Scenes from the toil of a globe-trotting correspondent: You’re assigned to cover the Washington summit but can’t get within shouting distance of anyone important. So like everyone else, you take notes off CNN, which your editors back in Brussels or Guatemala City or Denver could just as easily do for themselves. You’re in a taxi headed for the Polish Parliament and the cabby says, “Hey, I learned my English from Bobbie Battista.” Bobbie Battista? She’s an obscure Atlanta-based anchor who has a big following in Poland, where there’s no meat but plenty of feed from CNN. You’re covering last spring’s unrest in Tiananmen Square and you go inside to see the same scene on your hotel-room TV, literally bounced around the world and all the way back again.
Scenes from the diplomatic high life: You’re King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, and you’ve got insomnia. Dr. CNN to the rescue. (Margaret Thatcher, Francois Mitterrand, Muammar Kaddafi and lots of other world leaders tend to watch only when there’s a crisis.) You’re Koichi Kato, a former Defense minister of Japan, and on the way to work each day you pop a cassette into your car VCR to catch Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley duking it out on “Crossfire.” You’re Edward Djerejian, American ambassador to Syria, and you need to know the administration’s position after the release last month of hostage Robert Polhill. President Bush, watching the event live on CNN while on a fishing boat off the coast of Florida, phones in the guidance. Meanwhile, inside the Syrian Foreign Ministry, in room after room, guess what’s on the TV monitors?
As CNN celebrated its 10th birthday last week, the air was thick with metaphors. “The world’s intercom,” says National Public Radio’s Daniel Schorr, a former CNN senior correspondent who was present at the creation. “Video Valium,” says Frank Radice, a onetime producer of the network’s showbiz program, recalling the countless times celebrities told him how CNN eased their homesickness in faraway lands. Ted Turner’s favorite metaphor was coined in the 1960s by the late media theorist Marshall McLuhan. “I was on a panel with McLuhan at a cable convention when we had just started to globalize and he said, “Turner, you are creating the global village.’ It’s exciting because it has really happened.”
Actually the village is still under construction. CNN, which now appears in about 7 million households abroad (and 54 million at home), will probably never reach beyond the world’s elites to the masses. After all, the bulk of news, as Turner points out, remains local, and in the local language. Cable TV is still a tiny global industry, and the regulations governing the extension of CNN beyond hotel rooms, news-rooms and government offices (in other words, to those who cannot afford their own satellite dishes) are byzantine. Nor is CNN about to replace reading as a source of information for the world’s elites. “I have two chief needs–European security coverage and keeping abreast of domestic British politics,” says one American diplomat in London. “And CNN has nothing meaningful to say about either one.”
Still, the dawning of 24-hour TV news ranks as the most important journalistic development of the 1980s. And journalism is not the only area affected. CNN changed politics. A jab by one candidate could be viewed in the morning, parried by noon and dismissed by the time the other networks even got on the air. CNN changed business. Turner’s notion of nightly business newscasts, much imitated during the decade, helped make captains of industry more public figures. It also aided the globalization of markets–scores of banks and securities firm around the world added dishes after the 1987 stock-market crash. And CNN changed diplomacy. When the Soviets wanted to denounce the American invasion of Panama, they called CNN’s Moscow bureau, not the U.S. Embassy. Today’s diplomatic news often arrives by a different, unconfidential kind of cable.
The question now is whether CNN can change itself. Having shrunk the world like a cheap suit, the network must figure out how to expand its own horizons. “For the better part of 10 years we were renegades, running against the establishment,” says Lou Dobbs, an anchor and vice president for business news. “Now we are the establishment. It affects your outlook.” Can CNN go beyond being a solid video wire service with some fluff and chat shows thrown in? Can it match its superb live coverage with consistent depth and texture?
The early years: Turner is surprisingly subdued about the future. For the moment, he says he doesn’t have any bold plans. That’s a particular contrast to his brash predictions in 1980. The “Mouth of the South” turns out to have been an authentic American visionary, foreseeing not just CNN’s success but the whole idea of TV bringing the world together. He was flying the United Nations flag and talking about beaming CNN into the Soviet Union even before his brainchild–which he vaingloriously called “The World’s Most Important Network”–went on the air; his own recruits, facing extreme skepticism about the very notion of 24-hour news, thought him practically loony to be thinking internationally. CNN’s first foreign desk was nothing more than a bunch of manila folders in the back seat of a producer’s car, according to a new book by Hank Whittemore on the early years.
CNN, housed then in a leaky white Atlanta mansion, was a children’s crusade. Many of the young enlistees took no vacations the first year. Pay was often under $10,000 a year for people with major responsibility. Daniel Schorr recalls the folly of trying to cover the 1980 political conventions only a few weeks after the network went on the air: “We had no booth, so whenever the band started up we were totally drowned out.”
Of course Turner got the last laugh. CNN’s 1989 operating profits totaled an astonishing $134 million. While ratings are actually down (new cable offerings fragment the market), ad demographics are high and cable operators pay a fee per subscriber. And Turner Broadcasting’s other holdings are strong. The purchase of MOM’s storehouse of old movies, ridiculed as a bad deal at the time, has turned out to be a gold mine. The 1988 debut of Turner Network Television (TNT) was the most successful launch in cable history.
“Good lickin”: Turner is now mostly absorbed by personal and political pursuits. He has apparently abandoned his legendary bimbo lust in favor of Jane Fonda; and he spends much of his time barnstorming for the environment. His ideological journey has been a long one. “I dreamed about fighting when I was younger. I thought it was exciting,” he told NEWSWEEK. “My heroes were Alexander the Great and General Patton, and now they’re Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I don’t want to hurt anybody. I thought of making up some bumper stickers: “I brake for butterflies’.” In a recent speech, again only half joking, Turner said that “It’s amazing that the rest of the world hasn’t taken us white folks behind the woodshed and given us a good lickin’ . . . We need a Third World Marshall Plan–immediately.”
World Citizen Turner raised some hackles recently when he sent the staff a memo saying that anyone using the word “foreign” would face a $100 fine. His preferred substitute is “international.” Vice president Ed (no relation) Turner was actually fined before claiming he was misquoted. And in a recent interview, Paul Amos, another vice president, turned red-faced when he accidentally used the “f” word, then corrected himself.
CNN’s foreign … er, “international” staff is roughly comparable to the other networks in size. But only CNN has the relationships with local broadcasters critical to the creation of a genuinely global network. “What happens if there’s a coup in Katmandu? Nobody staffs it,” notes Stuart Loory, a CNN vice president. “But we know the station there.” Loory and Turner deny any conflict between negotiating deals with state-owned TV networks and coverage of those governments, though one can imagine problems arising.
The journalists of CNN are only now beginning to fathom the implications of true global reach. “Frankly I shudder sometimes at the responsibility,” says Bernard Shaw, the network’s best-known anchor. It’s easy to see why. When Moscow correspondent Steve Hurst reported this year that Mikhail Gorbachev might give up his post as general secretary of the Communist Party, CNN Atlanta management hyped the story all day, causing dips in financial markets. The network still refuses to admit that the story was wrong.
CNN’s greatest influence abroad is probably as a purveyor of American TV news standards. “The American economy may be in decline,” says Takashi Tachibana, a prominent Japanese commentator. “But CNN assures us that at least American journalism is alive and kicking.” Most other countries have less technically proficient and more explicitly ideological news. Alessandro Curzi, director of an Italian news program, says “the biggest influence is the quickness of the message. Instead of asking a question, an Italian journalist gives a speech.” To fast food and rock music, add sound bites as an American export.
Perhaps Turner’s most intriguing contribution to international understanding is “CNN World Report,” the first truly global newscast. Each of 90 or so participating networks sends in a weekly three-minute piece in (often broken) English, which entitles it to use any of the rest of the contributions to the program. Some are deadly boring; others fascinating. Last week, for instance, South Yemen TV reported on its recent merger with North Yemen, Spanish TV covered letter bombings, North Korea issued another paean to dictator Kim II Sung and a Swiss station toted up drunk-driving fatalities. CNN runs it all–unedited, Loory calls it a TV op-ed page.
For the discerning viewer, the “World Report” provides terrific perspective, not just on global news but on the whole nature of propaganda. “A good deal of the so-called “objective’ American reporting from the White House becomes almost a mirror image of what we’re getting [from abroad on the “World Report”], says Loory. Paul Amos points out that this new understanding of inherent American biases has already led to policy changes. During the Panama invasion, CNN ceased using the word “our” in reference to American troops, and, as the only source of news in Panama, pushed for Panamanian as well as U.S. casualty figures. But with portions of the “World Report” now abutting pieces by CNN correspondents abroad, where does “perspective” end and blur begin? These juxtapositions create the possibility of confusion and represent an acknowledgment that there are few consistent standards for what appears as news on CNN.
Production values: That’s the nub of CNN’s problem as it enters the ‘9Os: it doesn’t respect itself and its own potential enough. William Paley, CBS’s octogenarian founder, is so fond of CNN that he toyed with the idea of a CBS version of it in his own prime time. But his idea was to marry CNN’s reach and immediacy to the stronger writing and production values of his own network. This raises the question of why CNN cannot, in turn, borrow more from Paleys finest traditions, giving viewers a reason to turn to it even on a slow news day. In other words. why not the best? Turner can certainly afford it now.
Instead, overworked reporters churn out ordinary daily features and the network rests on its breaking-news laurels. There are some dramatic exceptions; correspondent Richard Blystone, for instance, recently delivered a searing report on pollution in Eastern Europe. But the network still contains too many predictable talking heads, too many uncritical accounts of new products and trends and too much “duty” coverage of official Washington. CNN still has not managed to create a news show full of real insight and panache. Instead of trying to reinvent the formula, CNN recently took a Texas judge’ Catherine Crier, and paired her with Bernard Shaw in a new but utterly conventional evening news show.
Turner’s most important decision in taking his network to a higher level will be his choice to succeed Burt Reinhardt, the network’s president. Whoever gets the job must figure out how to retain talent. In recent years CNN has lost quality personnel like Jim Miklaszewski and John Donvan to the competition. And despite Bernard Shaw’s prominence, the network’s record on hiring blacks (currently six out of 150 on-air employees) is unimpressive. Even with recent raises, most CNN staffers earn roughly half of what their counter-parts do at the other networks. It makes it hard to attract the best.
The boss is actually ahead of many of his executives in understanding that. This year he hired ABC’s Pam Hill to create a pricey investigative team; she in turn hired such well-regarded people as Brooks Jackson from The Wall Street Journal, Ken Bode, formerly of NBC, and Alan Weisman, a “60 Minutes” producer. Internationally, the trend is toward greater specialization, which also bodes well for quality. A new London-based business show, “World Business Tonight,” will be the first CN-N program tailored exclusively for the overseas market.
Ted Turner’s global ambitions happened to coincide almost perfectly with a newly emerging world order. The very geography of news is being transformed. “In the 19th century’ most news in the U.S. came out of state capitals. That changed with the Roosevelts'” says New York University professor Mitchell Stephens, author of a history of news. “Now Washington may be reduced to the status of Albany or Sacramento.” Historians like Stephens will argue for a long time about what caused this development; on television, only CNN is in a position to fully exploit it.
CNN is available in more than 200,000 hotel rooms outside the United States, and most nations allow at least some footage in homes. The signal is also frequently pirated.
China: Available in hotels, government offices
U.S.S.R.: Watched avidly in Kremlin; just beginning in hotels
Germany: Widespread in hotels, but blocked from most cable systems
Greece: Carried as one of four major broadcast channels
Hungary: Carried in 30,000 cable homes
Bulgaria: Live three hours a day in one city
Kenya: Broadcast in Nairobi; soon will become a pay channel
Tunisia: Arafat and PLO recently began getting it by dish
Cuba: Castro is a fan, but his people can’t get it
Latin America: Broadcasts excerpts, plus CNN-Noticero Telemundo Spanish broadcast
For years, Cable News Network feared being edged aside. Today it’s not hearing as many footsteps.
Financial News Network: Begun in 1981, FNN reaches 32 million homes and is finally profitable. Turner wanted to buy it last year but his board refused.
Consumer News and Business Channel: Launched by NBC and Cablevision in 1989, CNBC has scant subscriber and ad support.
Sky Television: Rupert Murdoch’s London-based entry into satellite broadcasting, begun in 1989, is off to a slow start. Plans to expand from England to the rest of Europe have been delayed.