Happy birthday CNN

by Jim Longworth

Last week CNN began its 30 th year much as it had its first: with little fanfare. Instead of birthday cakes and pats on the back, the network offered up comprehensive coverage of the BP oil spill, news of the Israeli flotilla attack and reports on the aftermath of the Sestack bribe.

Cable News Network (it used to be called by its full name) was founded by Ted Turner and launched on June 1, 1980. Back then, most Americans were still watching television with rabbit ears or aerial antennas. Cable had not yet achieved the penetration it enjoys today, and only a handful of sports and porn fans had access to one of those nine foot diameter satellite dishes. At that time, and for three decades prior, we got our national news from CBS, NBC and ABC, and then for only 30 minutes in the evening. CNN changed all that, becoming the nation’s first 24/7 news outlet. But despite its innovative approach to electronic journalism, CNN struggled out of the gate.

In those days, the new network was shortstaffed and budget strapped. They maintained a headquarters in Atlanta, and two small bureaus in Washington DC and New York City. As such, they depended upon a small but competent army of full-time correspondents and a legion of freelance talent like myself who sent in news and sports packages from cities across the country. I was one of the cable net’s busiest stringers, covering everything from national politics to national champions, but like Rodney Dangerfield, I got no respect. Reporters and camera crews from the Big Three networks made fun of my CNN microphone flag, and joked about Turner’s Folly.

Now, 30 years later, the Big Three aren’t laughing. That’s because, over time, their viewership has declined while Cable News Network has grown to a world powerhouse, seen in 212 countries. CNN is available to 93 million households in the United States, and another 890,000 hotel rooms. In addition, there’s the CNN Headline News channel, CNN radio and a host of closed-circuit carriers, such as those in airports. And their three bureaus have grown to 36, including 26 overseas.

Today, CNN’s reach is without precedent worldwide, but domestically, it is now trying to keep pace with another cable upstart. FOX News was the creation of Rupert Murdoch and political hack Roger Ailes as a response to what they believed was CNN’s left-leaning coverage. And while CNN is largely impartial today, I can understand FOX’s motivation in the beginning. Ailes was a Reagan man, and in the early days of operation, CNN was none too kind to the former governor of California. I experienced this firsthand when covering Reagan on the campaign trail in 1980. After attending a fundraising event at John Warner and Elizabeth Taylor’s Atoaka plantation in northern Virginia, I hurried back to CNN’s DC bureau with my 3/4-inch videotape. I gave the tape to an editor and told him which clips to use, then I left for home. Later that night I turned on the newscast and instead of seeing scenes of Reagan speaking from the podium, I saw some of our test focus footage of the candidate shot from underneath the podium. The editor, a Jimmy Carter supporter, had deliberately searched through my tape to find a shot that would accentuate Reagan’s neck wrinkles, sending a clear message to viewers that Ronnie was too old to be president.

After a while, I noticed less of that kind of bias, and CNN found its footing as the most fair and balanced new organization in the world. Sure, there are things about CNN I don’t like. For one, I hate those constantly scrolling bits of information which crawl across the bottom of the screen, distracting me from the news. And I don’t care much for the histrionics of Campbell Brown (good riddance) and Rick Sanchez, who are wannabe commentators posing as news anchors. I also dislike the fact that in many day parts, the news teases leading into commercials are actually longer than the news stories themselves.

And then there’s Larry King, who was a bad interviewer 50 years ago, and is still a bad interviewer today. His inane discussions with “American Idol” contestants have no place on a serious news network.

Having said that, I still rely on CNN for televised coverage of war, politics, disasters and even balloon boys. But my endorsement is a bit hypocritical because I grew up in the radical 1960s when our mantra was “Never trust anyone over 30.” Well, CNN is now officially over 30, and I still trust them. That’s what happens when you grow old together. Happy birthday CNN.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).