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Advice to Jeff Zucker

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This morning's Washington Post provides the best reporting yet on the new CNN and Jeff Zucker's intentions. It reports on the last 12 years of its 30 year decline and Zucker's attempts to turn the network around. It's good reporting, but it fails to consider CNN's early years and early strategy.

I created CNN as the antithesis of the then three major networks. That was pretty easy in those days, as news on the three networks had not changed much over the previous 15 years. They were producer-dominated news programs, where producers in New York decided what was going to be on their show and assigned bureaus and freelancers to cover what they thought they needed. CNN was a bureau/reporter dominated network and operated in a different fashion.

I had spent 17 years at United Press International Television News (UPI/TN) covering the news the way a news service does, relying on bureau chiefs and reporters to find and cover the news that would flow over the UPI wires to newspapers, television and radio networks and local stations. The original CNN followed that model and it produced many exclusives over its first two years.

Before joining Ted Turner as the CEO of CNN, I had, with John Corporon, News Director of WPIX, the Chicago Tribune station in New York, created the Independent Television News Association (ITNA). We launched with nine affiliates and five years later when Ted called me we had grown to two dozen members, all receiving pre-edited television pieces from us via satellite. ITNA was both a journalistic and financial success and reached its peak on February 1, 1979, when it was the only network in the world to feed live coverage of the Ayatollah's return to Iran. Only our stations and our foreign affiliate, the European Broadcast Union (EBU), showed it either that night or in Europe the next day.

At CNN we adopted the same strategy. Our motto was live, live and more live. On June 2, 1980, when Castro's criminal Marielitos were released into the waters off Key West, the only reporter on the scene was CNN's Mike Boettcher who reported the story via the world's first portable satellite truck. It was the second day after CNN's launch, and the other networks already had to play catch up.

In September, CNN's Jim Miklaszewski was the only reporter on the scene after a nuclear-tipped missile fell off its launching pad and for two days was feeding us live coverage of the event. The other three networks never caught up. We were first out of Rome when Pope John Paul was shot and the only network to correctly interpret what the man who shot him said when he said he was sorry for his assassination attempt. We had the only camera feeding live from the press room when David Stockman, President Reagan's budget director, came out and took his lumps after he was quoted in the Atlantic Monthly that the president's plan to cut spending and lower taxes had proved to be a fantasy. "We didn't think it all the way through, and we didn't add up the numbers."

We also were the fist to recognize the AIDS plague (first thought to be Kaposi's sarcoma and later called GRIDS) and carried a couple of stories a week about the disease before others paid much attention. We also broke the news that President Carter was negotiating with the Ayatollah Khomeini through the Hashemi brothers for the release of the American captives held by the Iranians after they overthrew the Shah. No one else had the story, but we stuck with it, and I think history has proved us right.

We invented the open news room when CNN began. The newsroom was in the background of all our shots. In the background people were rushing, delivering material and messages. Sometimes people were sweeping the floors or changing lightbulbs. It was our attempt at conveying the excitement of news gathering to our viewers -- to get them to root for us in our efforts. Now CNN concentrates on cosmetics -- uses all the tricks of the trade, makes everything look pretty, but never commit a mistake on the air.

A few years ago I learned that the CNN assignment desk no longer decides on assignments. Their show producers control assignments and the bureau chiefs must check with them about the stories they're covering. I think all of CNN's "excitement" has vanished. I see its news programming as staid and stale.

In 1982 when Ted fired me, CNN had a one rating. I believe our ratings were that good because our system worked. When Ted Turner left CNN in 2001, it had between a point four and point five rating. Now it gets between a point three and a point four.

In 1982, Jim Miklaszewski was covering the election in El Salvador. The three network producers there were getting "rockets" from their bosses telling them that someone (Miklaszewski) was beating the hell out of them every day. Mik says that his "advantage was that he was able to get out into the field at 7 a.m. and find his own stories, while the other guys had to wait until after the New York 10 a.m. news meetings so New York could tell them what the stories were." His instructions were "Just do what you can and don't miss the big ones."

Left to his own, Mik never missed a big one, and neither did CNN. Now CNN is going the network way and missing a lot of its old audience.

I hope Jeff Zucker reads this piece.