It was 20 years ago today…

Thursday, June 1st, 2000

Well, I know where I was on June 1, 1980…sitting in the comfortable blast of the air conditioning in the remote truck off to the side of a still-under-construction 1050 Techwood Drive. My job: graphics guy–I ran a Vidifont IV character generator, capable of a stunning 8 different colors and two different typefaces. What we were covering: well, in a certain sense, it was ourselves. Our TBS crew was airing the speeches and hoopla that surrounded the first day of CNN, the Cable News Network.

Weeks before, I had written and helped produce a sales tape that purported to explain what this twenty-four hour news channel would be like; it was filled with smoke and mirrors and hope. Twenty years later, the images (seen above) seem incredibly primitive and speculative. How young we all were.

Out there on an Atlanta sunny afternoon, 20 years ago, Ted Turner spoke to a crowd of dignitaries and reporters who included my friend Nancy Nall, down from Columbus, Ohio to cover the event. Ted told the crowd that the channel was signing on now, and not signing off until the end of the world. (That seems to indicate that the world has, in fact, not ended.) He said “to act upon one’s convictions while others wait; to create a positive force in a world where cynics abound; to provide information to people when it wasn’t available before; to offer those who want it a choice…I dedicate the news channel for America, the Cable News Network.”

Then the cameras panned to the “dish farm” of a dozen or so satellite dishes off to the side of the converted country club, someone pushed a button, and we threw control to “the pit” downstairs–and CNN was on the air. Dave Walker and Lois Hart said “Good evening, here’s the news,” and told the world about Jimmy Carter’s visit to Indiana to check on the condition of Vernon Jordan, who had been shot. Yes, the same Jordan who, as a Clinton confidante, procured a job for Monica Lewinsky. The wheel rolls, the world turns, and CNN grinds out the news, ironic or otherwise.

Here’s the Quicktime video of the first moments of CNN on their site.

I went to a commemorative breakfast this morning down at CNN and the Omni Hotel and listened to CNN President Tom Johnson and that other President, Jimmy Carter talk about CNN’s power and force as a global disseminator of information. At the next table, Ted Turner, Gerald Levin, and Steve Case sat with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Some big names there in honor of a news operation that couldn’t buy respect, let alone comprehension a couple of decades ago.

Later in the atrium of CNN Center, I watched the CNNers–many of whom were in their first jobs out of college–reunite with hugs and photos. Many of the familiar on-air faces–anchors like Marcia Ladendorff, Bill Zimmerman, and Don Miller were there, looking like the first crew of MTV VJs–somewhat anachronistic, our of place, but reassuringly familiar. Around them, writers, producers, directors, “video journalists”–these folks laid the foundation for Ted Turner’s success,and who were and are a big reason Turner Broadcasting System became a jewel of the AOL-TimeWarner media empire. I applaud CNN’s “Originals,” the folks who pioneered, who did 24 hour news first.