As an anchor and correspondent for CNN International for a decade, who currently hosts the daily show CNN NewsCenter and the weekly Talk Asia program, Monita Rajpal has covered some of the biggest stories of our time while interviewing many of world leaders, members of the literati, rock stars and captains of industry.
Interview by Jim Algie
Considering all the high-profile interviews you’ve done, like Gorbachev and Salman Rushdie, what were the most memorable ones?It’s funny that you mention Gorbachev because he was one of the most memorable ones. He was someone I grew up seeing on television. I was a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s and, just seeing this man, he was an icon of the time, and he still is. We saw images of him, we saw images of Reagan, you know, the late Margaret Thatcher. And to be able to interview him and to hear him say my name was an incredible experience because this was someone I grew up watching. At the time when I was a kid I wasn’t sure that I was interested in news but knowing this person was such an incredible experience for me. And it brought to mind what I got to do for a living every day.
Getting to meet so many different people, who would never give you the time of day otherwise, is one of the biggest bonuses of the job, isn’t it?
Absolutely. Everyday is a completely different experience. No single day is the same.
Have you ever been really starstruck? Especially with someone like Salman Rushie and his cutting wit. You really have to do your homework, don’t you?
He’s an incredibly intelligent person and very media savvy, and he’s been on numerous interviews. So when I do interviews for shows like Talk Asia my challenge is, I don’t want them to feel like, oh here we go again, the same kind of questions. So that’s where I have to buckle down and really stretch myself as a journalist, to make sure the way I conduct an interview is not something they have experienced before, and to make it more of an intelligent conversation.
Otherwise you just get sound bytes.
Exactly. With news programs that’s what you tend to get in a two-minute show. But with this show it’s 30 minutes with just that person, and you really have to focus on that person, so to be able to continue a dialogue that’s interesting, refreshing, intelligent. It’s actually a really fun challenge to have.
I saw your interview with comedian Russell Peters and you got him to admit that he needs to be loved and accepted and that he’s insecure.
(Laughter.) I know, right?
And then you went back to that subject of asking how accepted he feels now, and he still said no. But I wonder how pushy you have to be, because sometimes it’s necessary to back off.
It’s interesting that you say it. It’s really about working off their energy, and sometimes it’s how you navigate through that. It’s also my energy as well. I’m not there with any agenda. I’m not there with any specific goal in mind, only that it becomes an interesting experience for them as well as myself. I’m as curious as the next person so it’s just really a conversation, an honest conversation.
It’s not about busting anyone.
Or doing a tabloid exposé. It’s really about celebrating that person and what they’ve been able to achieve in their chosen craft. That’s what I love to do and that’s the beauty of having a show where you’re able to do that.
How many shows do you have nowadays?
I have two shows to prepare for. One is the news show, the daily news show [CNN NewsCenter], and then this one [Talk Asia]. And the best part for both is the research. Just to be able to sit and read. When you mentioned Russell Peters, part of my research was to watch his standup routine. And I’m sitting there at my desk with my headphones laughing and people are looking at me, what’s wrong? You’re not working. (Laughter.) Yeah, I’m actually researching.
Is it a small team you work with for Talk Asia?
The core team is three people. I have a producer, an associate producer, and a couple of researchers, if they’re available, to help us out. A lot of the time, I’ll discuss ideas for the interview with my producers, and they’ll have ideas too. Then I go through all the notes I have and type out my thoughts of how the interview will take place. I’ll have notes on my lap like what you’re doing and I’ll just be talking because I don’t ever wanna break that connection.
How much do you follow other networks to see how you can change the story or add something different?
I’m always watching other networks as well because there’s a lot we can learn from each other. Also, but when I was reporting in Toronto, local news, I would go out on a story, whether it was a local news conference or not, or there was a specific health story or crime story. And I would see other reporters out there, and when you’re part of a local news network you get to know everyone very well. So I’d go and file my story and instead of watching my story go to air I’d watch others to see how they covered the story, not to say, but just to learn. Oh, that’s an interesting way to cover a story or that’s how they used that sound bite. So for me it was an educational tool.
Do you still do that?
All the time, all the time. I always learn from everybody else.
What about the Asian tsunami of 2004? That was a difficult story to cover.
I remember that story. I’d just moved to London at the time. I was anchoring morning shows in London and when this happened our coverage extended. And I remember that there were two experiences in covering this story. There were those who were out there in the thick of it all. And there were those of us in the newsroom watching the constant feed coming in. We weren’t able to shut it off at any time just as the reporters on the scene. And we’re constantly being exposed to these images on a loop. It does a number on you. Even when you go home you can’t switch it off. You’re constantly thinking about these stories. It brings to mind the whole idea of what we do and how we cover the stories – humanizing it. It’s an event, a catastrophic natural event, but at the end of the day, people are affected. Whether we’re out there, or here, we have to constantly remember that it was a story we had to humanize.
Because in the end, all stories are human-interest stories, aren’t they?
Is that first and foremost in your mind as a journalist?
Always. Business news as well I don’t think of as numbers. I can’t. As soon as I see numbers my eyes will glaze over. But if you tell me, and this is how my team and I work together, if we’re talking about a news story, say the crisis in Greece or Italy or Spain, the economic crisis. The way we treat a script I wanna say, ‘One day this family had food on their table, the next day they didn’t. One day their father or mother had a job. Now they don’t.’ That’s how you bring it home to people.
What was your inspiration to get into journalism?
Being in news was never something I consciously thought about as a kid. I do remember very vividly my mother, I grew up in Hong Kong, and my mother wanted both my brother and I to be very articulate in speaking English, and so what she’d make us do is read the front page of a newspaper before we went to bed.
How old were you?
Gosh, eight… seven, eight or nine years old. My mother loves news. She always wanted to be a journalist. She always wanted to be a presenter. But it’s not something I ever thought about. But that’s the one thing I remember her teaching us.
Did school appeal to you?
At school, I’ll be honest, I was just an average student, not particularly brilliant in anything, but I loved to write. I was told I was good at writing. And my high school guidance counselor suggested I go into journalism. I thought, okay [laughter] I was open to it. Why not?
You studied at Ryerson University in Canada, which is a very good school for journalism and radio and TV arts.
Because it’s so hands on. It was eye opening, because you had people, students of all ages, coming in from all parts of the world, who had done so much already, worked at television stations, worked at radio stations, and had all this experience and they knew what they wanted to do. And here I was someone who thought okay maybe. It was really eye opening for me and I learned a lot from them, my fellow students. I learned a lot from the program. This gave me both the practical and the theory behind it.
Did the classes inspire you to become a reporter?
The classes I enjoyed the most were the electives, philosophy and poly sci, but when I started working at a local TV station as an intern, that’s when I started to think about it more. Because with me I was always more interested in behind the scenes, the research and the compiling of notes, in interviewing people but not necessarily on camera. I always thought I’m happy to be behind the camera and asking questions because I love to write.
So what brought you into the limelight?
It was the news director at Citytv. They basically said this is the way to do it. If you want to succeed go and be a reporter. And I thought okay, again, very open to it. I was a receptionist answering phones in the office and the newsroom, and after my shift I’d go with camera crews and watch as they got their footage, and then come back with them and sit with them while they put the stories together. Slowly I’d start to get involved and do it myself, and then hand it over to my news director and he would give me feedback, and one day he gave me an opportunity.
What was it like moving from that job to CNN in Atlanta?
It was going from local news which had immense challenges of its own, where you learn to do everything, and what some might think are not interesting stories, you have to make look good. So that was a good learning experience, but the learning curve in moving to CNN was so steep, because now you’re dealing with world news, world affairs, and dealing with events that people know from a historical perspective, and world leaders are watching, and what you say matters. And I had to really buckle down and do my homework.
What sort of homework?
Reading much more than I ever had. Reading as many newspapers and news magazines, as many history books as possible. At the time when I started at CNN, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was heating up again. And at the time I knew a little bit, but not enough. So I had to buckle down and read more. So when the death of Yasser Arafat happened, I was a little more comfortable in conducting breaking news.
If they were going to make a biopic of your life which actress would you want to play you?
Who would I want to play me? Wow. That’s a really good question. [Long pause.]
Okay. I’ve got it. Salma Hayek.
Thank you very much. That’s a huge compliment for me.
(Kind and charitable to a fault, as the second interview wound down and I repeated the last question again, she said, “You know who should play you, Jim? John Cusack.”
This slightly altered interview originally appeared in the September-October 2013 issue of PATA Compass Magazine.