of North Carolina
Interviewer: Cierra “CB” Cotton
Interview Length: 55 mins
Transcribed by/date: CB Cotton, March 2015
CB Cotton: My name is CB Cotton and I’m here with Richard Griffiths. He is the Senior Editorial Director and Vice President of CNN. We here at the University of North Carolina at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication in the Halls of Fame room. Today is Tuesday, March 17th 2015, at 9:20 a.m.
I would first like to start with some background information.
Richard Griffiths: Well, first of all let me just simply say that there’s no restriction on this interview. It may be used in any way for as long as you own it or have it.
CC: Wonderful. Thank you.
RG: As long as the University keeps control of it.
CC: Wonderful. Okay. So, for our first question: You emigrated to the United States from England. How old were you then, and what were the circumstances of your family’s move?
RG: I came over to the US several times. The first time I was 12 years old. My father was an engineer with ITT in Raleigh. He was working on a very new-fangled kind of telephone communication called “pulse-code modulation,” which was a digitization of the telephone signal. It was a very early thing—it used to be that you had two pairs of copper wire for every telephone conversation. What Dad figured with some other people is how to put multiple conversations on each pair of copper wires. That was a huge cost-savings, because copper wire is very expensive. So when you’re talking about undersea cable or cable that goes from one part of the country to another, you can save a vast amount of money.
So his invention they were developing for the American market. In 1968, when I was 12, the whole family came over—supposedly for six months, and then it turned into a year then a year and a half. After that the government said, no, sorry, you’ve overstayed your visa, it’s time to go. So we returned to the UK. We were back from 1969 to 1971, until the government finally relented. The story I was told was that Senator Sam Ervin, the senator from North Carolina, who was, of course, a big star on the Watergate Committee—this was before that—was outraged at the numbers of jobs lost at ITT when Dad and his team were returned to Britain. They worked to get the visas reinstated, and we were invited back in 1971.
Ultimately we immigrated in 1974. I went to high school in Raleigh. I finished high school at Sanderson High School, and then got in-state tuition and was allowed to go to UNC-Greensboro—which I did not graduate from, but I went five years and found myself doing more and more journalism and going to fewer and fewer classes, until I was no longer a student. Things happen…
CC: It is what it is.
RG: …I got a great education there.[Adjusting sound level]
CC: Perfect. Sounds like you guys were guests of honor, and what a cool story. I never would have thought that your family had such an extensive back-and-forth with the United States. It sounds like your dad was a very intelligent man. That’s very interesting.
You went to UNC-Greensboro. What did you study, and how did you choose that major?
RG: I started off as a sociology major because I was really interested in the things that make a society tick. I was always interested in polling research and survey research, and sociology is full of that. So that’s where my focus was, and I ended up taking some really interesting mass media classes with a professor, William Knox or Bill Knox, who was extraordinary in putting mass media and journalism in the heart of culture. Simultaneously with that, I was working at the campus radio station as a way to make ends meet–to get through school. I was working at the print shop…I was working for the campus newspaper. Those three things gave me a real insight into journalism–hands-on–but Bill Knox set me on fire with the understanding of how it worked in the macro level. And we got into all kinds of theory about [Alfred] Korzybski and general semantics. Senator [Samuel Ichiye] Hayakawa’s works on language. And that got me really interested in communications and communicating and how people understand what the stories are that we’re telling. How confusing sometimes they can be. You know you and I can agree that we’re sitting in a piece of furniture. But if I say, “Move the furniture out of this room, into the other room,” you’re going to look around and you’re not sure–“Well, is it the chair or the table that he wants moved?” So that’s an example of the kinds of confusion that comes about with language as we get into more abstract concepts. And that’s what Bill Knox was teaching and how I got into some of the idiosyncrasies of that side of journalism.
CC: Very nice. I love languages–I speak three.
RG: Oh, superb!
CC: I love them. Tell me about your first journalism job. It sounds like your interests first sparked with language, so tell me how that transitioned into working in journalism.
RG: Journalism for me was a way to get through college and get my sociology degree. I was a fairly decent writer and I thought well, you know, I can do some of this. So I started out working at the campus radio station and UPI hired me as a stringer covering Greensboro. They paid me for each story I turned in. So that was fairly lucrative and that paid a lot of my out-of-pocket expenses, so I was very busy covering stories. It got to the point they would call me at the dorm and send me off to do a story–because this was long before hand-held telephonic devices, cellphones. So there’d be a big wreck on the interstate or a big news conference in Greensboro and they didn’t have somebody to send. I would be sent to go cover the news conference and get some quotes back to them and get the basics back. Or there’d be some plane crash or some other spot news… I’d be sent out to do it.
So I did a lot of work for UPI, and that turned into writing for the Carolinian. I did a bunch of columns for the Carolinian newspaper. Some of them were sort of…thumb-sucking think pieces. Some of them were feature pieces on large topics. I had a lot of fun doing that. Again, I got a little bit of pay for doing that.
Then I took an internship with a thousand-watt radio station in Greensboro, and I helped them out. Then the news director quit, and went to the North Carolina News Network. And the general manager out of nowhere offered me the job of news director. Because I was still a student, the pay was ridiculous–it was $130 a week. And even in 1976, ’77, maybe even ’78. I forget the precise year that that came about…It must’ve been probably around ’78, ’7…that was peanuts. Of course, I had to pay all my expenses out of that, too–so I had to put gas in the car. I had a former police cruiser, a big old Ford Galaxy 500 police cruiser that got about nine miles to the gallon. So I ran up a bunch of expenses doing that, but I was mobile, covering a lot of city politics in Greensboro, a lot of county politics, or the big spot news. Then, every once in a while, there was a big story in some other part of the state and I’d go cover that. We had a staff of two other part-timers who worked with the station. I’d go off and do stories. I’d do morning drive, and go do some stories during the day…try to go to some classes–which became rarer and rarer and rarer–and then get back and do afternoon and evening…early evening drive. I’d record some newscast, and then repeat the whole thing the next day. So I was on the air from six in the morning until six at night, five days a week, and the middle of day we had a part-timer and then on the weekends we had part-timers.
The way all this came to an end was, on one particular Saturday, I decided I was going to go down and cover President Carter who was in Wilson, North Carolina. He was speaking to the peanut farmers–excuse me–the tobacco farmers of eastern North Carolina about the changing nature of the way the administration was looking at tobacco. He, Carter, had hired a fellow by the name of Joseph Califano to be his Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. Califano wanted to put taxes on tobacco and warnings…he wanted to really crack down on smoking. So Carter got onto the back of a tractor trailer rig and basically told all these farmers that they needed to diversify their crops and think about crops other than tobacco, and maybe peanuts wouldn’t be a bad idea. Don’t hold me to the precise language of what he said. I’m sure there’s a transcript out there somewhere. He got booed and heckled a little bit. It was a great story.
So I finished that story and I found a telephone booth and connected my alligator clips to my cassette recorder and called in my story–collect. Because you know, it was very expensive to make a call. The general manager happened to be in the building and he refused to accept my collect call, telling the operator that it was “a waste of time.” I was kind of offended because I had driven halfway across the state to cover this and I was…actually really mad. So I call the all-news station in Charlotte; we had a trading arrangement with them. I told them, “I couldn’t even get my own station to the buy the story, would you like it?” They said, “Oh yeah, we’ll take it.” So they paid me the $30, it paid for my gas to go cover this thing. When I got back on Monday morning, I went in and asked for a raise and confronted the general manager refusing to accept the collect call. He said, “Well, I can’t give you a raise. You can do commercials if you want, but I’m not going to give you a raise.” At that I said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to resign.” So I quit, and went to work as the front desk clerk at a Howard Johnson’s Motor Inn, where I got paid $260 a week for being a front desk clerk and part time manager. So twice the pay for working front desk at a hotel than when I was the news director of this thousand-watt, number two-rated radio station.
I’m behind the counter, I’m three weeks into the job and the mayor of Greensboro walks in. He’s about to do a news conference in one of the meeting rooms. He sees me behind the counter and says, “Hey Richard, what are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I work here now.” He says, “Well…whatever, but I’m not going to wait for you.” He didn’t quite process that I was working at the hotel now. I said, “No. No. I’m working here.” “Oh, okay!” So he goes off and the reporter, a woman by the name of Chancy Kapp–an amazing reporter for Channel 2 WFMY–she heard the exchange and told her boss back at the television station. A couple of days later I got a call from the news director offering me the job of weekend reporter.
The call came into the Howard Johnson’s, so I had to explain to the Howard Johnson’s I couldn’t work weekends anymore. So I worked during the week at the Howard Johnson’s and weekends as the reporter until I paid off the debts I accumulated driving my big police car around working for WGBG Radio, the radio station. I went to work there as a weekend reporter and about three weeks or a month in at the television station, I was offered a full-time job. I worked as a reporter there for a couple years and then became the assignment manager and the producer of the six o’clock news. Did the occasional anchoring of the midday news… a little short newscast. So I did that for a number of years.
CC: That is inspiring. We’re still rolling. Talk a little for me.
RG: Okay, still recording.
CC: Your story is very inspiring. It seems as almost…almost kind of like a Cinderella story.
RG: I was a very lucky person. You know where I grew up in the UK was a very very blue-collar town. It was a very tough community. It was industrial. It was a new town build after WWII, intended to be a community where they would relocate entire industries to the town to relieve the crowding in London. Because after WWII a lot of housing was bombed. You had a lot of people having families…huge housing shortages. So these new towns were designed to take up the slack of the shortage of housing. So Basildon was one. Welwyn Garden City was another. Harlow a third. There were more. And Basildon was designed as an almost a utopian community but it was far from utopian. It was essentially vertical slums. You had very very tough social problems migrated out of Central London or East London to Basildon. All those social problems came with them. So it was very, pretty unpleasant. I was streamed into engineering. I was told I’d be a draftsman. So I got all kinds of drafts training. It’s why I can still draw good designs for making and cutting wood. Took a lot of woodworking classes and metal working classes but I wasn’t really allowed to do much English and that was going to be the thing I loved the most. And I was sort of streamed away from a university education.
So to have that opportunity to come to America to go and finish up my education at an American high school and then graduate with a high school diploma in my sweaty palm and being able to get into an American university–even though I didn’t graduate–it set me on a path that was really extraordinary. It allowed me to learn things that I never would’ve been allowed to learn had I stuck with it in Britain. Not because it was shut off, I wouldn’t be able to get in the books but because you were streamed and society there was much more regimented about where you could move and how you could move within the society. And the expectation was I was going to be a metalworker, woodworker, draftsman! And now I still love working with my hands when I’m not working with language. That’s how I relax…I go build bicycles or tinker around the house doing fix-it jobs. But that’s not what I wanted to do with my career and now I had that opportunity coming to America. It was a real gift.
CC: Inspiring to me as well, so thank you for sharing.
Let’s face forward a little bit. How have these past jobs prepared you to become Vice President of CNN? If you can think in terms of “How did they mold you?” to you get to where you are now?
RG: Maybe I should give a little bit of background on career and what happened to me after Greensboro. I had a crazy news director in Greensboro who was not very pleasant to work for. Not the person who hired me, but a new one who came in. We also had some very big breaking news in 1979, with a shootout between the Socialists Workers Party and the Klan. A number of people died… our camera crew captured much of that. There was also another camera crew there from WTVD and one from WGHP. The pictures were remarkable, and I won’t get into all the details of everything that happened. But I was the assignment manager at that station all through that time period, and so that really shaped me in terms of dealing with hard news. I learned a huge amount about breaking news–but that’s not actually what got me my next job.
I was called into the news director’s office and said, “Listen, our license is up for renewal. We’re new owners. The previous owners of the television station had made all these elaborate promises to produce documentaries of the big issues of the day that would run in primetime. That promise, as part of the licensing requirements at the time, was that they were so far behind they would have to do one documentary every two weeks in order to meet the ascertainment requirements to be able to keep their license. So the general manger and the news director said, “Richard, here’s a list of topics: housing, education, transportation, poverty and several other topics. Health, healthcare. I need you to do half-hour documentaries on these topics. Do whatever you want to do, and it’s for primetime.”
It was my lucky break, because I was given one of the best photographers in the station and we shot everything on 16-millimeter film. Shot these intensive people-driven documentaries explaining what the issues were. We used characters to illustrate what the transportation issues were, or the housing issues, or the poverty issues. Then we confronted the state officials responsible and talked about possibilities of how these things were going to be fixed, and what the state was doing about them, and what the missing links were in the process. Of course, it was a gentler time–people were much more willing to talk about poverty issues or other issues whether you were republican or democrat, as solution needed to be found. These half hour documentaries really became my resume reel for my next gig.
My wife was graduating from UNC-Greensboro with a degree in accounting and had multiple job offers from firms–one in Charlotte and one in St. Louis were the most attractive. I didn’t want to stay in Greensboro at this particular station, so we’d sort of discounted the Greensboro market. We thought we’d go to Charlotte or St. Louis. St. Louis was where my former news director had gone, and he was now running a station that had an investigative unit and a monthly long-form program that was loosely based on 60 Minutes. It was a 30-minute program on local politics and issues with three stories in it. I wanted to work for that station so badly I could taste it. Debby got the offer to go up to St. Louis. We were engaged, and the accounting firm said, “Bring your fiancé along.” So I went and literally camped out on the steps of the trailer in the back parking lot where this program was produced until they met with me. I showed them my tapes and they were really gracious. They talked to me, and I was taken around to meet some of the other people in the station and then we decided. I went to one other station in St. Louis and they offered me the job of the movie critic if I wanted to do movie reviews. I had an offer to go to St. Louis, so Debby accepted the offer in St. Louis.
Simultaneously we’d also checked out Charlotte, and WBTV had asked me if I wanted to try out for the reporter based in Morganton, their Western Carolinas bureau. They flew me up in the helicopter to Morganton and I had hung around and did some reporting. We flew back in a fog that night. Literally we were flying right above the freeway just to be able to find our way back to Charlotte in this thick fog. I thought, “If I’m going to have to do this everyday, I’m not going to do this.” So I passed on that job. A guy by the name of Steve Ohnesorge took that job, and he stayed in that job years afterwards. I’m really glad for him, he did a terrific job there.
Charlotte was sort of shut out, and the door opened with a movie critic job in St. Louis. Debby accepted the job with Deloitte in St. Louis, and off we went. I turned in my notice and WFMY. A week after I turned in my notice at WFMY, KTVI called and said, “Richard, we’d love for you to come and work for us and, to give you an incentive, we’ll pay for your move if you’ll come to work for us. If you’ll come to St. Louis.” I didn’t tell them that I’d already quit and was on my way to St. Louis, anyway. They paid for our move, and I went to work at KTVI. I was there ten very happy months doing long-form programming, won an Emmy, won a Peabody for our work. Lots of wonderful investigative work. Then Times-Mirror, which owned the station decided that our program was way too expensive, and so they cancelled the show and I was out of a job again.
This time I was told about this marvelous station in Texas—WFAA–with this amazing news director, Marty Haag [Jr.]. Marty was already a legend in 1980 for his integrity in journalism and his toughness. He had worked at CBS in New York and it turns out when I applied for the job he called me back and said, “Listen I don’t hire from KTVI.”
I said, “Well…why?”
And he says, “Well, because my best friend is the news director there and I don’t steal his people.”
I said, “Well, I’m being laid off here.” And he says, “Well, I definitely don’t want you.”
“But it’s because the show was too expensive. Not because I was doing bad.”
“Yeah, sure. Well, I’ll talk to Raymond.” Raymond Matthews was the news director. So he calls me back thirty minutes later and says, “Okay. You’ve got the job. When can you start?” I said, “Can I come and see your station?” And my wife will need to try to find something. “Sure. I’ll fly you down.”
So Debby and I flew down to Dallas and I saw the station and it was terrific. Marty takes Debby and I to lunch at the Mansion on Turtle Creek and says–Debby gets up to powder her nose–and Marty says, “How much is it going to cost me to get you to come here?”
I said, “Well…um…” I didn’t know what to ask, so I said, “I presume you will pay me in a way that will keep me for the long term.” That was my overly clever answer. His very clever response was to say, “Okay!” and we never talked about money.
So Debby, the accountant…we get out and we head back to the hotel and she says, “What are we coming here for?”
“Well, I don’t know. He just said he’d take care of me.”
So I moved to Dallas not knowing how much I was going to get paid or really what job I was going to have. I got to WFAA and Marty calls me into his office and says, “We got a little bit of a problem. I don’t have clearance to hire you yet. But I have an opening for the news director at the WFAA radio. So if anybody asks, that’s the job you’re going to do. And I’ll pay you for that.”
I had been a radio news director before, so I could do that. I did that for a couple of weeks until Marty could get it all sorted, then finally I got a paycheck. It was to the penny twice what I was making at KTVI. He had called up his old buddy and said, “What was he making?” So it was a very nice thing.
I worked for Marty, who was an extremely demanding boss that really focused—Oh, look, my handheld telephonic device is– I am technically on call at this moment…could I…pause this for a moment?
CC: You sure can.[Recording paused for telephone call.]
CC: We are back recording.
RG: Okay. Sorry about that.
CC: No problem.
RG: I actually work for a living. I actually have to work from time to time.
CC: Who would’ve known?
CC: So you were continuing your story about Marty.
RG: So Marty was very demanding; he set very high standards for journalism, and expectations to be tough, to be fair, to be thorough and not be intimidated by people of authority. He also wanted to invest in serious journalism. So if we were going to do a big investigative thing and I needed to take time out to go do computer-assisted reporting…by that time I had a huge boxy computer made by a company called Kaypro, and we were able to do spreadsheet analysis of documents and be able to look at things–which was huge, a big step forward. So I was able to do that. I was able to do all kinds of travel and really develop stories that had texture and voice and character. Marty was hugely supportive of that.
They were developing a new thing called “one-hour newscasts”–that may seem remarkable now, but one-hour newscasts was remarkable then. Up until then every newscast had been thirty minutes. This one-hour newscast was such that it would start at the top of the hour and then go across the bottom of the hour where the CBS evening news started on the adjacent channel on the competitor’s channel, and then go up to the top of the hour at six o’clock where World News Tonight would start. By doing that we really undermined the competition.
My job was to do a long-form story–because I had done a lot of long-form work at KTVI and WFMY–to bridge the bottom of that hour. We hired a team of people. We hired a fellow by the name of Peter Van Sant; Scott Pelley, whom you may have heard of; Doug Fox; Robert Riggs; Byron Harris, who’s won countless Peabodys and DuPont-Columbia [awards] for his investigative journalism. We all worked together as a unit doing this long-form pieces, and the ratings over at CBS plummeted because we had very high local ratings and held those viewers over the start of the newscast. People didn’t change the channel anymore like they used to; they’d hang around for World News Tonight at the top of the hour. CBS is like, “Why are our ratings plummeting in Dallas?,” and they started recording what we were doing at WFMY.
Marty was a stickler for being ethical about who wrote the pieces. If I wrote a piece for one of the anchors, he insisted that my name appear as producer on the script and on the air. The result was, CBS was preparing a resume tape of my work, which was being sent to New York. People knew who I was without applying for a job. So I get a call from the recruiter at CBS saying, “We’d like to talk to you about a job in the Los Angeles bureau.” Meanwhile, they hired Peter Van Sant and Gary Reeves– another great reporter who worked with me on this unit–and then ultimately, Scott Pelley. We all went to CBS in various roles in different places along with a fellow by the name of Jim Loy and Alan Parcell. CBS decided, this station is being a real pain in our rear end, so we’re going to hire all the people who are doing this creative work that are killing us…see if we can put them to work for us.
So that’s how I got hired at CBS. I was put in the Los Angeles bureau and my job was to produce the western edition of the evening news because I had a lot of show-producing experience but also field produced a lot. That’s ultimately what got me to CBS news. Working the weekends, I did a lot of producing for the correspondents in the Los Angeles bureau but also for the New York anchors of the weekend programs and that included Charles Kuralt and Bob Schieffer. I’d go shoot a piece and then I’d do all the interviews–the work. Maybe consult with them ahead of time, sometimes not. Then I’d log the tapes. Maybe shoot Wednesday and Thursday, log the tapes on Friday. Jump on the red eye to New York and arrive on Saturday morning and then go in with a rough script and with my bag of tapes and all my logs, and we’d start working on the story.
The process there was you’d show it to the anchor…the reporter first…and they’d look at it. So with Kuralt, he was always a nice person to me. Charlie would look at my script and he’d say, “You know. This is going be great Richard. This is good. You’ve got some good stuff here. It’s gonna be great. I’m just really happy with this. You’ve done a great…great job pulling these elements together.” So he’d take my script and go away. “Just give me five minutes.” He’d bang away at his typewriter in his office—it is always so surreal to come to the Journalism School and walk in his office and look in that space, which was so much like the way it looked to the broadcast center [Kuralt Room, Carroll Hall, University of North Carolina]. So then he’d bang out a script and you’d read it and you’d think, “Wow. Why didn’t I think of doing it this way?” He’d walk into the fishbowl, which was where the senior producer and the executive producer sat and he’d say, “Yeah, Griffiths has done such a great job. This is going to be a great piece. He’s done a fantastic job.” Of course, he had rewritten it and raised it to high art and Linda Mason or the executive producers would look at it and say, “Oh yeah. This is going be fine, Charlie. This is going be great.” I’d go off and cut the piece and, in fact, it would be lovely. But it was really Charlie showing me how to do great storytelling. I got a lot of opportunity to do that with him, with Bob Schieffer, with Terry Drinkwater—with whom I did countless pieces out of Los Angeles…David Dow, Jerry Bowen…to a lesser extent, Rita Braver. Sometimes Richard Schlesinger. A lot of times with Peter Van Sant on aviation stories. Gary Reeves, around the south.
So then in typical CBS fashion, they asked me if I would like to move back to the UK and be deputy bureau chief in London. I thought that that would be lovely. It’s a great cautionary tale about how the good old boy network can work both for you and against you. It turns out the incoming bureau chief going to London was the college roommate of Terry Drinkwater–Terry Drinkwater being the correspondent with whom I worked most in Los Angeles. Terry was a guy who was moving more towards the twilight of his career. He had had some health issues, but more important, he was a man whose name belied his habits. He rarely drank much water and would go for multi-martini lunches at Canter’s Delicatessen up the road on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles, just up from television city. I was turning a lot of pieces for him and keeping him on the evening news on a regular basis. He did not want me to leave. So he told his college roommate–behind my back, because I knew nothing of this. Then CBS said, “Well, you didn’t get that job but would you like the deputy bureau chief for the assistant? You know, senior producer-slash-deputy bureau chief job in Atlanta?” I said that would be marvelous.
Debby’s parents lived in Charlotte, my parents still living in Raleigh; Atlanta’s much closer. We took that and moved to Atlanta. So Terry threw my going-away party being a good sport and he got very tipsy…very drunk, and stood up to offer me a toast, then begged forgiveness and burst into tears and apologized for ruining my career. He told everybody everything, and there’s sort of this stunned silence as this was laid out. At this point we didn’t really mind too much, because we were going to Atlanta; but it was an eye opener in a lot of ways.
So I got to Atlanta and covered stories all over the South. Covered stories all over the world for CBS out of LA and out of Atlanta, South Africa, some Latin America, Haiti, a little bit of Asia. I really got an understanding of the world in a broad brush. That prepared me very well.
The Atlanta Olympics were announced, and in 1991 CBS announced it was going to close the bureau in Atlanta. So I was laid off. I was told I could move back to Los Angeles or I could stay in Atlanta and accept a severance package. I thought, well, maybe I can get hired at CNN. Maybe I can go do something else. So I tried to get hired over at CNN. I made no progress. I sent lots of resumes. Just got nowhere. We decided, I’m going to make one last-ditch effort. I’ll call the head of CNN international, and I’ll get up really early and do it.
I got up at 4:30. Started calling at 4:30 and eventually got the head of international at 5:30 in the morning who had been in, and he said, “Richard. I’ve looked at your resume. You know you’ve had a great career and all of that. But your qualifications are way too rich for our blood. We hire from within. We promote from within. We don’t hire people who are not trained in the CNN way. And you’ve been trained a lot of other places, but you’re probably not going to be a good fit for us.” So at that point I knew we were going to have to move back to Los Angeles or I was going to have to go a whole different way.
I went outside to mow the grass, and I’m in the middle of mowing the grass and the phone rings again. It’s the executive producer of CNN’s unit that oversaw special reports, a documentary unit–and the documentary unit did a lot of international stuff, which played to my strengths. But also did a lot of thoughtful storytelling and some investigative work. The executive producer wanted to know how much I would charge to produce a documentary on the soon-to-be European Union and the common economic zone that was going into effect in 1992. And I said, “Well, I can get back to you by the end of the week with a budget.”
He said, “No, no, I need something today because I’m flying to Russia tonight, and I need to have something now.”
And so I said, “I can probably get back to you by close of business.”
“No. No. No. I’m leaving for the airport. In fact I’m leaving for the airport in a hour and a half. Can you come right now?”
I said, “I can get there in a little bit, I guess.”
“No. Come right now.”
So I’d been mowing the grass. Shorts. Old T-shirt. Sweaty. Nasty. So I ran inside. Put on a clean shirt. Some khaki pants. Tied a tie. Got in the car. I still had– this time there were cellphones finally–and I had my old CBS cellphone, which was a big thing. Big brick. It was in my car with a magnetic antenna on the roof and I called Debby from the car, and she brought her ten-key calculator, and I gave her a list of all the expenses I think a documentary would run, and estimated airfares and all of this stuff and tried to come up with a number of what we thought we could do it for. I pulled into the parking lot at CNN, Debby gave me the final number and I wrote it on a Post-it note. I was ushered into the building and up to the top floor and the executive producer didn’t even ask me to sit. I gave him the Post-it note and he looked at it and said, “Okay, you’re hired.”
That was the sum total of my interview being hired at CNN. I was taken outside, and I was introduced to the unit manager, a lovely lady who just retired from CNN last month, actually, and ( ) looked up at me, leaned forward and–she was a very short lady–she stepped on tiptoes and said, “You have grass clippings in your hair.” So I was hired at CNN without any formal interview and with grass clippings in my hair.
I went to work doing the documentaries and couldn’t start legally at CNN because I was still being paid by CBS news, and they told me if I took any jobs anywhere else I’d lose all my severance. My wife was pregnant and so we needed the healthcare. So I worked for free at CNN for the first three months, taking my CBS salary, I didn’t take any salary from CNN. Then my son was born and CNN kept paying me so I had leave for the three months after my son was born, and then in January I went to work with them as a staff person.
Then in 1996, Tom Johnson, who was then the president of CNN, asked me if I would help start a quality control team for our reporting–to raise the storytelling but also looking for legal landmines, ethical landmines, quality control landmines. What are…where are the problems? So I did that. We started with just three of us initially, and that was enormously rewarding. We saw a big improvement in the quality of the storytelling. Gradually the unit expanded over the years and new bosses came in, new presidents came in, and they saw it as a very useful tool. So the unit grew and grew. Because I had a print wire-service background I gradually took over our editorial quality control for our wire service internally and ran that–ran “the Row,” as it became known. We all sat in a row in the newsroom, so that’s what it became. Over time, that job expanded until I’m still there doing what I’m doing now. They gave me the title of vice president and senior editorial director. I have a staff of 18 doing that quality control work for CNN international, CNN domestic, CNN en Español, and CNN.com.
CC: Wonderful. You just mentioned “the Row” as part of CNN’s quality control, and it’s something that I’ve researched myself. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
RG: The Row is the core storytelling and quality control vetting. It’s part of a triad of three different parts of CNN that oversee quality control. There’s a standards and practices unit, run by my colleague Rick Davis. There’s a legal department, run by my colleague David Vigilante. And I run the Row. All the enterprise reporting for digital and any stories for television go through the Row for clearance, and in addition, there’s a doted line to the copy editors at CNN digital for the text stories that sort of report back in. So all of the quality control…everything is seen by the Row. We look to make sure the stories are easy to understand, clear, well told, and also we’re the tripwire for legal and standards on the things that may be libelous. Very often the lawyers are involved as a big stinky story alleging wrongdoing in some way. Hopefully, the lawyers and standards are already involved. If they’re not, we’ll make sure they are. We work together coordinating the vetting of that work, and then one of the editors will sign off on the story. But that’s the basic job that I do, is making sure the work that goes on CNN is of good quality, good standard, won’t harm our reputation and stands for the kind of work that CNN has traditionally stood, for which is serious, hard-news reporting that conveys something meaningful to the viewer.
CC: Despite any news organizations best efforts, mistakes occur.
CC: On April 17th, 2013, for example, CNN anchor John King and several other news outlets mistakenly reported that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing. When mistakes make it to air, how are they corrected?
RG: The most important thing is when you make a mistake is to be transparent that you’ve made a mistake. Second thing is, you want to take time to figure out what’s right. You can’t just say something’s right. You have to figure out what’s right, because you don’t want to ever have a correction of a correction. You want to get the correction right the first time. You want to be transparent. You want to be clear how the mistake was made, and you want to not have to correct any corrections by doing it over. So, do it right.
Mistakes happen because people believe they’re right. People don’t go out…you can have a sloppy mistake, which comes from laziness. In the case of the John King…he was not the only reporter involved in that debacle. We were told by sources in various different parts of the government that the suspects had been arrested, and we’d been given names and everything else. The sources were wrong. We placed too much trust in those sources.
We’ve learned a lot about that, about whether it’s…when it’s worth risking one’s reputation on delivering source material. Very often it’s just not worth it. We’re living in world now where social media and the smartphone is very often how people learn about breaking news…
CC: Snapchat? Dataminr?
RG: Snapchat, Dataminr, all kinds of different ways of getting the news really, really fast. But people turn to CNN because they want to know if it’s true. CNN stands as a brand where there’s tremendous trust. So people don’t judge us, “Are you first with that story” anymore. It used to be when I was at CBS, if we were two minutes behind NBC or ABC in breaking important news, there’d be hell to pay. There’d be all kinds of conversations and conference calls and autopsies to how do we handle that.? Did we blow it?
Well, now, the whole paradigm has shifted. The news is out there. Maybe we do break it. Maybe we don’t break it. But the fact is, people come to CNN to find out, is it true? We really learned that in a big way with Michael Jackson’s death, when I wouldn’t allow the network to report Michael Jackson was dead—it was based on source material. We didn’t have it, I didn’t feel we had it rock solid. TMZ was out there trumpeting Michael Jackson was dead, and the management at TMZ was asking our managers at CNN, “Well, why aren’t you reporting? You’re a sister network of ours. We all work for Time Warner. Shouldn’t you be reporting what we have?” And I was saying no, for the reason being, I wasn’t comfortable with TMZ’s sourcing. The fact is TMZ had published their story, as we later learned, an hour and a half before Michael Jackson had actually died. We went down and staked out the medical examiner’s office, and we were the first to report—officially–he was dead, and the time he died, how he died and so forth, based on the medical examiner’s report. So, yes, we were slow to do it, but what happened was the audience grew and grew and grew and grew and grew. We had this monster audience watching CNN waiting to find out, is Michael Jackson actually dead? That’s the lesson for us. The lesson is, do what we do best. Try to be the gold standard of trust.
CC: Wonderful. That being said…CNN has had many distinguished leaders since 1980. What would you like your tenure to be remembered for?
RG: I would say trust. Building up this idea of us as a trusted organization. Being the organization that had figured out how to leverage social media and use it to raise up great reporting. You know, social media helps us now by alerting us maybe to breaking news through things like Dataminr or Twitter and other tools. Snapchat is a part of it. But that’s not necessarily how we get everything. Facebook is certainly a part of that. But you know it used to be we’d get calls from only from affiliates or from viewers to alert us to breaking news; you know, a plane is crashed in a field or something. Now there’s countless ways we can be alerted electronically to breaking news. We know when our competition has broken news, because it surfaces very quickly on social media. What happens is that when we do good work, social media also raises up our good work and acts as a megaphone to extend our voice far beyond our on-air platform or our website. So when a story goes viral, and when we break news, it gets incredibly wide dissemination. So from my perspective, social media is our friend. Now, I don’t want CNN breaking news on social media that we’ve not broken on our primary platforms–at least not at this point. But we do use it very strategically to promote the work that we’re doing, but also for the viewers to find the work that we’re doing and talk about it with their friends and their colleagues in a way that raises the good work. It also holds us accountable. When we screw up we’re going to hear about it on social media. So social media is a friend.
CC: Wonderful. I’m sure your tenure will be remembered for that gold standard. Thank you so much, Mr. Griffiths, for sitting down with me today. We’re closing now on March 17th, at 10:27 a.m.
RG: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW