There was a sense of media history in DC Saturday evening when former and current CNN hands gathered to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary. The center of attention, as he had been three decades ago when he bankrolled the risky venture, was Ted Turner, 71 years old now, a bit subdued but still pleased with what he had done. “I’m very proud,” he said.
Chatting with him, I noted the three hundred guests milling around the National Press Club ballroom and said, “We’re all here because of you.” He shook his head. “Nah. You guys did it.”
Former CNNer Bernie Shaw, one of the network’s first anchors, acted as MC. Guests were so excited to reunite and talk that he had to ask them to be quiet so we could hear the speakers. When Ted Turner got up to speak, someone shouted: “You were cable before cable was cool!” — a reference to an early CNN billboard ad that showed Ted as a cable pioneer.
Judy Woodruff, a PBS NewsHour anchor, was one of the CNN alumni on hand. Wolf Blitzer, still with CNN, also was in the crowd. There were others, names not known to the public, who had been behind-the-scenes producers and camera operators and video editors, many of them having started at the new network when they were barely out of college. All of them helped this improbable upstart network (ridiculed by established media as “Chicken Noodle News”) get off the ground.
A blooper reel was shown, and it was a reminder how amateurish and slipshod the first programs were, marred by the wrong audio and camera shots that mysteriously drifted away from the anchors to show walls and doors in the background. A howl of laughter went up from the crowd when one camera mix-up on the blooper reel showed Larry King zipping up his fly. It was all part of the riskiness of live TV.
Other news organizations have reunions, but it’s doubtful any could match this one in emotion. Everyone there remembered how unlikely a proposition CNN had been when it first went on the air on June 1, 1980. It had not been until the 1991 Gulf War that CNN gained a large audience and was taken seriously by the other networks, so much so that imitators arrived in the form of Fox and MSNBC. Now twenty-four-hour television news is a fact of life, with both its harmful side and benefits, its sensationalism and mindless punditry on the one hand, and, on the other, its ability to bring distant events home to viewers around the world live as they happen. Like it or not, CNN has changed people’s lives, and Saturday’s event reunited some of the pioneers who helped bring about that change.
(Photo by Tony Umrani.)