The CNN International Desk presenter Hala Gorani speaks about her move from reporter to anchor.
It's not easy for front-line reporters to hang up their travel boots for the comparative safety of the studio, but when they do they usually bring an edge to their presenting that can't be learnt by simply reading an autocue. Hala Gorani is more used to jumping on planes to head for whichever Middle Eastern hot spot is in the news but since January she's been presenting the new CNN show International Desk, which the network boasts "brings viewers into the heart of the largest news gathering operation in the world".
The 39-year-old Syrian-American is one of CNN's most experienced reporters. She has reported from Saudi, Iraq, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, and was part of the team that won the prestigious Edward R Murrow Award for its coverage of the Israel-Hizbollah conflict in 2006. She now spearheads CNN's new prime time line-up, which beginning this week includes the veteran reporter Christiane Amanpour's own show.
(The journalists Michael Holmes, Becky Anderson and Fionnuala Sweeney and the quirky but popular business reporter Richard Quest complete the line-up with a range of news programmes.) Gorani admits she misses the thrill of on-the-road reporting but she says anchoring a live programme is a different kind of excitement that may yet have her heading for the airport again. "It's not jumping on a plane every few days and constantly juggling reporting with anchoring. There's something to be said for being in the studio and having people getting used to seeing you at a certain hour. What we might do once the prime show is established is what I did before: anchoring big breaking stories from that country, like the French elections or the Lebanon war.
"Of course I miss travelling. You miss the road and when you are on the road you worry that you are neglecting your show. All the anchors on the prime schedule, like Michael Holmes and Richard Quest, here have been reporters in the past. "Our show is very 'now'. We think about how to push a story forward. We always need to stay fresh. We can't put on air something that was reported five hours ago," she says.
We spoke on the telephone a couple of hours before her hour-long show that aired. It's 11am in Atlanta and 7pm in the UAE, and Gorani has already been at her desk for several hours, updating herself on the main news stories of the day. She says she very often works a 16-hour day. Our talk moves rapidly from Jimmy Carter's remarks about the opposition to President Obama's healthcare plans to Kanye West's rant against Taylor Swift at the MTV awards. Then there's Patrick Swayze's death and reaction to the Goldstone Report. Gorani has to be on top of all the day's major news stories. As she's talking, she keeps an eye on her screen and can tell me that Carter's remarks are the second most talked about subject on Twitter.
She says she finds herself starting her day with her Twitter page more and more. "I've gone into this whole Twitter thing because as a journalist there's really something magical in being first to deliver information or knowing there are a certain amount of people out there who receive news first from you. It's a tool and you don't ignore these new tools," she says. "I also read The New York Times and get my fingers blackened by the newspaper. I'm not letting go of the old school either."
She also has a Facebook page but only to keep up with friends and family all over the world. "George Clooney said recently he would rather have a prostate exam than have a Facebook page. It's all right for him. He can hop in his private jet to avoid people." As always, Gorani was up early, had a quick cup of coffee and a brisk 10 minute walk around the block with her new best friend, an unfriendly beagle named Clyde who she says "has issues".
She drives her five-year-old black Volkswagen hatchback from her home to the CNN studios, five minutes away. "I've had it for five years and it only has 9,000 miles on it," she says. "Everybody here drives a SUV and I'm in this little car." Gorani was born in Seattle. When she was six, her parents divorced and she moved to Paris with her mother. The city is still her "emotional home" and her fluent French made her a natural to cover the French elections for CNN. She also speaks Arabic and used to present the monthly programme Inside the Middle East.
She does her own research for International Desk and spends time talking to reporters beforehand, but she feels it's important to keep the live show spontaneous. "The anchor should be the vector and ask the question that people at home are asking themselves. I like to react to whatever it is at the time. Keeping up with the news is an ongoing process. You never really clock out," she says. When the show is over, she stays on throughout the day keeping abreast of stories and planning guests and angles for the following day.
Gorani credits her colleague Amanpour for making it easier for women to be taken seriously in the news arena. "Christiane and that generation of reporters really changed the landscape for all of us coming after her and the way women are perceived on air. Women can be just as courageous and just as credible." As an Arab American, she has always maintained a steady neutrality and says she has never come up against either racial or gender discrimination. "I don't think I've been discriminated against because I am a woman or because I have an obviously Arab name. I just haven't noticed it. I got what I got because I worked very hard."
Gorani, who has a bachelor of science degree in economics from George Mason University in Virginia and graduated from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, worked for Bloomberg TV in London before joining CNN there. She admits that she wasn't always as polished a performer as she is now and once found herself asking a guest the wrong set of questions. "I was doing an interview with an MP who was very opposed to Tony Blair's position in joining the US in the Iraq war. The other guest that day was the president of the international coffee growers' association. So I get the MP thinking I'm interviewing the coffee grower and I remember thinking this guy didn't look like he was from South America. He was a bit surprised when I asked him about the price of coffee but he was very funny about it."
When she's not on screen, she might be found taking dance classes or with the aforementioned beagle. "He isn't a normal dog," she says. "He's got issues about being friendly. I thought at first he was shy because he didn't know me but he stayed this way and I think that's kind of cool. He doesn't like long walks. After 10 minutes he starts not wanting to walk any more." Once a year, Gorani invites her closest friends to join her and her mother on holiday in the south of France. This year her older brother came with his wife and two daughters, whom Gorani adores. "We love to sit around over a long meal outside with the smell of lavender in the air. I love the time I spend not working. There's an art to doing nothing beautifully. You have dinner, you have great food and everybody cooks and you talk until three in the morning."
International Desk airs weekdays at 9pm in the UAE.