Wednesday, May 14, 2008


One To Watch
Arabian Woman, April (?) 2002

Syrian-American Hala Gorani is a rising star at CNN. With interviews from presidents to fashion designers and film stars under her belt, the satellite channel is grooming her for greater things. Karen Thomas went to meet her.

It’s unspeakably early in the morning, but CNN’s central London newsroom is already buzzing with activity. Producers debate which European business story to lead with, and researchers tap away at their keyboards, some keeping a casual eye on the latest World Cup scores, being played out on a bank of TV screens overhead.

At the far end of the room, the studio is live on air and Hala Gorani is quietly in control, anchoring BizNews. Wrapping up a live interview with an Afghan affairs analyst, she reads the morning’s headlines from the autocue, before handing over briefly to CNN’s world news anchor in Atlanta.

Richard Quest, CNN’s lanky, livewire business anchor enters the studio as London goes back on air, and the two presenters joke together briefly, before Hala hands over the controls and finishes her shift. It’s barely 8am, but Hala has been in the studio, without a break, for three hours.

Having joined CNN three years ago, Hala Gorani is being groomed for stardom. This summer has seen her take the helm on Design 360, a new series of twelve monthly slots and weekly updates on cutting-edge design, launched in June and broadcast across the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

Blonde and blue-eyed, Hala was born in Seattle to Syrian parents. Her father, a civil engineer went to the US to study and her mother later joined him there.

Raised in Washington DC, Hala later moved to Paris with her mother and older brother. Her mother now lives permanently in France, and Hala divides her time between London and Paris, and keeps in close contact with her grandmother and other relatives in Syria.

"My family is from Aleppo, and I go back there every couple of years," Hala says. "I have family and friends there - we’re a very close-knit, oriental-style extended family. When I go back to Syria, I speak Arabic - though not very well. I’m French and American, culturally, but Syrian in origin."

Hala’s mother, a lawyer, brought up her children to respect education. My mother didn’t inspire me to study law," Hala recalls. "She’s a corporate lawyer, so there were none of the theatrics associated with criminal law.

"My family is a hard-working academic family - that’s always been in my upbringing. I’ve always been ambitious for myself, but my mother was ambitious regarding school: it was unacceptable not to get good grades - she learned that from her own father.

"There was a time when I didn’t study well, and nearly got kicked out of school for having bad grades, aged 16, and my mother really got upset with me. For her, that was a point of no return. She gave me three weeks to get my grades up, or I would be in big trouble. I was never in serious trouble - but teenagers find their parents overbearing."

Hala returned to the US to study for a degree in economics. She decided to pursue journalism after writing for a college magazine. Back in Europe after graduating, she worked for news agency Agence France Presse and the newspaper La Voix du Nord.

In the early days, she had her fair share of grim jobs. "My first ever on-air experience was on a radio show for young people, broadcast out of a Paris hospital," she recalls.

"It was dreary and depressing; you had to walk down these long hallways to get to this tiny little booth with a microphone. I did a movie review, but it was so bad. After the first experience, though, the second experience is always better, and that gave me hope."

Leaving La Voix du Nord, Hala returned to college aged 24, to study at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris. During her studies, she landed an internship at a French cable station, her first experience of working in TV. Glamorous, it wasn’t. One of Hala’s first assignments was to put together a feature on wacky things to rent in Paris.

"Paris Review was my first ever TV package," she recalls. "I guess I wasn’t bad for a 24 year-old, but it really was dreadful. One of the difficult things about TV is that you have to train your voice down, because it gets higher if you’re nervous.

"I sounded like I’d been inhaling helium and got a lot of flack from my friends. But it was fun. And I discovered that in Paris, you can rent parrots and even a Michael Jackson impersonator." In 1996, Hala left Paris for London, where she joined business channel Bloomberg Television as an anchorwoman on business and financial news reports. Two years later, she joined CNN International in London, reporting and presenting business news.

Five years on, she still misses Paris. "I realised very soon that my heart was in Paris - that’s where my mother, my family and my friends are," Hala says. "I really see myself as a Parisian first and foremost. Even now, my dentist is still in Paris.

"Mainly, I miss the lifestyle. The nightlife there is not in pubs, and people socialise in a different way. I’m Mediterranean at heart, and that means that dinner ends at 11pm. Where can you go at 11.30pm in London, if friends are visiting from out of town? That’s really annoying. Another thing is home food delivery; that frustrates me - it’s expensive and arrives cold."

Despite missing home, the last year has seen Hala’s career go from strength to strength. From covering business and interviewing financial analysts, she is seizing the opportunity to anchor hard news bulletins. In June, as well as launching her new programme Design 360, she landed an interview with Lebanese presenter Rafiq Hariri.But Hala’s high point so far was when the news broke in May that far-right leader Jean Marie Le Pen had defeated socialist leader Lionel Jospin in the French presidential elections. The shock announcement came as Hala was presenting her business programme, and she found herself in charge of breaking news.

"The French election coverage was the best thing I’ve ever done - being on air for hours without a prompt or any notes at all," Hala enthuses. "I was on air for three straight hours, covering the breaking story with just two reporters on the ground." Presenting Design 360 means that Hala now gets to spend more time doing in-depth interviews, travelling across Europe to meet the biggest names in design, fashion and architecture. But although she relishes her new role, her first love is news analysis.

"I really like Hard Talk presenter Tim Sebastian," she says. "You know you’ll get a balanced view. Even if he has an opinion, he is so attached to his image as a ferocious interviewer that he interviews everyone ferociously. He manages to put the interviewee in a defensive position and to get them off their soap box. I don’t have a half-hour programme and ten researchers, I have three minutes for my news interviews. But I’m in my early thirties and I hope to reach that level."

Recent months have seen CNN attract criticism in the Middle East for its coverage of regional events since 11 September. Critics accuse the American-owned broadcaster of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bias in its coverage of Middle Eastern affairs.

As an Arab-American, Hala feels that the criticisms put her in a difficult position. "I’m completely aware of those accusations. But I cannot, no matter what my opinion is on this, give it to you," she says.

"If I see something that I believe is unbalanced in my own show, I make a special effort to balance it out, whether it’s a MidEast story or another story. That’s my mission in journalistic writing; I make a point of it. I read books about journalistic writing and engage in debates with my friends. It’s super-important to me. "If I see a word like ‘militant’, in whatever story, I ask myself whether that’s a ‘suspected militant’ or a ‘militant’. Because if that’s a suspected militant, it’s not the same thing: we can’t say that. If I have a real problem with something, I ask whether it can be rewritten.

Sometimes, the answer is no. It’s a process. But I’ve never encountered anyone here who’s said to me; you’re not happy with it, deal with it. If I really don’t agree with the way something’s presented, I will bring it up. At the end something comes out: hopefully a compromise."

Despite her ambition, Hala does not feel that journalism is her only possible career path: she harbours a secret desire to teach. "I feel really well-suited to high school teaching," she admits. "Once I’m done with TV, say in ten years time, I’d like to do other things like teach, have kids one day. You can’t wake up at 2am for the rest of your life." However, Hala has no plans to leave journalism any time soon, and is enjoying life in London, sharing a central London apartment with her best friend from college. "We basically hardly ever see each other," Hala laughs.

"She is a banker, working long hours, and I’m out early in the morning. I don’t think we’ve seen each other face to face for weeks. We don’t have time to get on each other’s nerves." Hala’s family has cheered her rise up the career ladder. "My mother is my biggest fan. She’s an incredible inspiration and base for support; someone I can count on," Hala says.

"My mother doesn’t shy away from saying what she thinks, but she’s incredibly supportive. My grandmother in Syria also watches me on CNN from time to time and, although she speaks some English, she mainly analyses how I look. She loves short hair and is always very happy when she sees that I’ve had it cut."

With a hectic, high profile media lifestyle and weekends spent shuttling between London and her family home in Paris, Hala has a career that many women would envy - but she swears that it isn’t all glamour. "Maybe it might seem glamorous from the outside," she laughs. "But you know, I go to the greasy fry-up diner over the road, and have a bagel with fries. Then I go home and sleep. That’s how glamorous my life is.

Yes, I’m always off to Paris - but it’s by Eurostar, and to visit my family. I work all year and get exhausted, and spend all my money on holidays. I don’t like camping, or staying in dingy hotels. I only have three weeks off every year - 20 working days - so if I go away, I want a really good hotel. I would love to go to Thailand next."

CNN is clearly grooming Hala for greater things. "I’m at a stage in my life where, if all goes well, all the big interviews are ahead of me," Hala says. "Right now, I mainly interview analysts or political figures who are not heads of state. I think it’s going to happen for me, and I’ll get better interviews.

"I love design, but I love hard news more. So for me, interviewing Le Pen or Chirac would be more interesting. But in Design 360, I interview Philippe Starck and Ian Shrager - and that’s humungous." Cosmopolitan and self-assured, Hala is almost blase about the celebrities she interviewed at Yves Saint’s farewell fashion show, who included Gwyneth Paltrow, Jean-Paul Gaultier and Vivienne Westwood.

"I hate celebrity chasing," she says. "I’m not impressed by anyone’s celebrity status ever. If that comes through, it’s a good thing. I don't like kissing butt. I walk up to them, say I’m from CNN, and would they like to talk? It’s yes or no. If it’s no, fine - I don’t run after anyone. As a result, during that trip, I got so many humungous names.

I’m like: I work for CNN. Do you want 200 million people to hear you - yes or no. No? Fine! That’s how I got Gwyneth Paltrow, Vivienne Westwood and loads of other people to talk to me. I’m anything but star-struck."

Born: Seattle, Washington State
Occupation: Anchor and presenter for CNN programmes World Business Today and Design 360
Ambition: To pursue top-flight political interviews
Would Switch Careers to: Teach English or History at high school
Origins: Her family is from Aleppo in Syria
Marital Status: Single. In summer 2000 Arab newspapers wrongly named her as the secret London-based fiancee of President Bashir El Assad. The story was false, and the Syrian leader married British-born financial analyst Asma Al Akhras the following January.
Favorite designer: Valentino, Jean-Paul Gaultier couture
Fantasy interviewees: She would love to travel back in time to interview French president Charles de Gaulle, film star Orson Wells, or singer Freddie Mercury.


MWmcFan said...

Good luck to you Houston with your new Hala blog. I have followed your Hala comments at cnnfan and know you are a very dedicated Hala observer. I have bookmarked your site and look forward to seeing your future postings of everything Hala. She is a fantastic journalist and I wish you all the best at this site.

Ammari said...

Good luck to you Houston with your Hala Sweet presenter. I have followed your Hala comments at cnnfan and know you are a very dedicated Hala observer. I have bookmarked your site and look forward to seeing your future postings of everything Hala. She is a fantastic journalist and I wish you all the best at this site.
would you please Hala, add me to your friends, am from Algeria