Jeanne Moos has a finely tuned eye for the absurd. As CNN’s national news correspondent and resident satirist, Moos has put her wry spin on everything from the smoking baby in Indonesia to Kentucky Fried Chicken’s much disparaged double-down sandwich and the heartbreaking oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. While Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are the mocking class’ current gold standard, Moos’ expertly targeted critiques predate both.
National News Correspondent, CNN
B.S., Syracuse University, 1976
WPTZ-TV Plattsburgh, N.Y., correspondent, 1976-1980
CNN, writer, 1981
Current position since 1981
“She’s a great writer,” says Christiane Amanpour, Moos’ former CNN colleague. “She’s just smart. And she also makes fun of everything. She’s an equal-opportunity fun-poker, and that’s what makes her so credible. She’s doesn’t pick a side or a party or a group of people; she really can see the funny or the wry side in everything.”
Moos’ CNN colleagues often find themselves starring in her tart segments. In “Don’t Touch the Oil,” correspondent Brooke Baldwin is shown donning waders to go in search of evidence of the errant BP well spewing slimy crude into the gulf. Other reporters are running their hand through the muck or scooping it up with whatever receptacle is handy (a McDonald’s soda cup, even a Doritos chip).
“Honestly, in the past I have gotten into trouble for making fun of our own folks,” Moos admits. “Now, I’m a little more careful about it. Usually, they’re proud to be included.”
Like being parodied on Saturday Night Live or featured in a Daily Show segment, the sendup is the sincerest form of flattery for those who make their living doing live standups. But it is nevertheless a delicate balance, and Moos observes that these are hypersensitive times. So, some common-sense censoring is in order.
“For instance,” Moos says, “we would know better than to propose doing a piece on Sarah Palin’s alleged breast enhancement.”
Palin’s camp has strenuously denied the rumor. Explains Moos: “It’s just too lowbrow and, pardon the pun, unsupported by the facts.”
But Moos and her producer Richard Davis will inevitably run afoul of somebody. The “Smoking Baby” segment produced some hang-wringing inside CNN. “Some people thought it was child abuse and we shouldn’t be showing it,” she says. “But I don’t believe in practically any censoring. We’re adults and if it’s disturbing, too bad. Life is disturbing.”
Moos started her TV career the way most do, in local television. Her first job after graduating from Syracuse University in 1976 was at WPTZ, the NBC affiliate in Plattsburgh, N.Y. She was the station’s first female correspondent, and as such became somewhat of a local celebrity. After four years there, which included a stint covering the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, Moos presented herself at CNN’s World Trade Center offices in New York. She freelanced there and at other New York stations before landing a full-time writing job at CNN in June 1981. Six months later, she was promoted to an on-air job.
“In the beginning [CNN] was a pretty primitive place,” she says. “Its nickname was Chicken Noodle News. So, there was room for movement.”
At CNN, she covered the Beijing student uprising and the FBI’s Abscam sting operation, and interviewed world leaders including Mikhail Gorbachev. She’s been at CNN for 29 years in a career that has bridged the technological divide. “I remember when we could smoke in the newsroom,” she says.
Grounded in the basics
While Moos makes funny look easy, her wit is enabled by a writerly dexterity and a strict adherence to the craft of television news. “She really taught me how to be a reporter and how to write well and write properly, and appreciate pictures and sound,” says Amanpour, who left CNN earlier this year and will begin hosting ABC News’ This Week in August.
In 1987, before Amanapour would become a famed war correspondent, she had the occasion to produce for Moos, who was then covering the United Nations and the negotiations to end the Iran-Iraq War. Moos would spend hours in the edit room scrutinizing every frame of video, according to Amanpour.
“She’s not one of these reporters who go out with a script already written and then shoots the pictures and does the interviews to match it,” Amanpour says. “And that was a hugely valuable lesson for me because it meant that whenever I pitched up in any kind of disaster zone or war zone, I didn’t go with a preconceived notion. I went out, I talked to people and only afterward sitting in the edit room did the story become clear.”
Moos also covered the U.N. through the Persian Gulf War. And while she straddled hard news and features at CNN, in 1995 she began to do humorous features exclusively. Not that she didn’t appreciate the significance of the U.N. assignment. “It was totally fascinating,” she says. “The Iraqis would negotiate with the U.S. through us.” But it did not exactly fulfill her creative impulses. “The U.N. pushed me over the edge,” she says.
“You can’t be funny [at the U.N.],” Moos says. “You can’t write to video because there is no video. It’s the United Nations; it’s a bunch of guys sitting around a table. It’s completely limiting. Maybe I just see the world through a quirky lens. But I can’t look at the news without thinking funny.”