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CNN Is Anything but Mickey Mouse

Ted Turner has to save the network from being swallowed by Disney.

October 01, 2002|KEN BODE | Ken Bode, a professor of broadcast journalism at Northwestern University, was moderator of PBS' "Washington Week in Review" from 1994 to 1999.

Let's not bury the lead. It is time for Ted Turner to take some of the $2 billion that the money magazines say he has and buy back CNN, endow it and have it run as the all-news channel it was conceived to be.

CNN is once again being shopped around. In previous iterations there was a prospective merger with CBS News or a takeover by NBC. This time the rumor is that AOL Time Warner will spin off CNN and allow it to be absorbed by Walt Disney Co. and merged with ABC News, the stepchild news division owned by Disney.

When Turner initially agreed to sell CNN to Time-Warner, Time's chief executive, Gerald Levin, called CNN the "jewel in the crown."

It turned out that Levin didn't know what he was buying. All he knew was that CNN had worldwide reach. That it was the network that every U.S. newsroom tuned to; that it was the one Boris Yeltsin kept on in his office, Fidel Castro in his kitchen and Saddam Hussein in his bunkers. When President Clinton fired cruise missiles at Baghdad (in response to Iraq's attempt to assassinate former President Bush), the White House had to call CNN President Tom Johnson to ask what had been hit.

For working reporters in both companies, the Time-CNN merger seemed to promise a natural symbiosis. Two strong news organizations with worldwide reach--one television, one print--was a merger that appeared to add value to both. Then the culture clash set in.

A team of Time executives paid a visit to CNN's Washington bureau to examine the new acquisition. They found veteran correspondent Bruce Morton in his office, and the joshing began. When one of the blue suits from Time mentioned that they couldn't wait for the day when they only had to write 150 words, Morton replied, "And we at CNN can't wait for the day we only have to do it once a week."

On the Time side, once the bean counters and executives began to understand the vicissitudes of cable television and the competitiveness of the ratings cycle, the joshing soon turned sour.

One executive complained that Time sends out more Christmas cards than CNN has viewers. On the CNN side, there was a feeling that the new owners had no appreciation for what they did, which was cover real news, worldwide, at less cost than anyplace else in television.

The culture clash morphed into a form of tissue rejection.

Driving to work one day, I heard the news that AOL had bought Time Warner. Does NPR have it backward, I thought? Time must have bought AOL. Even at the time of the stratospheric rise of the dot-coms, was it fathomable that an Internet start-up could purchase a worldwide publishing conglomerate like Time Warner?

But it was true, and CNN was a small part of the deal, albeit advertised once again as a priceless part of the package.

Now, like the rest of the Nasdaq overachievers, AOL's stock is tanking, and the geniuses are looking to unload CNN. If the plan to merge CNN with ABC News goes through, CNN will become a tiny slice of the enormous Disney pie.

Disney is one of those enterprises with a huge CEO salary and ailing market prospects. The last time Disney share prices plummeted, company executives traveled to Washington to explain to the ABC News bureau why it would have to sacrifice jobs to the corporate bottom line.

Next time, it could be CNN producers and correspondents whose jobs are on the line.

The core value of CNN is not duplicated anywhere else in television news. It is the network the world turns to when there is real news to cover, especially foreign news.

ABC, NBC and CBS already have responded to budget constraints by closing down foreign bureaus. If there is a major labor demonstration in Paris, all the footage on those networks looks the same because they all buy it from independent contractors in Europe. CNN has news crews and correspondents on the ground, reporting from 31 bureaus around the world.

Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather could gather for a quiet breakfast in the coffee shop of the Baghdad Hilton and no one would notice. If they were joined by Christiane Amanpour, there would be 100 autograph seekers in five minutes.

If ABC News and CNN are merged, it will be a major step toward that great nirvana to which we seem to be heading when all television news looks the same.

Competition used to be considered a healthy thing in journalism, but with this deal, there would be less of it.

Disney's accountants would quickly find cost savings by closing competitive CNN-ABC bureaus in Beijing, London, Moscow and perhaps even Washington. Ted Koppel and "Nightline" would find a new home at CNN.

Then, when Disney stock slides again, the rest of CNN's overseas bureaus would be on the chopping block.

In the entertainment-based corporate culture of Disney, news has no particular value except what it contributes to the bottom line.

Where are you, Ted Turner? CNN is the most important of the many things you created. Buy it back. Then, if President Bush decides to blow up the Baghdad Hilton, at least your old network will still be around to cover the war.

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