NEW BLOCKBUSTER BOOK: BEHIND THE SCENES AT CNN

By Published on .

April 2, 2001

When Reese Schonfeld told me two years ago that he planned to write a memoir about his creation of CNN,

Randall Rothenberg
I privately doubted. It seemed like another in Reese's cavalcade of wacky ideas -- a labor-intensive effort with no obvious audience. Who would buy another book about the oft-chronicled cable news pioneer? Why now, with the network suffering a slow meltdown in competition against Fox News and MSNBC? Especially today, after the defanging of its fabled patron, Ted Turner, by not one but two acquirers, Time Warner and America Online?

Shows what I know. Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN has just been published to the best reviews I've seen for a book about television. "Rollicking," The Wall Street Journal labeled it. "Loaded with humor, insight and dish," agreed Publishers Weekly.

Inventor of TV networks
The moral here is that Reese knows his market -- better, perhaps, than anyone who's ever toiled in the pixelyards of television. Reese, by my count, has invented more television networks -- certainly more network concepts -- than anyone in history. Sure, David Sarnoff can count NBC and ABC as his progeny. But Reese not only concocted CNN, he brought local cable news to life with News 12 on Long Island, and he Frankensteined the Food Network, too. He's TV's equivalent of The New York Times's Arthur Gelb: big, overpowering, brimming with 10 million ideas. So what if half of them are cockeyed -- that still leaves 5 million terrific ones that someone better pursue.

But Reese is, typically, unsatisfied. As I catch up with him at our favorite haunt -- Michael's, to which I'm sure I introduced him some years back, but where he now owns the front room's corner table -- Reese wants to tell me how the world has misconstrued his opus. "It's being reviewed as a media book," he complains. He leans across the table, whispering, as if to impart a confidence. "But it's a people book."

To which I add: a people book that's a chronicle of modern times. Three non-Ted stories capture the flavor of Me and Ted. Here's how Reese (still whispering) describes them:

On network-political party collusion. "The 1964 Democratic Convention. I discover the three networks have agreed with the Democrats not to cover any protests outside the convention hall. Communist leader Gus Hall; Rita Schwerner, whose husband was murdered in Mississippi; and a black guy I don't know are holding up pictures of the three dead civil rights workers. I start to shoot -- I'm with UPI then. But a state policeman stops me, and says no pictures can go out because of the 'agreement.' I find J. Leonard Reinsch, the head of Cox Broadcasting who was lent to the Democrats every four years to supervise television coverage, and he confirms -- not happily -- that the three networks had agreed not to cover civil rights protests. I finally got them to let me shoot the pictures without sound."

Drug smugglers and hostages
On Carter, Reagan and the drug smugglers. "It's the 1980 election, and we get information that Jimmy Carter is dealing with alleged drug smugglers, arms dealers to get the hostages out of Iran. We run with it, and these two, the Hashemi Brothers, sue us. The Washington Post backs down from the story. But CNN is new, our information, we believe, is solid. We can't back down. Then I look at our documents -- they're from a front for Lyndon LaRouche, the right-wing crazy. I'm scared, but the suit gets thrown out of court. Years later, I discover from a book that Reagan was dealing with the Hashemis, too. The Ayatollah was auctioning the hostages -- and the election -- to the highest bidder."

On John Malone's engineering of cable's triumph. "When the rules were passed forcing cable operators to pay broadcast stations to run their signals, Malone in his genius found a way to pass on the costs to viewers. Instead of paying money to the networks and affiliates for retransmission, operators gave them new networks, which allowed the MSOs to raise rates. Their argument was they were giving consumers something new, of value. This single act raised the value of television networks and station owners incredibly, even though the broadcast audience was declining. Chicago's Tribune Co. put $9 million into Food Network; it's now valued at $750 million, maybe $1 billion."

As we left, Reese also told me a story about Ted Turner's private parts. I can't recall if it's in his book. You'll have to read it to find out.

Copyright April 2001, Crain Communications Inc.

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