Ted Turner Started It – Background

Before cable TV, and CNN, everyone got their news through the three TV networks. At a prescribed time once a day, trusted figures like Walter Cronkite told the American people what was newsworthy. They didn’t interpret it. They didn’t spin it. There was no agenda, or at least that was the idea. News was not a profit center for the networks, but the fulfillment of an obligation to the government, “payment” for the use of the airwaves over which their for-profit programming would be offered before and after the news was presented.

Ted Turner came up with the brilliant idea of a for-profit 24 hour news network that was offered over pay cable and therefore not subject to existing constraints and conventions. The first gulf war revealed the enormous pent-up demand for up-to-the-second news. No longer did we have to wait until six PM to find out who was shooting at who.

So far so good.

But Turner also had another idea that most people didn’t recognize as a problem at the time – he wanted to present an international viewpoint to an international audience. This meant the occasional story from the Iraqi point of view or stories about how the U.S. military was actually fucking things up now and then.

This was a little jarring to some people who felt that the news presented by Americans to Americans should understand Americans to be the good guys. CNN employed journalists, yes, but before that they were Americans. Edward R. Murrow never presented any story from the German viewpoint. He wanted us to win, though this was not understood as “bias” at the time.

Enter Roger Ailes. In the news-for-profit era, increasing ratings was far more important than getting the story right. The line between opinion and reporting blurred. FoxNews created a winner with its hard right fact-free version of the news, easily surpassing CNN in viewership, which was now the only important measure of success.

The only loser was the American people. No longer did we all tune in to the same stories at the same time every day to learn what was going on. Now there was a 24-hour echo chamber in which we could all have our viewpoints validated without worrying about what might be “true”, or, perhaps, learning something. Just stay away from those “other” channels, the ones only idiots watch.


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