Inspired by Ted to bring the world together through journalism
The first time I remember seeing Ted Turner in person I was an intern in 1990 with the wild global news exchange program he created called CNN World Report.
Ted’s 1987 vision for a truly inclusive news program drove half of CNN crazy, while convincing the other half maybe he really was a genius, and led to CNN’s longest running show. Ted insisted on allowing “U.S. enemy” broadcasters and CNN competitors alike, ranging from North Korean TV to the BBC, to submit reports on anything they wanted. And to really drive his CNN programming executives mad, he mandated the weekly show could run up to four hours long! It was a fascinating, bizarre, sometimes enlightened, and always entertaining mixture of environmental reporting, world cultures, hard news, and comically bald-faced propaganda.
For many years, Ted also paid to bring journalists from all over the world to Atlanta to meet with political and business leaders, and each other, at his legendary World Report Conference. I was a Political Science and African Studies student from Indiana University on a research grant to study why the U.S. doesn’t get more news from African countries, and one of my final intern jobs before heading back to campus was to help with the 1990 World Report Conference.
I will never forget my conversation with the wife of a CNN executive at the dinner before the main event — Ted’s open mic Q&A session. I was proudly jabbering away to her about my groundbreaking content analysis of World Report pieces from Africa when her husband, who might have been a few drinks ahead of us, overheard me and loudly objected, “AFRICA??!! Why would anyone in the U.S. care about Africa?"
“Listen,” he said, “people only care about two things — fear and sex. That’s why AIDS is the perfect news story, it’s fear of sex.” (Little did we know in 1990 that AIDS would tragically become a big Africa story.)
The wife cut him off and said, ”Don't listen to him. You keep studying things like this and you’re going to change the world, just like Ted Turner over there.”
Right on cue, Ted got up on stage and held court with those wide-eyed journalists for over two hours. At one point, a young man stood up and said in a beautiful Southern African accent, “I appreciate that you're encouraging us to do better journalism, but we really need better equipment to transmit our stories. Can CNN help?”
Ted pointed off behind him, as if the Turner Board of Directors was hidden behind the backdrop, and indignantly insisted, “Ah, I’d love to give equipment to everybody, but my board only lets me to spend a million dollars at a time these days.”
Undeterred, the journalist at the mic pressed on, “We heard you gave Vietnam TV a whole satellite uplink?”
Ted nodded sheepishly. “That’s true, I did. But I felt bad because we picked on 'em for so long... What country are you from?”
“Angola,” the young man said, hopefully.
“Have we ever done anything bad to you??” Ted said without a hint of irony, wearing his most earnest expression, as the room just erupted in laughter.
In my parallel fantasy memory, I jumped out of my seat and screamed “YES!!!” In reality, I quietly decided this was way more interesting than my African Politics courses and rather than go into the foreign service, maybe I would get a job with CNN and help Ted be the consolation prize-giver for the U.S., righting the wrongs of U.S. foreign policy disasters and bringing people together through journalism. So that’s what I did for the next amazing 25 years of my life.
Now, 30 years later, in the midst of a pandemic, on a Zoom event with hundreds of CNN Alumni, it brought tears to my eyes to hear Ted’s voice thanking us for making the world a better place together, as we dedicated the creation of an official CNN Alumni Association and endowed a professorship of environmental reporting at George Washington University in his name.
Hundreds of proud CNN Alumni like me joined Ted’s family and the titans of the communications industry, colleagues and rivals alike, in donating to make former CNN Washington Bureau Chief, Correspondent and GWU Director of Strategic Initiatives, Frank Sesno’s dream a reality.
Ted stayed with us for almost the whole two hours as Frank and CNN Executive Producer Jason Evans played game show hosts of “Two Truths and a Lie” with Ted’s daughter Laura Turner Seydel, and unveiled the deepest secrets of CNN legends, like Christiane Amanpour, Wolf Blitzer, and Gulf-War Era CNN President Tom Johnson.
We had a blast bringing back together the CNN40 Anniversary Zoomtopia production team of Jason Evans, Joy DiBenedetto, Elissa Free, Cory Charles, Kevin Bohn and I with Frank and his extraordinary GW colleague, honorary CNNer Matt Cannella.
The response to Ted’s endowment, and to our mission to support global free press and free speech through the CNN Alumni Association, has given us all renewed optimism and enthusiasm in these difficult times. Most importantly, seeing each other and reconnecting with old friends and cherished colleagues, has reminded us how we respond emphatically to Ted’s old adage: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”
Just wait till you see what we have up our sleeves for the next CNN Alumni Association event!
About the Author
Eli Flournoy worked for World Report/Headline News/CNN International Desk from 1990-2015.