(This post has been updated. See more recent item.)
For CNN alums like me, this coming Saturday evening will be especially nostalgic. We’ll commemorate CNN’s 30th anniversary at a reunion at the National Press Club in Washington. CNN first went on the air on June 1, 1980. The network has evolved over the years, and seeing some of its creators at the reunion will be a reminder of how much it has changed.
Ted Turner is scheduled to be there, along with co-founder Reese Schonfeld. I remember Ted visiting the Rome bureau twice while I was there – once with his wife and another time with a woman who was not his wife. Both times Ted spent part of the evening reading aloud press clippings about himself. An amazing self-promoter (known to detractors as the “Mouth of the South”). For me, joining CNN was a scary move, coming as I did from solid, established mainstream print media (Newsweek, and before that the AP and the Wall Street Journal). I had no idea whether CNN would even survive, whether Ted would do something outrageous to discredit the network. At times he came close. One of the worst moments was when he did an on-air editorial saying the producers of the film Taxi Driver should be put on trial in connection with the attempted assassination of Reagan because the shooter, John Hinckley, had been influenced by that movie. We correspondents and producers all cringed, but Ted never did another on-air editorial, thank God.
I remember Reese Schonfeld hiring me in 1981 in Atlanta, and during our conversation in his office he kept looking at the TV monitors, including one showing a CNN reporter doing a live shot from California. The reporter’s live shot seemed to be going on too long. Reese picked up the phone and said something. Within a few seconds she was gone. I was amazed that the president of the network would be making minute decisions like that. Later a producer told me that Reese once had screamed an obscenity as he ran across the set behind startled anchors – all live, of course.
Those early days were crazy, as I noted in my memoir, Capturing the News. Just before midnight one night in Atlanta as I was learning the ropes, a producer came up to me and asked, “Can you anchor?” The midnight anchor had not appeared. I had never done TV news. Fortunately the anchor finally showed up at the last minute, but CNN had been quite ready to put someone as inexperienced as me on the air. One time while in Rome I was assigned to do a story saying the Pope had VD (what they called STD’s in those days); I found a way to avoid doing such a preposterous story. Another time a transformer caught fire during an interview I was conducting in Paris, and the smoke caused my interviewee, a distinguished political analyst, to weep and beg me to stop the interview. With our second-hand, third-rate equipment and our amateurish approach, we were the laughingstock of TV news. The established news media called us “CNN – Chicken Noodle News.” Thirty years later, they’re not laughing any more. CBS News, fallen on hard days, is now talking merger with CNN. How times have changed.