History of CNN (1980–2003)

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Cable News Network (CNN), an American basic cable and satellite television channel that is owned by the Turner Broadcasting System division of WarnerMedia,[1] was founded in 1980 by Ted Turner and 25 other original members,[2][3] who invested $20 million into the network.[4] Upon its launch, CNN became the first channel to provide 24-hour television news coverage,[5] and was the first all-news television network in the United States.[6] This article discusses the history of CNN, beginning with the June 1980 launch of the channel.

Early history (1980–1989)[edit]


Four years before CNN's launch, in December 1976, Ted Turner turned his Atlanta, Georgia independent station WTBS into one of the original satellite-distributed television channels, leasing a transponder on RCA's Satcom 1 geostationary satellite. The Cable News Network was intended to be distributed on RCA's new Satcom 3, which was lost on its launch date of December 7, 1979. Because replacement transmission capacity was not readily available, the Turner Broadcasting System filed suit against RCA seeking use of another communications satellite and $35.5 million in damages. On March 5, Turner announced that a consent order had been worked out with RCA in federal court, allowing CNN to begin operations on June 1 as scheduled, using a transponder on Satcom 1.[7]

The network launched on Sunday, June 1, 1980 at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time with an original staff of 25 employees based at its headquarters in Atlanta, and bureaus in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. The inaugural broadcast on the channel was an introduction by Ted Turner.

Following the introduction and a pre-recorded version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" (which was a tradition whenever a new Turner-owned network launched) that was played afterward, the husband and wife team of Dave Walker and Lois Hart anchored the channel's first newscast.[8] Among the first segments was an interview with then-President Jimmy Carter by Daniel Schorr.[9] And to let "the undecided voter … hear the issues debated by all three leading candidates" in the second 1980 presidential debate,[10] Schorr read the debate questions to John B. Anderson. CNN then aired Anderson's live responses along with tape delay of Carter and Reagan's responses,[11][12] despite technical difficulties.[13]

On January 1, 1982, the channel launched a spin-off network called CNN2, which was subsequently renamed Headline News (HLN) the following year in January 1983. Whereas CNN featured a mix of newscasts and specialized topical and feature programs, Headline News was originally formatted to strictly focus on rolling news coverage, featuring half-hour newscasts 24 hours a day with segments scheduled in fixed timeslots each half-hour; as such, it was one of the first news channels to utilize a "wheel" schedule. Headline News would scale back its rolling news coverage in February 2005, with the incorporation of personality-based news discussion programs during its nighttime schedule.

Following the launch of CNN, other cable news channels launched in an attempt to capitalize on the channel's growing success, which often had marginal to no success in competing with CNN. One of the first was Satellite News Channel, which launched on June 21, 1982 with a mix of national and regionally focused newscasts; after the channel ceased operations on October 27, 1983, its satellite transponder slot was subsequently purchased by Ted Turner to expand the distribution of Headline News further into additional homes.

After five years, CNN outgrew its original home, a former country club on the outskirts of midtown Atlanta. In 1985, Turner purchased the Omni International complex from its original developer, Atlanta-based real estate mogul Tom Cousins, and moved CNN's headquarters to the building, rechristening the complex as the CNN Center. As Omni International, the complex had never succeeded. Cousins sold it to Turner, along with the Atlanta Hawks NBA franchise. CNN moved into the end of the tower that once housed The World of Sid and Marty Krofft. Turner was instrumental in the revival of Atlanta's downtown.

Original programs[edit]


Moneyline premiered in 1980 and was CNN's main financial program for more than 20 years. As the show, hosted by Lou Dobbs, moved more towards general news and economic and political commentary, it was renamed Moneyline with Lou Dobbs, Lou Dobbs Moneyline and then Lou Dobbs Tonight. In 2010, Dobbs – the last remaining original host from the network's launch in 1980 – resigned amid controversy over his questioning of whether President Barack Obama was a native-born U.S. citizen – a qualification for the presidency required under the U.S. Constitution.

Evans & Novak[edit]

The political discussion show Evans and Novak was created in 1980, with Rowland Evans and Robert Novak as its hosts. It became one of the cable network's most-watched discussion programs. Only a short time after, Al Hunt and Mark Shields joined the show as occasional panelists; the name of the program was eventually changed to Evans, Novak, Hunt & Shields in 1998 when Hunt and Shields were named as permanent members of the show.


In June 1982,[14] the channel launched a late night political debate program, Crossfire, which featured discussions on political issues from opposing viewpoints; it was hosted by liberal Tom Braden and conservative Pat Buchanan. The idea of the program came about when Braden and Buchanan debated on a daily radio show in 1978. The show soon became popular and was moved to a primetime slot. In 1985, Buchanan left the show to become the communications director for the Ronald Reagan presidential administration. He was replaced by conservative columnist Robert Novak, who had already co-hosted another political program on CNN, Evans & Novak and was also a regular on The McLaughlin Group at the time. Buchanan returned to the show in 1987, replacing Novak. In 1989, Braden was replaced by Michael Kinsley, a liberal columnist for Time, and magazine editor for The New Republic.

Larry King Live[edit]

In June 1985, CNN launched a primetime interview show hosted by Larry King. Larry King Live featured interviews with one or more prominent individuals, mainly celebrities, politicians and businesspeople. The show became the longest-running program on CNN, lasting for 25 years until King's retirement from the network in 2010.[15] It was the highest-rated news show on television until 2001, when The O'Reilly Factor on rival Fox News Channel surpassed Larry King Live in the ratings and has remained the highest-rated cable news program ever since.

Unlike many interviewers, Larry King had a direct, non-confrontational approach. His interview style was characteristically frank, but with occasional bursts of irreverence and humor. His approach attracted some guests who would not otherwise appear. King, who was known for his general lack of pre-interview preparation, once bragged that he never pre-read the books of authors who appeared on his show. Critics have claimed that Larry King asked "soft" questions in comparison to other interviewers, which allowed him to reach guests who would be averse to interviewing on "tough" talk shows.

On February 24, 1987, King suffered a major heart attack and had to undergo a quintuple-bypass surgery. It was a life-altering event as previously, smoking was one of his trademarks and he was unashamed of his addiction. King was a three-pack-a-day smoker and kept a lit cigarette during his interviews, so he would not have to take time to light up during breaks. He now encourages curbing smoking to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Variety shows[edit]

Early coverage[edit]

Space Shuttle Challenger disaster[edit]

On January 28, 1986, CNN was the only TV network to provide live coverage of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger to the public. However, NASA TV provided the live coverage to schools nationwide. The Space Shuttle Challenger abruptly disintegrated just 73 seconds after lift-off. Seven astronauts, including schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed in the disaster.

Then President Ronald Reagan postponed the State of the Union Address that evening. He addressed the nation in the time of tragedy and grief from the Oval Office. On January 31, 1986, two days after the tragedy, CNN provided live coverage of the memorial service for the Challenger crew members at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Baby Jessica rescue[edit]

On October 14, 1987, 18-month-old toddler Jessica McClure fell down a well in Midland, Texas. CNN quickly reported on the story, and the event helped make its name. New York Times columnist Lisa Belkin wrote a retrospective article in 1995 on the impact of live video news:[16]

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture is worth many times that, and a live moving picture makes an emotional connection that goes deeper than logic and lasts well beyond the actual event ... This was before correspondents reported live from the enemy capital while American bombs were falling. Before Saddam Hussein held a surreal press conference with a few of the hundreds of Americans he was holding hostage. Before the nation watched, riveted but powerless, as Los Angeles was looted and burned. Before O. J. Simpson took a slow ride in a white Bronco, and before everyone close to his case had an agent and a book contract. This was uncharted territory just a short time ago.

Leadership under Tom Johnson (1990–2000)[edit]

In 1990, Tom Johnson, who formerly served as publisher of the Los Angeles Times for 13 years, was named as the president of CNN.

Under Johnson, CNN expanded its reach with the launches of a number of cable and satellite television networks, both domestic and internationally, beginning with the 1991 launch of CNN International. Two specialized closed-circuit networks launched in 1991: CNN Airport Network, which provides a mix of original content and simulcasts of CNN International to national and world airports; and CNN Checkout Channel, a customized channel made available to grocery stores which shut down in 1993. 1996 saw the debuts of two specialty news channels: CNNSI, a sports news channel created in partnership with co-owned magazine Sports Illustrated, and CNNfn, a business news channel created as a competitor to CNBC (CNNSI shut down in 2002, while CNNfn shut down in December 2004; CNN continues to maintain a partnership with Sports Illustrated through CNNSI.com).

CNN launched its website, CNN.com (initially an experiment known as CNN Interactive), on August 30, 1995, which grew to become one of the most popular news websites in the world. Several specialty websites were launched in later years such as CNNMoney, created in partnership with fellow co-owned magazine Money; CNN also launched a radio network that provided news updates and other content to radio stations nationwide. The network grew to include 36 bureaus (10 domestic, 26 international), and expanded its broadcast partnerships to more than 900 affiliated local stations (which also receive news and features content via the affiliate video service CNN Newsource). CNN's success made a bona-fide mogul of founder Ted Turner and set the stage for multimedia conglomerate Time Warner's eventual acquisition of the Turner Broadcasting System in 1996.

Coverage of the Gulf War[edit]

The first Persian Gulf War in 1991 was a watershed event for CNN that catapulted the network past the "big three" American networks for the first time in its history, largely due to an unprecedented, historical scoop: CNN was the only news outlet with the ability to communicate from inside Iraq during the initial hours of the American bombing campaign, with live reports from the al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad by reporters Bernard Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett.

The moment when bombing began was announced on CNN by Bernard Shaw on January 16, 1991 as follows:[17]

This is Bernie Shaw. Something is happening outside. ... Peter Arnett, join me here. Let's describe to our viewers what we're seeing ... The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated. ... We're seeing bright flashes going off all over the sky.

The Gulf War experience brought CNN some much sought-after legitimacy and made household names of previously obscure, low-paid reporters. Many of these reporters now comprise CNN's "old guard." Bernard Shaw became CNN's chief anchor until his retirement in 2001. Others include then-Pentagon correspondent Wolf Blitzer (now host of The Situation Room) and international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Amanpour's presence in Iraq was caricatured by actress Nora Dunn in the role of the ruthless reporter Adriana Cruz in the 1999 film Three Kings. Fellow Time Warner-owned network HBO later produced a television movie, Live from Baghdad, about CNN's coverage of the first Gulf War.

CNN was criticized for excessively pushing 'human interest' stories and avoiding depictions of violent images; the result of all this being an alleged 'propagandistic' presentation of news.[18] A report by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting quotes an unnamed CNN reporter as describing "the 'sweet beautiful sight' of bombers taking off from Saudi Arabia."[19]

The CNN effect[edit]

Coverage of the first Gulf War and other crises of the early 1990s (particularly the infamous Battle of Mogadishu) led officials at the Pentagon to coin the term "the CNN effect" to describe the perceived impact of real time, 24-hour news coverage on the decision-making processes of the American government.

John Kiesewetter explained:

CNN has changed news. Before CNN, events were reported in two cycles, for morning and evening newspapers and newscasts. Now news knows no cycle. When a plane has crashed, or shots are fired in school, we expect to see it immediately on all-news channels. We don't depend on the Big Three broadcast networks. The turning point came shortly after CNN's 10th birthday, when Bernard Shaw, Peter Arnett and John Holliman provided play-by-play of the 1991 Gulf War from a Baghdad hotel. The Gulf war proved how CNN had changed the world. U.S. military leaders chose their words carefully during televised press briefings, knowing that Sadam Hussein was watching CNN, too.[4]

Shows created[edit]

Both Sides with Jesse Jackson[edit]

Both Sides with Jesse Jackson was a political talk show, hosted by civil rights leader and two-time presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, that aired on Sundays. Each program began with a short taped report on the topic being discussed in that week's edition by CNN correspondent John Bisney. The show ran from 1992 to 2000.[20]

Capital Gang[edit]

Capital Gang is one of cable news' longest-running programs; running from 1988 to 2005 on Saturday nights, it featured discussions of the week's political news stories. The original panelists were Pat Buchanan, Al Hunt, Mark Shields and Robert Novak. When Buchanan left the network to run for president, Margaret Warner, Mona Charen, and later Margaret Carlson and Kate O'Beirne became regular panelists.

Burden of Proof[edit]

Burden of Proof was a show that discussed legal issues of the day, hosted by Greta Van Susteren and Roger Cossack. It debuted in 1995 and was canceled in 2001. The show was developed by CNN Executive Vice-President Gail Evans.[21]

TalkBack Live[edit]

TalkBack Live was a daytime talk show that aired on CNN from 1994 to 2003. The hour-long program, which was broadcast from the first floor of CNN Center and aired at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time each weekday, allowed questions and comments from audience members and calls from viewers. It was hosted at various times by Susan Rook, Bobbie Battista, Karyn Bryant and Arthel Neville.

End of the monopoly[edit]

In 1996, CNN received its first major competitors with the launch of MSNBC, originally a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft, and News Corporation's Fox News Channel; despite this, CNN remained #1 in the ratings among the cable news channels and Larry King Live remained its most-watched news show.

In 1998, CNN, in partnership with corporate sister Time magazine, ran a report that Operation Tailwind in 1970 in Vietnam included use of Sarin gas to kill a group of defectors from the United States military. The Pentagon denied the story. Skeptics deemed it improbable that such an extraordinary and risky atrocity could have gone unnoticed at the height of the Vietnam War's unpopularity. CNN, after a two-week inquiry, issued a retraction.[22]


In 2000 and 2001, CNN hired many key people such as Anderson Cooper, Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn and (rehired) Lou Dobbs. The leadership of the network also changed. Kaplan left CNN in 2000, and moreover Tom Johnson retired as head of CNN in 2001 after 10 years.[23] Following his retirement, new management and increased competition from Fox News Channel led to the network's gradual decline during the decade.

New shows[edit]

NewsNight with Aaron Brown[edit]

Created in 2001, NewsNight with Aaron Brown focused on investigative journalism and had a strong emphasis on interviews. The program included segments such as "The Whip" (which quickly previewed segments from four reporters at large), "On The Rise" and "Segment 7". The Morning Papers segment, known as "The Rooster", featured a brief preview of compelling or interesting headlines from the next day's newspapers around the world. The segment concluded with the weather forecast for Chicago as provided in the Chicago Sun-Times. Newsnight was cancelled on November 5, 2005, and Brown resigned from CNN shortly afterward.

Paula Zahn Now[edit]

The primetime show that aired in the timeslot preceding Larry King Live, Paula Zahn Now, which debuted in 2003, was never very popular. It competed against Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, which had grown to become the highest-rated cable news program. The program lasted for four years before being cancelled on August 2, 2007.

Connie Chung Tonight[edit]

Launched in 2002, Connie Chung Tonight was a short-lived news and interview show, hosted by Connie Chung, that was canceled after one year on the air.

The Point w/Greta Van Susteren[edit]

Greta Van Susteren, who had been with CNN as a correspondent for over a decade, began hosting her own primetime news and interview show in 2001, called The Point; the program was canceled after a year, with Van Susteren joining Fox News Channel shortly afterward.

The Spin Room[edit]

The Spin Room, a half-hour debate show that aired in the 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time slot, debuted in 2000 and was hosted by Tucker Carlson and Bill Press; the program was canceled after a few months and replaced by Greenfield at Large.

Greenfield at Large[edit]

Launched in 2001 and hosted by Jeff Greenfield, Greenfield at Large, which replaced The Spin Room in the 10:30 p.m. slot, was also short-lived; it was cancelled in 2002 and replaced by NewsNight with Aaron Brown, which was expanded to an hour.


9/11 attacks[edit]

CNN was the first major network to break the news of the September 11 attacks in 2001.[24] Anchor Carol Lin was on the air to deliver the first public report of the event. She broke into a commercial at 8:49 a.m. Eastern Time and said:

This just in. You are looking at obviously a very disturbing live shot there. That is the World Trade Center, and we have unconfirmed reports this morning that a plane has crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. CNN Center right now is just beginning to work on this story, obviously calling our sources and trying to figure out exactly what happened, but clearly something relatively devastating happening this morning there on the south end of the island of Manhattan. That is once again, a picture of one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Daryn Kagan and Leon Harris were live on the air just after 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time as the second plane hit the South Tower of the World Trade Center and through an interview with CNN correspondent David Ensor, reported the news that U.S. officials determined "that this is a terrorist act."[25] Later, Aaron Brown and Judy Woodruff anchored through the day and night as the attacks unfolded, winning an Edward R. Murrow award for the network.[26] Brown had just joined CNN from ABC to serve as the breaking news anchor.

Sean Murtagh, CNN vice president for finance and administration, was the first network employee on the air in New York City.[27] Coincidentally, Paula Zahn, who assisted in the coverage, began working as a CNN reporter on the day that the attacks occurred (Zahn mentioned this fact on a 2005 episode of Jeopardy!, in which she appeared as a guest clue presenter).

Amongst the criticisms levied against CNN, as well as the other major U.S. news channels, is the charge that CNN took a lenient approach to the Bush administration, particularly after the September 11 attacks. At the 2002 Newsworld Asia conference held in Singapore, the executive vice-president and general manager of CNN International, was quoted as saying: "Anyone who claims the US media didn't censor itself is kidding you. It wasn't a matter of government pressure but a reluctance to criticize anything in a war that was obviously supported by the vast majority of the people. And this isn't just a CNN issue – every journalist who was in any way involved in 9/11 is partly responsible."[28]

Iraq War[edit]

In April 2003, Eason Jordan, chief news executive at CNN, wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times stating that he had lobbied the Iraqi government for 12 years in order to maintain a CNN presence in Iraq. He also admitted to withholding what would be considered newsworthy information of the government's atrocities, citing fears that releasing news would potentially endanger the lives of Iraqis working for CNN in Baghdad, some of whom had already been subject to beatings and torture.[29] Critics take particularly strong exception to the handling of the Bush administration's rhetoric leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Veteran CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour characterized the behavior of the news media as "self-muzzling" and as "cheerleaders for the Bush war drive against Iraq".[30] An editorial in the German publication Süddeutsche Zeitung compared CNN's war coverage to "live coverage of the Super Bowl", and the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news network has criticized CNN for portraying U.S. soldiers as heroes.[31]


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  21. ^ https://www.executivespeakers.com, EXECUTIVE SPEAKERS BUREAU. "Gail Evans". www.executivespeakers.com. Retrieved 7 January 2019.
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  29. ^ Jordan, Eason (11 April 2003). "The News We Kept To Ourselves" – via select.nytimes.com.
  30. ^ Selfa, Lance (October 3, 2003). "How the media sold Bush's war". Socialist Worker Online.
  31. ^ Shah, Anup (August 1, 2007). "Media Reporting, Journalism and Propaganda". GlobalIssues.org.

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