Insiders' Tales Of How It All Began

By , Gregory M. Lamb is special projects editor of the Monitor.

CNN: THE INSIDE STORY by Hank Whittemore, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 319 pp. $19.95 TO a large extent, the story of Cable Network News is the story of flamboyant entrepreneur Ted Turner. The creation of CNN was an act of will by ``Captain Outrageous, The Mouth of the South,'' as he's been called, the project of a man with a need to succeed so strong that it wouldn't let him fail.

But the rise of CNN is also the story of a whole band of scrappy TV pioneers risking their all on the crazy idea that, somehow, they could not only compete with the big boys at ABC, CBS, and NBC, but actually change the face of television news.

So says author Hank Whittemore in ``CNN: The Inside Story.'' Whittemore, a magazine and television writer, has packed this volume with lively quotes and plenty of drama, humor, and pathos. But he's also succumbed to the temptation to write in the popular quasi-novelistic style, as though his tape recorder was able to somehow plug straight into the inner thoughts of his subjects. Even the lengthy spoken quotes, pasted together by narrative transitions, read more like a script for a TV documentary than a book.

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In the early years, we learn, Turner and his band of mavericks are only a step ahead of chaos and bankruptcy. In a single night, the ringleaders sketch plans for the CNN newsroom building on a grocery bag. When an addition is needed later, a bulldozer is ordered to begin digging the next day - before construction plans or permits are obtained. In the world of CNN, haste is not waste: It's the only way to survive.

``[Founding president] Reese [Schonfeld] was very much like Ted Turner,'' recalls CNN employee Diane Durham, ``in that the ideas flowed. Whether they were good, bad or indifferent, they flowed off the top, so people sifted through them and took only the good ones. You just went from one new idea to the next, like a free flow: `Let's try this, let's try that.' And it had never been done, so why not? You never said to Reese, `We can't do that,' until you proved you couldn't do it.''

Despite long hours and hard work, most of the CNN insiders interviewed now look back with nostalgia on the early years when crises seemed to hit the fledgling operation in waves.

When Jeanee Von Essen arrived, ``They asked me to start setting up a `Foreign' Desk ... but I had no experience in that.... Well, I wondered, how do you start a Foreign Desk? I decide I'd better get things categorized. Got a whole bunch of folders and made titles for them - countries, people, ideas - but there was no more room in the [building] so I took the folders out to my car and lined them up in the backseat, all in a row.... So in those early months, the Foreign Desk of CNN was riding all around town, wherever I went....''

To cut costs, Turner's lieutenants devise a simple strategy: no unions, hire kids straight out of college, and train them with a few key pros stolen from the networks and regional stations. ``It was really like D-Day being mounted in there,'' says producer John Hills, remembering the months leading up to CNN's launch on June 1, 1980. ``It soon became clear that I possessed most of the qualifications for a young producer that they were looking for - namely, that I had two arms and two legs and was breathing...''

Some of that sense of mission, the fun and challenge of starting something new, was lost as CNN outbattled and eventually bought out the rival Satellite NewsChannel and became ``legitimate,'' say these insiders. For Turner, success has meant turning his gaze toward ever-more-cosmic goals, like world peace. For many of the young staffers, it has meant moving on to better-paying jobs at the three networks and elsewhere.

Though Whittemore takes a stab at assessing what the advent of CNN means, it's clear that even it's founders aren't sure of much - only that CNN, and electronic news gathering in general, will continue to grow and change, and at a dizzying pace.

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