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- July 15, 1996
- Vol. 46
- No. 3
Mayhem in Moscow
For Cnn's Bureau Chief, Russia's Capital City Is One Big Playground
Whether grilling Boris Yeltsin or a new nanny, O'Connor, 37, clearly relishes a challenge. Not only does the Ohio native contend with four children and the hardships of Moscow life, but she is married to a rival, ABC's acting Moscow bureau chief, John Bilotta. "In this house," says Bilotta, 38, watching O'Connor hoist infant Isabel on her hip, put water on to boil and crush ice for 4-year-old Gabriella, "Eileen and I find ourselves finishing conversations we started in 1991."
O'Connor started typing scripts for ABC while still a student at Georgetown University in 1978 and came to England as an ABC research assistant in 1981. "She was terrifying," recalls ABC news correspondent John Donvan. "Within a year she was simultaneously getting an advanced degree from the London School of Economics and Political Science, setting up the [ABC bureau] research department, babysitting for [Peter] Jennings's babies and literally making her own clothes. People used to call her the tornado."
She and Bilotta, then a UPI reporter, met while covering the same story in London in 1989. He came on strong, proposing, "Do you want to go to that Downing Street press conference?" Indeed she did, and six months later they were married and on their way to Russia, honeymooning, Bilotta recalls, "in the car from Helsinki to Moscow." By then, O'Connor had jumped to CNN and Bilotta had traded his pencil for a TV camera, starting as a film editor, then becoming a producer, first for ABC, then for CNN, finally returning to ABC in 1993. How do they keep from spilling scoops at the dinner table? "We might discuss the big stories," Bilotta says, "but we don't discuss what story we are pitching this week. That belongs to the company." Another house rule: Never both be away or cover a war zone at the same time.
O'Connor was so moved by the plight of an 18-month-old orphan girl named Marina, whom she encountered while doing a story on Russian orphanages in 1991, that, more or less on the spot, she decided to adopt her. At the time, few foreign couples had managed to negotiate the fearsome bureaucracy that stood in the way. But nothing would dissuade her—not the reams of paperwork, the endless delays, nor even, as it turned out, an armed coup. After what O'Connor hoped would be the last glitch in the arduous adoption process, she finally secured the approval of a Russian official and was to deliver her documents on Aug. 19, 1991. It was the very morning that hard-line Communists staged a coup against the regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, who was at his Crimean vacation home. As tanks overran the city, O'Connor suddenly found herself with the two biggest assignments of her life—to get the story and the baby. The baby came first.
"All the roads were blocked, and she walked all over Moscow in this craziness," recalls a colleague. "There was shooting going on. She was scared that the whole system was collapsing and she would never get the girl." Adds O'Connor: "They were already building the barricades, so I couldn't drive. I just took the [adoption] documents and ran." In the end her determination paid off: O'Connor picked up Marina—and a prestigious Peabody Award for her coverage of the coup.
"The downside of Moscow is that you have to be inventive about what to do with the kids," says O'Connor, who has a CNN driver she can enlist for occasional school pickups and two nannies (on staggered shifts and on weekend call in case of breaking news). Figure-skating lessons didn't work out because, says O'Connor, "the coach was too serious. The kids started to think of it as torture." But they love the circus and the puppet theater, and, she adds, they are "always up for adventures." So, it seems, are their parents. Last March, O'Connor discovered she was pregnant with their fifth child, due in November. Her characteristic reaction? "Oh well," she told her husband. "We'll deal with it."
STEPHEN M. SILVERMAN
GENINE BABAKIAN in Moscow and JOANNE FOWLER in London
- Genine Babakian,
- Joanne Fowler.
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