It may not quite qualify as breaking news, but a lot of people are going to be shocked by the origin story of CNN.
Today, the cable news behemoth is a bastion of the liberal elite, one that likes to position itself as “the most trusted name in news.” Yet its roots lie in a brash southern mogul prone to antisemitic comments and bizarre Hitler references, a Jewish company president who was himself labeled a “dictator” by some underlings and a canine co-anchor called Rex the Wonder Dog.
You couldn’t make it up, and the whole crazy story is recounted in hugely entertaining fashion by Lisa Napoli in “Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News,” published to coincide with the news network’s 40th anniversary earlier this month.
In a breezy, engaging manner, the author details how Turner – the Mouth of the South, to use the nickname he detested but oh-so-richly earned – went from singing Nazi songs outside the Jewish frat building at Brown University to owning a two-bit television station in Atlanta that treated news with contempt. Then came the launch of the cable news outfit that would change the news industry forever.
Some of the tycoon’s antics are jaw-droppingly offensive and would provoke social media-orchestrated boycotts nowadays, but it’s undeniable that Turner generates good copy – it’s easy to see why Napoli’s book has already been optioned by Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions as a potential TV movie or series.
Still, Turner is but one of the larger-than-life characters in this story, which reveals how much Jewish talent was involved behind the scenes to get CNN off the ground on June 1, 1980.
That was the day Turner pledged that his network would be broadcasting “until the world ends,” and when that day arrives – pretty soon if 2020 carries on like this – he promised that “we’ll play ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ before we sign off.” Turner himself signed off from CNN in 1996, selling his broadcasting empire to Time Warner for over $7 billion.
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Other memorable characters in the book include Reese Schonfeld, who was president of CNN from 1979 to 1982 and the brains behind the revolution that allowed the company to air 24/7 at a fraction of the cost of the three networks. (Shooting on video instead of film and introducing a computerized system were key.)
In his 2001 book “Me and Ted Against the World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN,” Schonfeld would leave no one in doubt about the role he played in the operation. “I am the creator of CNN as it appears on the air. I designed CNN’s content, format, and schedule. I recognized the promise of live news,” he wrote in the memoir. Self-aggrandizement, perhaps, but true.
Then there’s my favorite Jewish character, “Mad Dog” Ted Kavanau – a Bronx-born, pistol-packing producer who was so wed to the job, he was always asking his employers for a bed to be provided at the office. Napoli writes of this newshound: “‘Never a friendly question’ was one of his mantras. So was ‘There are two sides to every story. How many did you get?’”
The book also features some great tales from his time in mid-’70s New York, including working with self-titled news teams like “the Jew Crew” and “the Fascist Crew,” or the time he persuaded a TV journalist to dress up in Hasidic garb for a story about shtreimel stealers, in the hope of being able to film a robbery on the streets of Williamsburg.
There’s former CBS diplomatic correspondent Daniel Schorr, who was “willing to stake his reputation” on the outlet since Turner was “willing to stake his entire fortune” on CNN. And many other higher-ups, including Brett Reinhardt and husband-and-wife Joan Maxwell and Rick Brown, who had to be convinced that a southern city like Atlanta was a “safe and welcoming place” for Jewish people. (It certainly proved a desert for decent bagels.)
Oh, and last but not least there’s the Progressive Club. This one-time country club for Russian Jews in Atlanta became CNN’s first studio after being purchased by Turner for $4.2 million in the late ’70s. “New hires cheekily referred to this building as the ‘news kibbutz’ and ‘Kosher Kolumns,’” Napoli writes, the latter a reference to the ornate white columns across the front porch. The building had long fallen into disrepair by 1979, with Schonfeld writing in his memoir that it “had gone belly up after a Georgia attorney general banned slot machines from private clubs.”
Ted talks – a lot
“Up All Night” is also something of a personal story for Brooklyn-born-and-raised Napoli, 56, who started her career with CNN Headline News in Atlanta back in 1984. “At this stage of my life I was just curious how the place had gotten to where it was – because I didn’t know it when I worked there,” she told Haaretz in a Zoom call from her mother’s home in Boca Raton, Florida.
Her previous book, 2016’s “Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away,” was about another tycoon, McDonald’s entrepreneur Ray Kroc – who, like Turner, also had a Jewish president (Harry Sonneborn) he relied on in the early years and eventually fired. It’s also no coincidence that Napoli’s follow-up is another origin story.
“I’m fascinated by how things that we take for granted get to that point,” she says. “I think it’s really important to understand the roots of everything. I was a technology reporter for many years and – especially now that CNN is such a polarizing force – I was fascinated to find out that the real impetus for it starting was not politics at all.”
It was, she says, “a constellation of technological innovations that made CNN possible” – which began at the start of the ’70s, when Turner took a gamble on an independent television station in Atlanta that would broadcast reruns of shows like “Hogan’s Heroes” and “Star Trek,” and all manner of films. The station, WTCG, was initially only available on UHF (ultra high frequency) – a venture considered a long shot.
In those early years, Turner could have cared less about news, seeing it as an expensive endeavor that offered no reward for viewers and merely detailed all the bad things happening in the world. So when his southern station – which could be found on channel 17 if you had the right antenna and the TV gods were smiling on you – started broadcasting 24/7 in the mid-’70s, for him it was a no-brainer to push the obligatory nightly newscasts to the graveyard slot after the late-night movie ended.
Then something bizarre happened. Literally. The host, Bill Tush, started treating the news irreverently – for instance, by having a German Shepherd as a co-anchor or a “news chicken” covering stories. Cameramen would wander onto the set and throw things at Tush live on air, and television’s holy of holies suddenly became a source of mirth.
It made Turner see the news in a different light – and provides some of the book’s most entertaining stories. Channel 17’s anarchic approach to news was revolutionary in its day, but CNN would be nothing like that. Turner may have been a conservative blowhard who despised the liberal media, especially those pontificating pundits on the networks, but his grand aspiration for CNN seemed more likely to be spoken by a beauty pageant contestant than Captain Outrageous himself: world peace. (The book is prefaced by a classic Turner quote, when he promises to “bring peace to the world through television.”)
As he declared at the June 1980 launch party, which conspicuously featured the UN flag: “We hope that the Cable News Network, with its international coverage and greater-depth coverage, will bring both, in the country and in the world, a better understanding of how people from different nations live and work together.”
Napoli disagrees when I suggest that Turner was a something of a visionary with his dream for CNN. “I don’t know if he’s visionary as much as daring,” she says.
“He saw an opening and wanted to figure out how to use it. He wasn’t afraid to try something, and I guess that’s a huge part of success in business – being unafraid to experiment and fail. But it wasn’t like he invented something; he was at this moment in time when all of these technologies came together and he had the gumption to pursue it. He was a daring soul.”
‘Yours in Christ’
Turner’s quote about furthering global understanding makes some of his behavior all the more horrifying. Then again, as soon as we learn that he named a son Rhett after Clark Gable’s character in “Gone With the Wind” – which has just been removed from HBO Max due to its “ethnic and racial prejudices” – it’s abundantly clear what kind of man Turner is. Indeed, it’s impossible not to read some of these stories without having Neil Young’s “Southern Man” playing in your head.
Turner bought the Atlanta Braves baseball team in the mid-’70s, which is how he crossed paths with then-sports agent Jerry Kapstein – who was not on the mogul’s Christmas card list for more reasons than the obvious one. Turner told journalists that he would happily explain his antipathy toward the agent, because “you should have some reason to dislike a guy besides the fact that he wears a full-length fur coat and is a Jew.”
A subsequent letter to Kapstein – signed “Yours in Christ” – led to a rebuke from the Anti-Defamation League, an apology from Turner himself and a letter to a local Jewish newspaper by several of Turner’s Jewish employees at channel 17, who wrote that their boss was not antisemitic but simply, as Napoli puts it, an equal opportunity offender.
Turner is 81 now but was diagnosed with a form of dementia in 2018, making him incapable of discussing any of these stories even if he wanted to. Napoli, though, believes he has already said plenty enough about his past.
“What I’ve learned from reading biography and writing one before is that when you go to talk to somebody – especially someone older, who is in a position of power – they’re not going to say much that’s new to you today that they didn’t say a thousand times over the course of their younger years,” she explains.
What’s clear from “Up All Night” is that Turner was always looking to hire the smartest person in the room – hence his pursuit of Schonfeld to fulfill his dream of a 24/7 cable news operation in the late ’70s.
“He found the best person, who happened to be Jewish,” Napoli says. “He happened to hire somebody who was the really perfect person for him, especially at that moment in time, and [Schonfeld] in turn hired experienced media people – many of whom happened to have been Jewish.”
When Napoli started researching the book, she had forgotten just how “wild” Turner was, as she puts it. “I knew he was off-the-cuff and had no filter, but I didn’t know he was quite so incendiary – I didn’t know at all, actually.”
Asked how she regards Turner now, after all her research, she says she doesn’t believe he was an antisemite, though she admits that it’s impossible to know what was ever going through the tycoon’s mind. “People who worked for him saw him as an inflammatory loose cannon – and yet many of them stayed with him for years, despite that,” she says.
She goes on to compare Turner to the subject of her previous book, Kroc: “What I observed in studying Ray Kroc was that, like Ted Turner, he could be nasty and dismissive of employees, regardless of their race or religion. At the time when Kroc worked and even a bit later during Ted’s heyday, that kind of wiring was sadly not uncommon, and they could get away with it – especially since they were in charge. It’s hard to imagine today that they’d last for one second if they behaved that way.”
Another recurrent theme in the book is Turner’s seeming obsession with Hitler, whose name appears way more times than you’d imagine possible. One former classmate at Brown observed that Ted would “drone on about Hitler, whom he considered the ‘most powerful man of all time.’” Later, as a successful businessman, he would be complimentary about Hitler’s “organizational skills” or liken Hitler and Alexander the Great’s “quests to conquer the world with his own,” Napoli writes.
Even now, at the end of the writing process, Napoli is at a loss to explain that fascination. “It’s so strange,” she says. “It would be like saying 9/11 is ‘evil genius’: You don’t really think it’s ‘genius’ in an admirable way, but I think that’s what he meant about Hitler. I’m guessing – and I should not be guessing, it’s not my job to guess – but he did have this bizarre fascination with warriors and war and battle. He found Hitler an intriguing person.” But, she stresses, she “never read anything that suggested he thought what Hitler did was right or good, not at all.”
Napoli points out in a subsequent email exchange that Turner would again face censure from the ADL in later years: first in July 1995, after he said his inability to buy a broadcasting network made him feel like “those Jewish people in Germany in 1942,” and in October 1996, after reportedly comparing fellow media mogul Rupert Murdoch to – who else? – Hitler.
Chicken Noodle News
Napoli was able to watch plenty of footage from CNN’s early years after people posted archival videos online. One man – you just knew it was going to be a man, right? – even recorded the channel’s first three or four hours from June 1980, which began with the less than momentous words: “Good evening, I’m David Walker.”
CNN was the subject of much derision in its formative days, with Chicken Noodle News just one of the insults. After watching those early CNN clips, Napoli doesn’t believe the criticism was justified. “It looks a little less polished than the networks did, but not so substantially that it was embarrassing,” she says.
“But as you know, news people are cynics and are cynical about themselves, and that was just a way to say: ‘Look, we don’t have the resources the other guys do, but that doesn’t mean we’re bad or stupid.’ The networks very quickly saw that they meant business, and didn’t disparage them. They actually wanted to steal a lot of what they were doing and started mimicking them.”
“Up All Night” concludes with Napoli acknowledging that “for better or worse,” CNN sparked a news revolution. Asked which side of that argument she falls on, she says that “the introduction of Fox and then MSNBC indelibly changed 24-hour news for the worse, and it became a polarized, political, personality-driven affair.”
For someone who has just penned an excellent book about the birth of 24-hour news, Napoli also has a surprising revelation: “You know, I don’t watch television. I don’t own a television and I don’t watch 24-hour news. I just don’t feel that I need to know the news so urgently. And I prefer not to see television news – I prefer to read my news. I’m an outlier in the world, but that’s how I am.”
“Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News,” published by Abrams Press, is out now, priced $27.