CNN: The Inside Story
In 1979, Ted Turner crashed the members-only garden party of TV network news to demand attention, respect, and , most of all, room — on cable systems around the country, on the AT&T wires that transmitted news footage, and on a satellite 22,300 miles above the Pacific. His plan for a 24-hour all-news TV network met with skepticism from his colleagues, but that didn’t matter to Turner. Aflame with selfless passion, he declared, ”I’m not even gonna put my own name on this. Im gonna call it the Cable News Network! Not the Turner news Network — the Cable News Network!”
That twitch of humility may have been the only moment during the genesis of CNN (which celebrated its 10th anniversary on June 1) when Turner stepped out of the spotlight. It didn’t last long. Although Hank Whittemore’s breathless account of CNN’s early days means to be the story of a network and not its swaggering helmsman, it is Turner who dominates nearly every page of the book. Whether he’s yelling ”Awwright!” when things go well or something else when they don’t, sharing his philosophy of life or issuing grandiose predictions, he always makes himself heard. Even when Whittemore’s narrative turns to interviews with dozens of CNN staffers, they mostly wind up testifying to their leader’s extraordinary sway.
Of course Turner’s character has to be central to the story of CNN’s creation. As the small-time operator of WTCG, an Atlanta UHG station so weak that wind regularly knocked out its transmission, Turner implemented the ”SuperStation” concept — in which local programming is beamed around the country by satellite — with the same tactics he later brought to CNN: He simply talked, cajoled, or shouted other people into believing in his project.
Despite his missionary fervor in discussing his media empire, Turner apparently neither knew nor cared much about TV journalism when he hatched his plans for CNN. ”Don’t it just make you sick after watchin’ that stuff?” he once said to news executive Reese Schonfeld. ”Reese, you know what my motto is? No news is good news!” Later, when Schonfeld offered up the name of a potential anchorman for CNN, Turner drew a blank: ”Who’s Dan Rather?” He soon found out; in 1981 CBS offered to buy a controlling interest in his fledgling network. Turner responded with casual belligerence. ”You CBS guys are something,” he said, in a remark that probably should not be forgotten. ”Someday I’m going to own you. You bet I am.”
CNN: The Inside Story is best at detailing these sorts of comic moments, but considerably less effective and credible when it tries to present Turner as a sage of the global village or as politician or film maven. the Turner who rings true is the one who roars to his employees, ”I’m gonna be the most powerful man in America!” or ”We’re gonna bring world peace, and we’re all gonna get rich in the process!”
Whittemore doesn’t bother to stitch together any of Turner’s various poses or to pee behind the bluster. He simply gives his subject the floor and the Mouth of the South uses it to fortify his own legend. But Turner’s bluster doesn’t explain CNN’s astounding 10-year survival against the best efforts of the three Goliath networks’ news monopoly. That’s a more complicated history, and one that Whittemore races through. When the narrative reaches 1985, he writes simply, ‘The rest is epilogue,” and offers the remainder of the network’s evolution as a scrapbook of CNN’s greatest moments.
By its end, CNN is no longer an inside story but an in-house one. That’s a shame because the book’s splendidly evoked centerpiece — an account of CNN’s headlong, chaotic rush toward its first day on the air, with a staff of journalists so green that the project was dubbed ”a children’s crusade” — proves the story of CNN to be worth telling and worth hearing. But most of CNN: The Inside Story is cast in Turner’s long shadow; like its owner, the larger it looms, the more it obscures. C