Reese Schonfeld: The Man Who Invented CNN

I was saddened to read, a few days ago, about the death of Reese Schonfeld, 88, the founding president of CNN. I was the television critic and reporter for the Atlanta Constitution when Ted Turner launched television’s first live, 24-hour news channel in June 1980, and I followed its start-up and early years as closely as anyone. If Turner had the vision, the guts, and the resources to pursue what seemed, to many at the time, like nothing but a pipe dream,  Schonfeld was the shrewd field general who turned that dream into a reality.

Schonfeld was the right guy at the right time. He had spent many years with UPI, and four years as head of the Independent Television News Association, which supplied news footage to local stations. Turner hired Schonfeld because he had a reputation for being able to do news on the cheap. Yet he had enough journalistic savvy to make him a credible manager for the new operation, and the resourcefulness of an outsider willing take chances and make his own rules.

He was also prescient. “The networks do not regard news as a business,” he told me when I first interviewed him, shortly after he was hired. “I want to make news self-supporting. On that basis, TV news will gain a new respect.” At a time when network news was considered a loss leader, the sentiment may have seemed unrealistic; today it is almost a tautology.

Given barely a year to build a 24-hour TV news operation from scratch, Schonfeld made some key decisions at the outset that shaped the way CNN, and all of cable-TV news, would develop. Rather than serve up a rotating wheel of news, in the manner of all-news radio, Schonfeld created a schedule made up discrete programs throughout the day and evening, meant both to counterprogram the broadcast networks and to keep viewers watching for longer than a 20- or 30-minute cycle of news headlines. CNN’s original schedule featured a two-hour prime-time newscast, which didn’t work out so well; but it also had talk shows, business reports, entertainment news and sports.  One of Schonfeld’s smartest innovations was the pioneering debate show Crossfire, which pitted conservative Pat Buchanan against liberal Tom Braden — a foretaste of all the opinionated talking heads that would come to dominate cable news decades later.

Schonfeld also knew that personalities were the key to getting news viewers. Turner had already hired one high-profile network correspondent, CBS’s Daniel Schorr, and Schonfeld made aggressive (if unsuccessful) efforts to grab other big names, like former CBS Evening News anchor Douglas Edwards and ABC’s young hotshot Geraldo Rivera.  Mostly he had to settle for a lineup of solid network B-players, like former ABC correspondents Bernard Shaw and Don Farmer, along with a mix of local anchors eager for a big break on national TV.  But he also boosted the network’s star power with big-name commentators, from Barry Goldwater on the right to Bella Abzug and Ralph Nader on the left.

CNN made plenty of stumbles in first few months. But it also broke news; provided live coverage of breaking stories (like the explosion of a Titan missile base in Arkansas); and pulled off a newsmaking stunt during the 1980 Presidential campaign by giving third-party candidate John Anderson a chance to participate in a two-man debate between President Jimmy Carter and Republican nominee Ronald Reagan. And Schonfeld knew how to get the most out of his tight budget— designing, for example, an open newsroom set (to “show the whole process of newsgathering,”) that became a model for many others to come.

Schonfeld was a big, shambling news executive with a toothy, Milton Berle grin and what some described as a volatile temper. He lasted only two years at CNN — resigning in May 1982 after clashing with Turner over personnel issues. But he set CNN on the path that would transform television news. Assessing the network’s progress a few months after its launch, Schonfeld told me his formula for success: “First get on; then get honest; then get honor.” He had managed, against the odds, to get CNN on the air; and it had quickly proven itself to be an honest, credible news operation.  Honor would come only later — but Schonfeld deserves to share in all of it.

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