Nonstop Headlines: How CNN Changed the Way We Get Our News

From a Wall Street Journal review by Edward Kosner of the book Up All Night by Lisa Napoli:

If a Mount Rushmore of American journalism is ever carved out of some Western mountain, Ted Turner’s gap-toothed grin is unlikely to be up there next to Hearst, Pulitzer and whichever other worthy makes the cut. Yet the often-buffoonish billionaire “Mouth of the South” is as responsible as any other pioneer for the way Americans get their news today.

Mr. Turner is 81 now and suffering from an uncommon form of dementia, but his place in the pantheon is secure. His harum-scarum, visionary creation of the Cable News Network in 1980 irrevocably changed television news and has had a tangible impact on print journalism as well. Print-media newsrooms are still festooned with TV sets tuned to CNN, and every airport has the cable channel—or one of its competitors—visible in the boarding areas.

CNN today, with Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper and its rotating panels of opinion-a-minute pundits, bears little resemblance to its early incarnation with big-haired anchorwomen and focus on straight, breaking news. Pop contributors like Rona Barrett, Dr. Joyce Brothers and the astrologist Jeane Dixon livened the mix but didn’t change the feel of the channel.

Mr. Turner’s success inevitably bred competition—first MSNBC, a collaboration between Microsoft and NBC News, in the summer of 1996 and then, most significantly, Fox News a few months later. . . .

These channels soon realized that it’s more cost-effective and appealing to fill many of their endless hours of programming with the opinions of “contributors” instead of straight-news coverage. The result is that three of America’s most influential news sources have a far more partisan flavor than was the norm when the broadcast networks set the tone. Influential newspapers, too, have loosened their definition of straight-news writing.

On June 1, CNN will celebrate the 40th anniversary of its first broadcast. To mark the milestone, Lisa Napoli has written “Up All Night,” an artful, anecdote-rich account of Mr. Turner and CNN. It’s an entertaining chronicle full of sketches of the odd pros on the Turner team and flashbacks to the big stories at the dawn of TV news. . . .Ms. Napoli, a journalist who started her career as an intern at CNN in 1981, presents an indelible portrait of the media mogul in all his profane, cartoonish glory.  . . .

“ ‘News’ no longer meant reporting an event in its aftermath,” writes Ms. Napoli. “Forevermore, news would mean following an endless shower of unfolding details, right before your very eyes. News, in other words, had become sports.”

And that’s the way it is, as Walter Cronkite liked to say.

Kosner is the former editor of Newsweek, New York, Esquire and the New York Daily News.

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