John Malone, the 81-year-old billionaire CEO of Liberty Media, appeared on CNBC Thursday to discuss CNN’s recent travails. Malone’s company owns a sizable share of Discovery Media, which is set to be the new owner of Ted Turner’s old network. Malone is going to have a large say in CNN’s future. So my interest was piqued the other day when I spotted Malone bloviating about how selling CNN now would be the coward’s way out.
Well, obviously. But if the great white business shark Malone wants to step up and really fix what’s ailing CNN, here’s what he might do:
1) Dump CNN’s entire anchor staff, their producers, and any editorial staffer hired by Jeff “Mother” Zucker. No exceptions.
2) As a stopgap, replace domestic broadcasts with CNN International, with its familiar “classic CNN” news package style. Over time, work in more unaccented reporters and anchors.
3) Promote Senior Vice President Jack Womack to be HMFIC (head man forcefully in charge) of CNN.
4) Give Womack his marching orders and get the hell out of the way.
Womack and I go back to 1985 when he was a newbie and I was a special assignments correspondent. I was an adrenaline junkie who liked commuting to guerrilla war zones and jumping out of airplanes with the U.S. Army Rangers, while Jack was a multipotentialite, doing every different job at the network.
Just imagine Jack Womack as one great big rosy-cheeked Eagle Scout with every CNN merit badge known to man. So many merit badges that he needed two sashes!
The guy has done every job from news editor to anchorman to vice-president-of-this-that-the-other-and-the-gigahertz-thingabob-at-the-antenna-farm. He learned the latter from the best there ever was, our mutual friend, the late Dick Tauber, CNN’s vice president for transmission systems and new technology. (It was Dick’s foresight alone that brought CNN to prominence during the first Gulf War, but that is a story for another time.)
Another thing about Jack Womack: He’s not a grandstander. He keeps a low profile. He’s like a snow leopard who inhabits the rocky outcroppings of steep cliffs: invisible, unless you happen to trip over him.
Womack has consistently found an office on the highest floor and farthest away from all the standard, groveling, power-jockeying executive pukes who think they are in charge, and then runs the entire electronic soul of all the CNN networks from his snow leopard lair.
We had a falling out a couple of years ago when he failed to wear a necktie for a ceremony honoring our founder, friend, and leader, Ted Turner.
Look, I’m an old-school American of Italian extraction. So I pointed out to Jack that we were there to pay our respects to our old boss, and it was bad manners to show up sporting the California casual open-collar look—as then-WarnerMedia chief John Stankey, alleged newsman Jeff Zucker, and Jack, an actual CNN news guy, had done. He gave me the snow leopard snarl about not “getting the memo” and said this was the new way.
“Not in front of Ted Turner, Jack!” (And Turner, of course, was wearing his old, old CNN tie.) We haven’t spoken since.
With that said, I can think of no one anywhere at CNN who surpasses Womack’s knowledge of how the network functions. And as a former anchorman himself, he knows the editorial side very well.
If CNN’s new owners really intend to reorient the network’s focus toward straight news reporting again, they would do well to take advantage of institutional memory.
Give Womack the job, John Malone. But tell him to wear a damned tie.