Inventing the (News) Wheel


CNN turned 25 last week, having survived a difficult infancy and the awkwardness of puberty to grow into young adulthood as a money-making news machine.

Now it has plenty of rivals for the 24-hour news affections of the nation, and it has succeeded in helping change the way news is gathered and reported, which is not so much a marathon as an endless series of sprints and pauses.

Back in June 1980, any of the broadcast networks could have started the revolution. “I thought one of the networks would do it,” CNN's founder Ted Turner told Wolf Blitzer last week. “They had all the raw material. They had bureaus. They had affiliates that could get them the footage. All they had to do was hire a couple of announcers and set them in front of a table and get a few tape machines and they could go into business.”

At first, nobody challenged CNN, either because they thought it was folly or they didn't have the guts. But when ABC/Westinghouse's deep-pocketed Satellite NewsChannels finally jumped in, it was CNN—facing $2 million-a-month losses and nervous creditors—that still prevailed.

CNN came of age Jan. 16, 1991, when it was the only news organization still in Baghdad as American bombs began to fall. The whole world was watching. The network even had something of a captive audience in its own sphere, with many media executives gathered at the NATPE convention watching events unfold on the big TVs in the convention hall before bugging out to manage their own coverage.

NBC anchor Tom Brokaw said on air, “CNN used to be called the little network that could. It's no longer a little network.”

CNN's history has not all been high notes. Seven years ago this week, it aired its investigative report on Operation Tailwind that said the U.S. military used nerve gas in a mission to kill American defectors during the Vietnam War. It retracted the story about a month later. But the incident seemed to paralyze CNN.

Management became less stable, and the competition eventually caught up. Then Fox News Channel became the dominant player.

But that hardly diminishes the invention of CNN. The idea of 24-hour news, radical when Turner launched CNN, is now the currency of all media coverage, whether from competing news networks or from the “always on” Web sites of virtually every broadcast station and newspaper on the planet.

The 24-hour news cycle has been a double-edged sword. Never have viewers had more access to more news in something approaching real time. But the pressure to fill that bottomless pit leaves journalists less time to digest information and give it context and more opportunity for overkill.

In that sense, CNN changed us. Faced with a flood of information, it is now the viewers' responsibility to select and prioritize the importance of “news.”

Viewers today make that choice from an increasing array of sources that differ not only in quality but in point of view and breadth of coverage. But CNN was first and continues to offer a distinct voice that has been as important on the world stage as it has been revolutionary.