CNN's infant, improv days

The Cable News Network (CNN) is a robust 25 years old. More than present at the creation of CNN, I was one of the creators. I had signed the contract with Ted Turner a year earlier, frankly mystified about what a 24-hour-a-day cable news network would look like.

At his headquarters in Atlanta, he had acquired - as he likes to remind me - a building that had been a Jewish country club. The inaugural day featured a pretaped interview with President Carter, who welcomed the nation's first Georgia-based television network.

I remember the early days as days of improvisation. Without preparation, Turner decided that we would cover live the impending 1980 political conventions. We lacked a glass-enclosed booth of the sort that the major networks had reserved months in advance, and so my colleague Bernie Shaw and I sat in the gallery, our comments and our interviews frequently drowned out by music and noise from the floor.

Turner liked living dangerously and he liked mavericks, so when the authorities excluded the independent John Anderson from the Carter-Reagan presidential debate, Turner gave orders that CNN would somehow include him.

What that meant was that after the two principals in Cleveland had responded to a question, CNN would switch to Anderson in Constitution Hall, which we had rented for the purpose, and I would pose the same question to Anderson. And that meant that CNN live coverage would fall behind and require us to go back and forth from tape to Anderson live.

It was a technical shambles. But Turner was proud of it.

I forget how much money Turner lost the first year - but a lot. Slowly, though, an audience began to grow. At the White House, I was told, staff people kept CNN on at low volume while they worked.

On certain occasions, such as the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, officials learned of important events from CNN before they received official dispatches.

It was an interesting five years with CNN, and it ended with a dispute over my editorial independence that we don't have to go into on this anniversary. Suffice it to say that the last time I saw Turner - at a State Department reception - he threw his arms around me and said, "Glad to see you, Dan. I forget, am I mad at you or are you mad at me?"

His outlook on life had also changed. In 1980, he told me that how much money you amass is how you keep score. Now, he said, "how you actually keep score is by how much you give away."

Daniel Schorr is a senior analyst at National Public Radio.

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