Greg Lefevre was preparing for the day, listening to the radio the morning of Dec. 14 at his home in Cardiff-by-the-Sea when he learned about the school shootings in Newtown, CT.
“I heard that there were several children involved and then there was an announcement that there would be no further details for a given period,” he remembered. “I knew something horrible had happened and recalled Oklahoma City.”
Lefevre won an Emmy as producer of CNN’s coverage of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, the first terrorist attack on U.S. soil. Five years later, he reported on 15-year-old Kip Kinkel who shot and killed his parents and two classmates, and wounded 25 others in Springfield, Ore.
A retired CNN correspondent and San Francisco bureau chief, Lefevre was not immune to feelings of compassion following an event like the Newtown shootings. He turned the radio off, his thoughts drifting to the news crews who would soon begin to converge on the town.
“You fight to be objective, to be factual, to be fair and not to be sensational,” he said. “You watch your words very carefully and your actions carefully on camera and off. You want to be aggressive because you need to tell a story but you are also mindful of circumstances and the sensibilities of the community you are in.”
Lefevre started at CNN as a correspondent in 1983, three years after Ted Turner launched the first 24-hour cable news network on June 1, 1980. Perhaps because of envy, or fear of the unknown, CNN was bullied by the three networks who tried to block their access to the White House with cynics dismissing them as “Chicken Noodle News.”
By today’s standards, CNN was run with a skeleton crew back then.
“If there was a story that broke in the west, chances are that I was the one reporting it,” he said.
“We were aggressive, we were new, we were anonymous. I went to do a story in Marin County and the woman I wanted to interview asked if I could fix the (cable) connection on her TV set first. I was mechanical, so I said I would. Then we did the interview.”
“Back in those days few people had cable unless they were in a remote location,” he said. “When we went to Montana everyone knew who we were because they had satellite dishes.”
Lefevre remembers Turner as an idealist who viewed the world much like the astronauts, as a whole that was void of political boundaries and manmade maps.
“Ted realized we are blessed with a planet that encourages and sustains life, yet he couldn’t understand why we squabble among ourselves. He saw the earth as this wonderful spot in the cosmos with broader horizons.”
Convinced that conflict could be averted if people understood one another, Turner set out to build an acquisition network using satellite uplinks, trucks, portable satellite devices and personnel to transmit news from overseas to CNN headquarters in Atlanta and into living rooms.
“This was a way to link disparate continents,” Lefevre explained. “What Ted wanted to do was to show life and events over there to people here. He thought that the more we knew about other people in the world, the less chance there would be for war.”
Turner was able to capitalize on friendships including one he enjoyed with King Hussein of Jordan that resulted in valuable access for his network during Operation Desert Storm in 1990.
“They knew each other and conversed on a regular basis,” Lefevre explained. “Hussein extended that welcome to those of us at CNN and provided us with virtually any place in the country that we wanted to go. He was eager to show off scientific, social and economic advances his country had made.”
Lefevre had a jolt during an anti-American rally in Amman (Jordan) when he felt the weight of a hand come from behind and rest on his shoulder. Fearing the worst, he turned around to see a young man dressed in a flowing robe smiling broadly at him.
“He said, ‘My name is Mohammed and I used to watch you when I was at Arizona State,’” Lefevre remembered, adding that the man’s family owned a hotel in Amman and sent him to the United States to study hospitality.
“I realized that what Ted created was a world community,” Lefevre said. “In a very short period of time he had united the world in one big conversation. He had satellite deals with everyone. I couldn’t recall ever not getting a signal from one place to another. I realized the producer wasn’t kidding when he said, ‘You are live to 208 countries.’”
Lefevre said that after the Gulf War, every country in the world wanted CNN distributed in them.
“When Fox News signed on in 1996 we felt the same way about them as the networks felt about us in the early 1980s,” he said. “But news gathering and dissemination was in our DNA and Fox News was more about performance and fun. Imitating Fox took us places where we weren’t expert, trying to be something we were not. We are a news gathering organization and no one could do it better.”
By the new millennium CNN had 168 correspondents across the globe. Whatever occurred in the world, Lefevre said, CNN could deliver a story in less than an hour.
“Ted wanted a bureau in Israel, another across the river in Amman (Jordan) and also west in Cairo. The joke was you can stand on top of one of our bureaus and see the next one.
“No one understood technology better than him. He knew satellites and practical uses of exotic technologies. Clinton wanted to be on the TV every day. There were more than 20 tape machines in the Rose Garden recording the same thing that were fed to various CNN offices that each needed their own copy. Ted pushed SONY to develop a hard drive that could feed it to everyone.”
Lefevre is holding out hope that former President and CEO of NBC Universal Jeff Zucker will capitalize on CNN’s strengths in news gathering and dissemination when he takes over as President of CNN Worldwide this month.
“At its core, CNN is still the best news gathering organization on earth, and a news operation includes good reporters,” he said. “CNN has the best reporters: John Zarrella in Florida and Wolf Blitzer and John King in Washington.”
Looking forward, Lefevre says the challenge will be to develop programming that responds to the diverse and insatiable appetite of an international community that receives their news from a myriad of outlets including television, the Internet, iPads and smart phones.
“A sound bite used to be 21 seconds,” he lamented. “Now it’s 7 seconds.”
In 2001 Lefevre left CNN with what he describes as a “generous buyout” following the sale to AOL which included a mandatory reduction in force particularly among veteran reporters at or near the top of the pay scale. He subsequently joined KPIX-TV, Channel 5 (CBS) in San Francisco and retired in 2004. A 1972 graduate of San Diego State University with a degree in telecommunications/film and minor in journalism, Lefevre and his wife, Deb, returned to San Diego, settling in Cardiff-by-the-Sea where they continue to live today.
The Lefevres met as teenagers in 1963, surfing at Newport Beach, and married in 1971. They are active in St. James Catholic Church in Solana Beach and continue to surf, especially in the morning at Cardiff reef, as well as play an occasional game of golf. In addition, Lefevre studies acting through San Dieguito Adult School with Monty Silverstone, actor and father of stage and film actress Alicia Silverstone. His San Diego-based consulting firm, Greg Lefevre Media, takes him to Seattle, Toronto and Hong Kong where he is a media trainer, specializing in television, for corporate executives. For more information, visit www.greglefevre.com.
A member of San Diego Filmmakers, Lefevre will be a featured speaker at 6:30 p.m., Tues., Jan. 8 at a presentation titled, “Real Producers Don’t Do Pizza – Feed the Crew.”
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of a television station. It has been corrected.