Last weekend, I cued “My Hometown” on my Sony Walkman and headed to Greenwich, Connecticut for my high school reunion. Also playing in my head were Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now” and Scorpions’ “Winds of Change,” two songs inspired by world events of the era.
In the weeks leading up to the reunion, I thought about what had changed, and what remained the same. A lot stayed the same. After all, we were going to a restaurant we used to go to then, still owned by a classmate’s father. Would the same people be playing the Breakfast Club roles of criminal, athlete, basket case, princess, and brain? Had external forces that happened in high school, college, and the decades that followed changed us?
Rereading my old yearbooks in the days leading up to the reunion brought my focus to the timeline of substantial American and world events that took place in those intense few years. In each of the yearbooks, alongside the smiling faces of those we deemed Best Dressed and Most Likely to Succeed, were headlines from world and local news of the time, some which caused more lasting ripples than others.
The Berlin Wall fell. Eastern European dictators were overthrown and executed. The USSR dissolved. Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison after 27 years. Washington DC Mayor Marion Barry went to jail for six months for smoking crack. AIDS, crack, and Bernie Goetz, as Billy Joel sang about the era. Donald Trump mulled a run for President and divorced wife Ivana. JFK, Jr finally passed the Bar exam, on his third try (side note, six years later he would marry Carolyn Bessette, also a GHS grad).
News reporting was dominated by the big three broadcast networks. Viewers tuned in to their favorite newscaster, ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’s Dan Rather, or NBC’s Tom Brokaw, at 7pm to get a 30 minute report of the stories of the day. Cable TV was in its infancy. There were only a handful of 24-hour a day cable networks, and cable distribution was limited. It became widely available in my neighborhood around this time.
What also happened in this era was CNN televised a war. President Bush declared war via Operation Desert Storm after yearbooks went to final edit in the winter, so there is only a passing mention of the January 15 deadline for Saddam Hussein’s troops to leave Kuwait, and the US military build-up happening in advance of it. CNN, however, was watching the build up carefully.
CNN was the only 24-hour news network at the time. Thanks to new technology like satellite phones and camera-equipped weapons, CNN could televise the war, live, with their viewers. Not a few-minute long report from near the battlefield, but live, ongoing coverage from one of the cities under attack. One of CNN’s executives had spent months leading up to the invasion lobbying Baghdad officials to let his reporters and teams stay in the country, and his efforts paid off. When Iraq closed its borders to other western reporters, CNN’s crew was able to – and willing to – remain, reporting by satellite radio from their rooms in the hotel as the first hours of the American assault on Iraq took place.
CNN’s Bernie Shaw and Peter Arnett reporting live from the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad. What unfolded later that winter and spring was something that had not happened before, a network – a cable network at that – broadcasting live from a war zone, with Kuwaiti oil fields on fire in the background and scud missiles lighting the skies around the reporters in Baghdad.
It was a watershed moment for CNN. After many years in the background, with the broadcasters having a near monopoly on television news coverage in America, CNN quickly made its name and reputation as a solid source of international news reporting. They were right there, right then.