|Paula Zahn's Crime Wave|
|Tuesday, 01 December 2009 00:00|
by Kathy Heintzelman
After leaving CNN in 2007, Paula Zahn has made a welcome return to prime time--she's now anchoring a weekly series on the Investigation Discovery (ID) channel, called On the Case With Paula Zahn. The series looks at 13 true-crime cases, showing the drama from the various perspectives involved and landing some exclusive interviews with the principals. Zahn talked with MORE about "the totally different set of muscles" she's using on the show.
MORE: What's been exciting about doing On the Case?
PAULA ZAHN: The great delight for me is to be able to immerse myself in a story for, in some cases, several weeks to a month at a time. In my old life, I would parachute in and out of key interviews and I would get that piece on the air in a day or two. The pieces wouldn’t be an hour long, as they are in this format. I’m enjoying the process of being able to dig deeper, to test my skills, not only as a journalist but maybe as a prosecutor-slash-defense attorney wannabe, as I’m reviewing these explosive cases. I’ve found it really interesting intellectually. And at their core, these are just really great stories. They have everything—drama, DNA evidence, deceit, jealousy. They have conflicting legal accounts of what happened. And some really extraordinary characters driving the stories.
What have you found particularly surprising?
Each one of these cases is very different. Our first night out, we profiled a young woman named Ashley Reeves, who was left in the woods for some 36 hours in a driving rain and cold weather and had a traumatic brain injury—and miraculously survived. She sat down with me for an exclusive interview. I wanted to know why she’d even want to share the details of her recovery with us; she said it was part of the healing process. The other thing that surprised me about Ashley was the extent to which she wanted to know the details from the investigators. She could’ve gone on the rest of her life never looking at pictures of herself at the crime scene, but she asked to see them because had no recollection of the attack that happened that night. She said the rest of her life she will be haunted by the pictures the investigators ultimately showed her; but she said, "I will always ask myself the question, why did he do that to me?”
There's another case, involving a guy who sat on Death Row for over a dozen years, who after appeal after appeal finally succeeded in getting his double murder conviction overturned. He discovered documents that had been kept from his attorney—two of the prosecution's key witnesses had later recanted their testimony, and the defense was never told about these recantations. There’s always a little fact in one of these cases where you, as an observer or an investigator, scratch your head and say, "Well, how is it that the jury never saw that? Why wouldn’t the defense have had this?"
What do you think sets your show apart from others that look back at true crimes?
Obviously the shows that are part of this genre have been on the air for years and have been quite successful. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us that 48 Hours and 20/20 and Dateline have worked, as well as CSI and all those other Hollywood drama stories have. What sets us apart is my involvement as a producer and a host, because I’m doing the major reporting on these stories. Up until this point in my career, I’ve never had the luxury to work with a story for a month or two at a time. That’s allowing us to dig deeper and land some exclusive interviews that have gotten a lot of attention and have, I think, really changed the way people view the cases. I want that to be the hallmark of the show.
Is there an interview you’ve been working on or haven’t been able to get?
I have one that I’ve gotten but I’m not allowed to talk about it! But we’re constantly working cases; in the case of Ashley Reeves, we called for a good half year before we got a commitment from her.Are we going to be able to land that exclusive interview with every show? Maybe not, but we’re going to try.
Let’s talk about your earlier career a bit. Your first day at CNN was 9/11. How did that day unfold for you?
I have to admit after all these years, I’m still trying to process it. I had just left Fox News, I was supposed to start working for CNN in the spring of 2002. Then on September 11, 2001, I had just dropped one of my children off at school and I got a call from someone who said, “Turn on CNN now, did you hear what happened?” I remember standing in front of the TV set just being frozen with fear and shock and everything that all of us felt collectively. Once I figured out what the evacuation plan was for all my children and I realized the schools were in lock-down mode, I called my new boss at CNN and said, “Where do you need me?” I could hear he was in the control room and all hell was breaking loose and he said, “I don’t have a show for you until May of 2002. I don’t have producers.” And I said, “Well, I need to come to work today.” And he said, “Oh my god, You’re absolutely right—get to New York headquarters as fast as you can." And I said, "Great, I'll do that. Can you just tell me where the headquarters are?" At that point I'd never been there.
Within minutes of walking in the building, I was on the air, being rolled into the regular coverage, being treated like a long-time colleague by Wolf Blitzer and Aaron Brown—“and Paula Zahn joins us on the roof now.” From the rooftop, you could see the smoke rising, that horrible acrid cloud we watched for weeks and weeks. At any rate, I was on the air, I believe, for eight or nine hours on September 11, and then we made the decision at about 2am on September 12 to start [my] morning show the next day. [It was], “Okay, come back at 4:00 in the morning and let’s start building a show," so that’s what we did.
When I look back on that day, it was so painful for all of us, and there was this collective sense of fear. We were seeing the horror in our own city and we didn’t know just how vulnerable we were and what else might happen. It was an extraordinary experience to be a part of journalistically. I really didn't think much about that being my first night on the air at CNN. What I was more concerned about was that what I got on the air was right. It was very challenging because we were getting so much contradictory information from the scene.
What are your thoughts on the fact that there are now so many women delivering the news, including, soon, two solo network anchors?
I’m very proud that both Katie [Couric] and Diane [Sawyer] have landed their seats. I think that says a lot about the track record of both of them, their level of credibility. The truth is, at most of the places where I have worked, including at the network level, we always had close to 50% [women] reporters on the air, so I don’t think this comes as a great surprise. It's a result of some slow, gradual changes in the ’80s. We’ve worked hard, we’ve earned our slots. Women have proved their mettle on and off the air.
Do you have any thoughts on where news reporting is going to go next?
I wish I could look at a crystal ball and tell you. The bottom line is that people don’t come to the evening news like they once did, hearing it for the first time during the day. Most people now are getting their news online, they’re still getting it on the radio, and in some cases they’re turning to Jon Stewart as their source of political news. People have a lot of options for getting information. That’s why you see cable news changing so dramatically. What's obviously working in prime time is more opinion-driven shows. Whether you label it as opinion or not, that’s the major change in cable. I don’t think any of us know where these new changes are taking us. But I do believe that a show like I’m doing now does have sea legs. I believe people will always be interested in complex stories about crime and how the justice system works.