Reese Schonfeld couldn’t have timed “Me and Ted” any better — just as his account of the early days of CNN hits the shelves, the 24-hour news net is facing dipping ratings, sagging morale and across-the-board layoffs. On the heels of parent company Time Warner’s recent merger with AOL, CNN is plotting a course for its future in an increasingly competitive universe. This compelling and entertaining history of the cabler’s salad days reminds us of the net’s original premise and expertly details how far off course CNN has strayed.
Schonfeld recalls the fateful day when Ted Turner asked him to head up the news venture that was to become CNN. “It’ll be all yours,” Ted promised. For a news veteran like Schonfeld, the idea of launching a 24-hour news net in cable’s early days was an opportunity of a lifetime.
That original pact didn’t last long, and after only three years overseeing CNN, Schonfeld was unceremoniously fired. Although he went on to create the regional news net News 12 and the Food Network, Schonfeld never abandoned his ardor for CNN, which he’s since tracked like a concerned, absent parent over the years since his departure.
A news junkie in the grips of a juicy story, Schonfeld plans to update the ongoing CNN saga with additional chapters of “Me and Ted” on his Web site MeandTed.com.
In some respects, “Me and Ted” is Schonfeld’s attempt to set the record straight. While Turner is publicly credited with founding CNN, Schonfeld is often unfairly left out of the equation. Yet it is so apparent that CNN wouldn’t exist without Schonfeld’s involvement that his repeatedly reminding us of his key role in getting the venture off the ground comes off as self-serving.
But Schonfeld is a lively raconteur, and he clearly delights in recounting fond memories from the early, risk-taking days of CNN. He jumps fluidly from personal anecdotes and office gossip to insightful business analysis and TV tales from a bygone era.
Describing the news net’s scrappy beginnings in which college kids were recruited as news producers, Schonfeld likens CNN circa the early 1980s to a “school for television.” As a training ground for young talent, the news cabler spawned numerous bright careers.
Katie Couric started out as a field producer, and Schonfeld claims his most egregious mistake was failing to nurture her on-air talent.
Then there are those who passed on offers to join the burgeoning news net. Geraldo Rivera turned down an opportunity at CNN, which included options on 100,000 shares of TBS stock. Schonfeld notes that on the day that the AOL Time Warner merger was announced, Rivera’s options would have been worth about $180 million.
Schonfeld also tells of how he tried to woo Orson Welles to CNN to host a live nightly talk show. But, writes Schonfeld: “CNN was a low-rent operation, and Orson Welles was not a low-rent guy.”
Some of the book’s best moments revolve around the notoriously colorful Turner, who provides comic relief when he’s not fomenting crises.
Schonfeld recounts a meeting between the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Turner in which the two decried the proliferation of sex and violence on commercial TV. Falwell prompted the roomful of execs to kneel as he prayed that the cloud of vice would be lifted from TV. After Falwell exited, Schonfeld heard Turner shout to his secretary: “Jesus Christ, get me a joint.”
Another time, on a lark, Turner flew down to Cuba to go duck hunting with Fidel Castro. Upon his return, Turner declared: “Fidel ain’t a communist. He’s a dictator, just like me.” He went on to brag about being “the only American who’s come that close to Fidel with a gun in his hands in 20 years.”
When it comes to chronicling CNN’s recent troubles — in which MSNBC and Fox News have encroached on the veteran newsie’s domain — Schonfeld laments that the “baby” he and Ted birthed has grown up to be so confused.
“With every word I write, I sniff for the aroma of sour grapes. I have reported CNN’s ratings failures. I have recounted CNN’s more notorious embarrassments. I don’t think that’s sour grapes,” writes Schonfeld. “I’m just saying Ted Turner should’ve taken better care of our baby.”