“We won’t be signing off until the world ends. We’ll be on, we’ll be covering it live, and that will be our last, last event. We’ll play the national anthem for one time on the 1st of June, and that’s all. When the end of the world comes, we’ll play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ before we sign off.”
— Ted Turner introduces CNN June 1, 1980
It was a big idea in 1980 – the first cable TV news network.
Few believed it would succeed. After all, people scoffed, why did the nation or the world need even one 24-hour-a-day news network? Who needed that much TV news coverage?
Thirty-seven years later, there’s a lot of competition out there. CNN’s ratings have faltered severely, often dropping CNN to third place in the cable news market. It’s an open question as to whether Ted Turner’s prophecy about making it to the end of the world will be realized.
What went wrong?
My professional journalism career was still in its infancy when CNN debuted. I even considered working there, as many of my friends did. But my unique love and passion for newspapers helped me overcome the temptation, though I did have offers.
Indeed, it was a revolutionary product. It brought new competition to the news industry and challenged the idea that people could get their news from one 30-minute nightly newscast. CNN was also known for straightforward news coverage – without the kind of bias perceived by the three major broadcast networks.
With that in mind, some conservative leaders, led by Sen. Jesse Helms, Richard Viguerie and others, got together in 1985 with the idea of buying CBS and turning over management to the guy they perceived to be a straight-shooting newsman – Ted Turner. The effort failed, and Turner himself proved to be more “progressive” in his worldview than the titans of CBS.
The startup of CNN was accomplished with about $20 million at the time. Eventually, Turner sold out his ownership for billions.
During the first Gulf War in 1990, many Americans were both captivated by and appalled with CNN’s coverage – which brought them live to the battlefield and introduced them to some reporting, especially by Peter Arnett, that seemed to be overly critical of the U.S. military if not partial to Saddam Hussein.
Nevertheless, CNN’s budget and influence grew over the next decade, inspiring more and more competition in the 24-hour cable news world, culminating in 1996 with the debut of the Fox News Channel, which purposely marketed itself as an unbiased alternative to CNN and the other competitors.
It worked. It worked big time. And Fox News rose to the top – not only in ratings, but in profits never before dreamed of by cable news purveyors. This fact cannot be overstated. Even with all the controversies surrounding Fox News, its profits exceed those of CNN, ABC News, CBS News and NBC News combined.
Over the years, CNN has tried to market itself as more credible than the others. But simply proclaiming that is not persuasive, especially when you hire the likes of Chris Cuomo, a frothing-at-the-mouth partisan, as a morning anchor. I hear from people shocked by the partisanship of CNN’s coverage. And these include people who are not ideological, not political, just ordinary Americans who can smell one-sided commentary posturing as news coverage.
And that brings me to my conclusion: Trump vs. CNN.
Donald Trump ran for the presidency and won successfully not by running against Hillary Clinton, but by running against the media, epitomized by the fake-news rascals at CNN.
I believe this war, which shows no signs of de-escalating, represents an existential threat to CNN.
CNN is in crisis. It cannot rest on its pioneer status in cable news, which few even remember. It cannot point to its triumphs of the past without re-examination of its own reality today. For someone like me, it’s unwatchable except for pure entertainment purposes – much like MSNBC. I like to know how the “progressive” mindset works. I like to know what they’re thinking. But I don’t need to watch CNN to find out. I can just read Mother Jones or the Nation or HuffPost to get my laughs. No need to be glued to a TV screen.
And just as Trump won the presidency by running against CNN, he seems eminently capable of causing the network much more pain than they have experienced even in recent days.
Meanwhile, there’s no future for CNN as the anti-Trump network.
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