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Opening Doors to the World

February 2007
Opening Doors to the World

For a considerable amount of time Rena Golden's father, Dr. Hasan Ismail Zeya, had hoped that his daughter would give up her "hobby" of working at CNN, follow in his footsteps, and pursue the medical profession. "She will be going to medical school soon," Dr. Zeya would tell friends inquiring about Golden, who was well into her journalism career by then. However, he had totally underestimated the dominant journalism gene that Golden had inherited from her politically active grandfather, who was involved in the Indian freedom struggle and imprisoned by the British for his alleged seditious writing. Now, the Senior Vice President of CNN International, Golden is the powerful force behind the programing of this dynamic network that reaches an audience of more than 176 million households worldwide in more than 200 countries. Smiling, Golden recalls, "When we immigrated to the United States back in the 1960s, journalism was pretty much an unthinkable option, especially so, among Indian families. There was a lot of pressure on me to be a doctor. But frankly, it was writing and politics that I enjoyed."

Born in Bettiah, a small town near Patna, India, and raised in North Carolina, United States, Golden leads a life of interesting contrasts. The mother of two and a successful career woman, she has found a way for her Western upbringing to coexist with her Eastern traditions. "For me, family and career was never an "either-or" option. I believe that working in something that's meaningful to me helps me to be a better parent, a better citizen, and thereby have a happier family."

Golden's earliest memories in the US are of dinnertime discussions of world affairs and staged debates on controversial political issues. A self-proclaimed "international news junkie," she dropped out of graduate school in August 1985 to work for CNN, a relatively new network at the time. Armed with a bachelor's degree with honors in English literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she started out with CNN's US network as a Production Assistant. In the last 21 years that Golden has been with the company, she has had 13 jobs. From writing for newscasts to producing documentaries and news shows, she has just about done it all.

In 1992, after several years with CNN's US network, Golden helped re-launch CNN International. In the early years of its inception, CNN International, an extension of CNN's US network, aired only special international news cut-ins. However, as many will undoubtedly recall, the 1991 Gulf War changed it all. The only 24-hour news channel and the only Western news network in Baghdad at the time, CNN was hailed for its landmark coverage of the war. Peter Arnett's live reporting from Baghdad became the defining moment of CNN and round-the-clock news cycle. "The beauty of CNN is that it has paralleled with the entire era of 90's globalization. In fact, CNN, the first 24-hour international news satellite channel, has been a key instrument in linking countries together to create the intricately weaved global village that we live in today," asserts Golden.

It was after the Gulf War then that Ted Turner decided to tailor independent programing for the world's viewing audience. Excelling in the art of presenting global news with a decidedly local flair, Golden spearheaded CNN International's ambitious "regionalization" strategy, with production hubs based in Europe (London), Asia (Hong Kong), and the United States (Atlanta) and bureaus all around the world. "One of CNN International's missions is to serve viewers who consider themselves global citizens and whose interests transcend national boundaries. The genocide in Sudan's Darfur region and the war in Iraq are examples of stories that transcend the interest of any one particular nation," explains Golden. While all news is local, she believes that it is the media's job to make the global connections for people. "It is my personal motto to open as many doors as possible and make issues that have local significance resonate around the entire world," says Golden.

CNN Connects, a program launched under the supervision of Golden, is one such global forum that examines the varied perspectives of any issue. In the past the program has brought together political leaders, Fortune 500 CEOs, and cultural icons from Johannesburg to Shanghai, and Mumbai to Beirut to discuss issues such as the rise of China on the world stage, outsourcing jobs to Asia, and democracy in the Middle East. "You may not agree with some of the perspectives, but you will see them all on our air," promises Golden. January 2007 also saw the launch of a weekly documentary series on CNN International, called World's Untold Stories. As the name suggests, the series highlights stories that get buried under the clutter of every-day news. "Despite our best intentions, at some point, there are finite resources and issues of access. The documentary series is an endeavor on our part to use the expertise of our terrific correspondents around the world and cover the fascinating stories that went unnoticed due to breaking news of the day," says Golden.

Commenting on CNN's alleged liberal bias, Golden says that many perceptions abound about CNN International. "Here in the United States, I keep hearing from our critics that we are too critical of American foreign policy. On the other hand we are criticized by non-Americans for being too closely associated with the White House," says Golden. "While it is true that we are a US-based network, I reject the allegation that our point of view is solely American." Credited for creating one of the most ethnically diverse newsrooms in the world, Golden emphasizes how the network's journalists come from all over the world and bring the breadth and depth of their experience to CNN's coverage. "In some ways, it heartens me that the criticism is coming from both sides," says Golden.

Golden attributes her success to her insatiable interest in what's happening in the world. "I know that sounds kind of hokey, but frankly that passion is all that will keep you going in this high stress, burnout environment," admits Golden. She further emphasizes, "News is the kind of business where you just can't wear this jacket when you walk into the office. You have to live, eat, breathe news. That is the sort of passion you have to have in order to be successful in this profession, and for those of us who are passionate about what we do, we very much feel that this is a labor of love."

Golden advises aspiring journalists to, well, "get informed." "You have to be a very good writer. You have to understand politics, not only domestically in your own country, but also internationally. You have to have a great sense of recall, to bring in the historical context and relate it to the current happenings," she recommends. "Language skill is also a big plus. India and China are the two up and coming economies that we are watching and anybody who speaks Chinese, Hindi, and Arabic have a leg up in this profession," she further adds.

In the coming years, Golden intends taking CNN and its news stories beyond television to every possible platform, and envisions a future in which CNN will be as ubiquitous as possible. "What scares and motivates me at the same time is the constant polarization that I see around me. I believe that we all have a lot more in common than is reflected in the world today. Our lives and interests intersect in so many ways, and it has been and will be our continuous effort to get those moderate voices out to as many people as possible, through as many avenues as available," says Golden.

By Deepa Agarwal

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