CNN is dying. Its president, Jeff Zucker, was just fired. (Or, rather, he “resigned.”) The network’s viewership is plummeting, and fewer than 500,000 people on average tuned in last month. Advertisers don’t send their dollars there much anymore, and the “stars” the network once had either have been removed for cause or caught up in sex or other scandals.
Chris “Fredo” Cuomo threatened to burn the place down after getting fired last year. Why does the parent company—AT&T, a telephone megacompany—put up with it? CNN is a drag on the parent company’s earnings, a thorn in its side, and a hit on its reputation. Wouldn’t a rational actor cancel the network altogether or sell it off and be done with it? With $150 billion in debt, no wonder AT&T decided to sell the ailing network to the Discovery Network. AT&T will no doubt benefit from getting out of politics.
What I Saw Behind the Scenes at CNN
It wasn’t always this way. Atlanta was a Southern town, but it was becoming something very different and more impressive by 1992. It was getting cosmopolitan and downright worldly. Atlanta had won the 1996 Summer Olympics (secured by Mayor Andrew Young at—you guessed it—Davos). Segregation was over and grits were becoming hard to find.
One company had come to personify the newfound swagger and embodied the spirit of the “New South.” That company had started as a small-fry radio station with a big signal and had grown into the powerhouse, most-watched-network on cable television. Its format was unheard of at the time: all news, all the time.
After the Gulf War, an entrepreneurial Ted Turner, CNN’s founder and CEO, bragged he had won. CNN represented raw media power never before seen.
When you met Turner, with his smile, pencil mustache, and an unsurpassed ability to speak his mind, he instantly mesmerized you. I went to dinner a few times with him and then-wife Jane Fonda. In their Bugatti restaurant we had bison steaks and talked about his growing global news empire.
Turner could get angry and was even known to throw phones, but when he wanted something he went after it like an untamed bulldog. He invited me to an Atlanta Braves game once, and we sat in the dugout. When Chipper Jones hit a homerun to win the game, they brought Turner the ball and he gave it to me. I still have it.
Tom Johnson ran CNN from 1990 until his retirement in 2001. He was a senior TV journalist who had been Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary. He knew his way around Washington but was often hidden away as if he was battling something. It turns out he was: his own deep depression, which he would later write about in a brutally honest account.
The main man at CNN, however, was the colorful and ego-driven Lou Dobbs. His star was ascending, and he wanted Ted to make him president of CNN. As Lou often does, he was posturing. He thought a lot of himself, and his people in New York at the offices across from Penn Station, were both afraid of him and yet oddly devoted to him. I was never sure which came first. I liked Lou a lot and he was a good head. When he left CNN, the network lost a leader and a fair-minded news journalist. Politically and economically, he was a Trumpist before there was a Trump.
CNN’s World Economic Development Conference
The idea for a World Economic Development Congress was not mine. An entrepreneurial madman from Boston, who had bought and sold conferences in healthcare and other industries, originated the scheme and sought me out with my Davos experience to become president and run it. He took all my suggestions and let me run it, even giving me a piece of the action.
Getting CNN to be the named marquee co-sponsor and brand was not easy and I was sent to sell them on it. The bumpkins from Atlanta were salivating and the higher ups thought it a “no-brainer.” Ted was quick to say yes because he wanted to flex his muscle after the Gulf War coverage, and this fit his larger goals. We were assigned a working relationship with Dobbs and I met with him regularly and talked to him on an almost daily basis.
The idea was to compete with Davos, plain and simple. I thought that by bringing the world’s elite to a meeting just prior to the annual World Bank-IMF meetings in Washington, D.C. (Bill Clinton would later do the same in New York ahead of the United Nations General Assembly meetings) we had an opportunity and timing to exploit. Many big shots were coming anyway, so all we had to do was build a compelling reason to attend our show.
The theme was “Building the Integrated Global Economy.” We wrote a clever script and CNN used its footage and they played the invitation a million times or more all over its giant global network. You couldn’t get away from it. It was on in every hotel room in the world, at every hour, and in every airport.
We invited everyone on every list. Klaus Schwab got wind of it and he was mad as hell. The one thing a monopolist hates is competition. He claimed we were using his material, stealing his ideas. There is no patent on such ideas and, indeed, I had learned much in the mountains of Switzerland. We invited many of the same players but because our price points were lower and we had a full-blown trade show, we extended far beyond any other similar event.
I got DRI/McGraw Hill, the economics firm where I had friends such as their chief economist, to produce a Directory of World Markets for the event. It included definitive material on over 100 countries, and it came in a fancy binding. They did it for a barter sponsorship. That was my plan to get as much in barter as possible and have to pay very little except for a few big-name speakers so as to have a huge windfall.
The sponsor side involved hiring a sales staff and working with them to get meetings and close deals. It wasn’t easy. In the end, we had about 30 sponsors at different levels and raised over $3.5 million. The big ones like Sprint, Cadillac, and Digital gave a bundle and I got Europeans, even Swiss, and, quite surprisingly, Japanese sponsors, to kick in. On a trip to Japan, we closed the giant Fujisankei for a big check and got the Japan Club, Nippon Air, and many government officials to agree to participate.
Although CNN had a say in the program, the network did not control it and were paid nothing. At the actual meeting, I was on the elevator at one point with Ted Turner, who was quite perturbed that he was getting squat for lending his brand to our confab. He didn’t even get a percentage. What can I say? He wasn’t exactly a great negotiator.
Thatcher Makes History—Again
We decided spending real money was critical for some big name draws. I got British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to agree to be chairwoman and to deliver a prime-time keynote address. We had to pay her $60,000 but it was worth it. At the congress, she was delightful in her coiffered blue hair and grandmotherly dress, purse clutched in hand. But under it all, she remained an Iron Lady. At a private breakfast before she spoke with Tom Johnson, Lou Dobbs and me, she acted matronly, yet confident. Dobbs, who was a chain smoker, blew a puff right at her and she stopped in her tracks and said to him in a reprimanding voice, “Will you either stop that or leave the room?” Lou did and was utterly embarrassed. She was that tough.
She said she had had second thoughts about her speech, which was to go live on CNN in just minutes and she had stayed up until 2 a.m. rewriting it. I could see it was all marked up with her red pen. I was surprised as I had just assumed she would give a canned speech written by speechwriters full of platitudes. When we went out on stage, I introduced her in the kindest of words, with a bit of hagiography and using some fantastic film footage CNN had assembled by way of introduction for all the speakers. It was a dark room, some music, followed by these powerful one- or two-minute, newsworthy bios. Then the lights would rise slowly. It elevated the audience and the speakers themselves were awed—blown away. Thatcher’s first words were—I paraphrase in part—whoever put this Congress together is a genius and truly a “global Sherpa.” Then she thanked me. I have used the praise and moniker ever since.
Lady Thatcher went on to give an historic speech that did not mince words. It was a hammer blow to the stomach. It was, in fact, her now-famous Maastricht speech, which concluded against Britain being a full part of Europe and against joining the Euro. People were amazed and dumbstruck by her strong words, fortitude, and sheer brilliance.
She took no questions. As I raced to the men’s room afterward, I saw George Soros, the tycoon investor, who was moderating one of our tracks on global finance, and we entered the lavatory together and approached the urinal. He said, “quite a speech.” I said “Yes, what do you make of it?” He said we’d have to see. That weekend, he shorted the British pound in one of the biggest naked plays against a currency of all time. He made a clean $2 billion. I only wish he had let me in on it.
Kissinger’s Human Side
The other big name we paid significant money to speak was the inimitable, former Nixon Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. He was surprisingly generous with his time and genuinely interested in the theme of the Congress. His keynote covered all the bases in geopolitics, save one, Africa. You could see how his deep Germanic professorial voice could be, perhaps an aphrodisiac? It sounded like he had marbles in his mouth.
He took questions from the large audience sitting at a table with Lou Dobbs on one side and me on the other. He didn’t acknowledge Dobbs or his journalistic questions, it was obvious. My questions synthesized those from white cards collected from the audience. I had devised that plan because that way they (the paying audience) felt they, too, were being included. The failure to mention Africa elicited one question for which Kissinger was apologetic but he said that Africa would continue to suffer and had few prospects, which is why he had neglected it. He was bluntly persuasive.
The final question at the end of the hour was mine. I said, “I have a card here”—I did not; it was made up—“from a gentleman who is an Indian living in London with family dispersed throughout the United States and the Middle East. His daughter has just given birth to her first child, a baby girl, this morning at 6:05 a.m. GMT. She wants to know, will the world see peace in her baby’s lifetime?”
Kissinger, the stern, accomplished diplomat who had worked with the Vietnamese and taken Nixon to China, choked up. He was, you could see live on CNN, emotional. Touched by this final question. It showed a side of him that few before or since have ever seen: A human side. He said contritely, “I don’t know, but I pray so.”
To the big reception at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum that evening, I rode with Kissinger in a rented limo and a security escort. In the back of the car, we chatted and exchanged pleasantries. He wanted to know about the audience and how large it was. More than 2,500, I said. He had a few more specific queries. Then he paused and asked, in great seriousness, “Tell me Ted, how much did you make on this thing?” It proved to me he was not just a brilliant strategist, and a human being, but also a shrewd businessman.
When tallied up we had some 2,500 attendees, from 117 countries, seven heads of state, some 100 ministers of government from finance and economy to industry and foreign affairs. We had more than 200 CEOs, including the likes of Michael Dell, Akita Morita, and Dwayne Andreas, and many from overseas. We had so many bankers that that track had standing room only. The Japanese were there in droves.
We had succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. CNN was the reason why. The brand was incredibly valuable and respected.
CNN Forgot Its Roots
Over the next decades, CNN left its roots, stopped being the news agency with international reach it set out to be, and morphed into an increasingly maniacal, 24/7 left-wing diatribe with a one-track ideology, a failed business plan, and total jerks for leaders. It couldn’t help itself and it was sold, repackaged, mortgaged and lapsed into its present state of utter demise.
Without Donald Trump to kick around today, its audience has simply disappeared as the network was exposed as a shrill, leftist, political organ, predictably boring and essentially the pinnacle of “fake news.”
Now, it has no future. Ted Turner, who soon turns 84, is unwell and struggling with Lewy body dementia. But he couldn’t possibly be happy with the turn the network has taken. Lou Dobbs is laughing out loud. Is it too much to hope that CNN’s death could perhaps cause a resurgence in real journalism? Probably.
Another alternative is possible. What if CNN were to sell to Donald Trump and rename itself TNN? “All Trump, All the Time” could be the slogan. The ratings would soar, you have to admit. He could run his rallies 24/7 and hire his former appointees.
And it would be real, not fake news! We can dream, anyway.