Don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for Ted Turner. Indeed, he paid to have my septic tank fixed in 1981—eight years before I went to work for him. More on that later. But first, the sins of Ted.
Number two on the sin list of a man once known as “the mouth of the South” is merging CNN—the granddaddy of twenty-four hour news networks—with Time-Warner Corporation. The transgression is second to Ted’s creation of CNN is the first place.
In my opinion, cable news is responsible for dumbing down of America. Launched in June 1980, CNN was then considered a joke, “Ted’s folly.” I was among those who laughed—even louder when colleagues suggested that I apply for a job with the network as a solution to my dilemma of being jobless in Boston at the time.
“Why the hell would I go to Atlanta, Georgia to work for an operation that will soon fold,” I asked? Which brings me to a septic tank, that began overflowing under the circular driveway in front of my home at a very inopportune time.
As I contemplated how to stretch my unemployment check to pay the $300.00 required to avoid stinking up the neighborhood, the mailman delivered a letter postmarked in Atlanta. Enclosed was a check for $300.00—so-called “talent” fees sent to me by Turner Broadcasting. The serendipitous bounty was compensation for re-running a final exposé that I reported for Boston’s ABC affiliate, WCVB, prior to the station abolishing its investigative unit and assigning me to an unemployment line. I was vaguely aware the station had some kind of reciprocal arrangement with CNN, but I did not realize the network had carried my four part series, which dealt with misconduct by federal and state prosecutors in Boston.
Surprisingly, at least to me, Ted’s check cleared the bank. Even so, it did not influence my decision to embrace pauperhood in Boston rather than risk applying for a CNN job and facing an unknown fate in Georgia. Just as well.
A few months later, I overcame my ego for a few minutes and accepted an unexpected offer to return to Baton Rouge, where my investigative reporting career began ten years before—a place I vowed never to return because of events I wanted to forget. Read all about it my non-best selling memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger.
Anyway, it turned out I could go home again. And for more money than CNN was then paying its correspondents. The next seven years were highlights of my career marked by two Peabody awards and numerous other journalism prizes. Written up in newspapers and magazines as a hotshot investigative reporter, CNN came calling with a checkbook in hand.
In the nine years since I laughed at the thought of a 24-hour news network, CNN had become a world brand name and in 1989 planned to get serious about in-depth investigative reporting. To that end, I was the first person hired for a 25-member muckraking crew—later expanded to fifty members. I was named Senior Investigative Correspondent at a disgraceful salary considering there was no heavy lifting involved.
In less than a decade, CNN had become a major force in television news. The people we assembled for the investigative team were true journalists—a combination of young reporters and producers, along with experienced award-winning broadcast and newspaper newsmen. Journalism magazines and media critics were astounded by Ted Turner’s commitment to enterprise reporting in terms of investment, quanity and quality. The network was making money, Turner Broadcasting stock soared and the future seemed rosy. Too rosy in fact to be ignored by other news organizations.
In 1996, sixteen years after CNN aired its first newscast, MSNBC became the second 24-hour news network, a cable enterprise that amounted to liberal talk radio with pictures—the eventual star attraction being a former sportscaster, who placed second in world Olympics for assholes. He wasonly one point behind Bill O’Reilly.
A few months after MSNBC became a butt pimple to CNN, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox “News,” was established under the leadership of GOP operative Roger Ailes. Satirically claiming to be “fair and balanced,” Fox evolved into the Republican Propaganda Network—a pipeline of misinformation and distortions delivered by a posse of ex-disc jockeys, right-wing talk radio ranters, and resident asshole, Bill O’Reilly. Fox is the network for Tea Partiers, racists and viewers who hate President Obama. The network couldn’t find “fairness” in a dictionary.
Ted Turner’s invention was highjacked. And inadvertedly, he sold out. Facing competition for cable viewers from bigger corporations in 1996, Ted betrothed his brainchild to Time Warner. He became the conglmerates biggest stockholder. However, he was relegated to a secondary role on the Board of Directors. With Ted effectively de-balled of influence, CNN’s downhill trip descended to its current position of number three among the 24-hour networks.
In 1998, CNN bought out my contract and banished me to a North Georgia golf course. Just in time, too. An epidemic of shrunken testicles had swept through the organization. Since investigative reporting was expensive and risky, most of my colleagues were not far behind. So instead of maintaining a reputation for dependable journalism, CNN replaced correspondents and field producers with paid political pundits and anchors who tell you what they think rather than report the news.
As a substitute for reporting, CNN relies on live gimmick coverage that has become a joke. The New York Times pointed out the network’s futility and desperation in a Wednesday media column about Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee.
Jon Stewart mercilessly mocked the television coverage, particularly the often inane enthusiasm of Piers Morgan on CNN, who described the flotilla on Sunday as an “orgy of excitement.” On Tuesday Mr. Morgan gushed over the queen for many hours straight, but perhaps with more envy than admiration. As Royal Air Force jets streamed red, white and blue smoke while flying over Buckingham Palace, Mr. Morgan said, “I wish I was king.”
CNN did devote almost as much to the Jubilee as BBC America did, but it’s a little unfair to judge that cable news network by a royal event. CNN functions best in hard news and international disasters. And now, more than ever, CNN serves as cable news’s best antidote to the solipsistic ranting of histrionic and proudly biased evening hosts on Fox News and MSNBC.
CNN’s ratings on many nights are at a low point, which makes the network’s refusal to follow its more successful rivals down the path of single-minded opinionating all the more admirable. Mr. Stewart joked that CNN, like Britain, is a fallen and enfeebled world power. But like Britain, CNN is a diminished empire that on special occasions still commands respect and attention. Except, paradoxically, when it gives lavish, unfiltered coverage to a glittery extravaganza like the Diamond Jubilee.
The British celebration certainly deserved coverage by my former employer, but not to the extent of ignoring other major news for hours on end. Wars, political campaigns and world disasters should at least be acknowledged. Unfortunately, every CNN misjudgment made in panic to attract viewers buries the network’s credibility deeper and adds momentum to propaganda outlets like Fox “News” and butt pimple MSNBC.
I’m just speculating. But I wonder if Ted Turner had been unable to pay for my overflowing septic tank in 1981—in other words, if 24-hour news had failed to gain traction—maybe the nation would be a lot better off. As it stands now, the odor of television journalism is worse than the stink from the overflow in the driveway of my Boston home.
And in large part, I blame Ted for an invention that dumbed down America.
My memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger: A Saga of Exposing TV Preachers, Corrupt Politicians, Right-Wing Lunatics…and Me is available at amazon.com, soft-cover or Kindle and at independent bookstores like the Cottonwood in Baton Rouge. It offers $19.99 worth of laughs and much more. The book is an account of my illustrious (I choose the adjectives) investigative reporting career.