In 1991, as the U.S. was poised to invade Kuwait to expel Iraqi occupiers, the CNN International Desk in Atlanta was abuzz. Phones were ringing off the hook as CNN’ers made their final preparations to cover what seemed like a near-certain war. During this madness, a caller phoned the CNN switchboard and demanded to be allowed to make a statement live on CNN immediately.
After the caller claimed to be Moammar Gadhafi, the CNN operator transferred the call to the International Desk, which I oversaw at the time. The desker who answered the phone turned to me and said, “I have a guy on the phone who claims to be Moammar Gadhafi, and he wants to speak on CNN right now.” My colleague told me the caller was speaking in near-perfect English. I told my colleague that Moammar Gahdafi doesn’t speak good English – I knew this because every time CNN had interviewed Gadhafi previously he spoke only in Arabic – and I instructed my colleague to hang up on the prankster. Done.
Two minutes later, the man claiming to be Gadhafi called back, irate that he was being treated so rudely by CNN. My colleague asked me, “What do I tell this guy?” I picked up the phone and berated him for trying to perpetrate such a fraud, especially during such a busy news time, and then I slammed down the phone.
He called back a third time, and this time he was beyond livid. I sarcastically told him if he was Gadhafi, he needed to pay for a satellite transmission so we could see it was him live on TV before we put him on the air.
Much to my embarrassment, within the hour, up popped the satellite feed from Tripoli, with Gadhafi sitting in his tent ready to tell the world via CNN of his plan to avert the U.S. war against Iraq. When I saw it really was Gadhafi, I picked up the phone and asked him via his speakerphone, “How did you learn to speak such good English?” Gadhafi’s response: “I learned English by watching CNN.”