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Remembering early days of cable news: new book looks back at origins of CNN

Last Updated Jun 14, 2020 at 10:25 am PDT

Up All Night cover (Courtesy Abrams Book)

This week's 1130 Bookshelf, author Lisa Napoli talks about her new book 'Up All Night'

Napoli got her start at CNN as a summer intern back in 1981

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – It was 40 years ago this year TV news was changed forever.

“Good Evening, I’m David Walker.”

“And I’m Lois Hart.  Now here’s the news.”

LISTEN: Up All Night

And with those words, CNN took to the air at 5:00 p.m. on June 1, 1980.

“Back then, nobody really cared about CNN.  Very few people knew about it.  Very few people could see it.  It wasn’t an international force,” says Lisa Napoli, author of Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News.

“It was very easy for a young person to start out there,” she adds.  Napoli should know.  She started as a summer intern at CNN’s New York bureau in 1981 before stints at the New York Times, Marketplace, MSNBC, and KCRW radio. Up All Night is her third book.

“The fortieth anniversary was the real impetus,” she says.  “I thought it was a really good time to step back in time because cable news has become so polarized and see where it had come from, what the climate was 40 years ago, and how it was different than it is now.”

Napoli points out the odds weren’t exactly in Turner’s favour.  “Nobody believed that he could pull it off.  He didn’t have any background in news.  In fact, he was on the record as saying that he hated news and so a lot of people in the media world just couldn’t imagine that anybody would want to watch 24-hour news and that Ted Turner could pull it off.  He had this wild reputation as a playboy, he was a yachtsman who would be publicly intoxicated at ceremonies, and he was just a no-holds-barred, no filter kind of man.”

She notes CNN’s impact on news coverage was practically immediate, starting with the attempted assassination of US President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.  For the first time, news was being reported in real time as it was happening, not after the fact.

“It’s so hard for us to imagine now, that you don’t just turn on the TV or look at your phone and see exactly what’s going on in the world,” Napoli says.  “But [in] 1981, that was remarkable.”

The book not only looks at the network’s humble beginnings inside an old Atlanta country club, it also notes how CNN’s early look and feel was inspired by a certain Vancouver-area TV newsroom.

“Yes, I was very excited to talk to you because there is a wonderful scene where the man Ted Turner hired to be [CNN’s] president went with an architect to look at the CHAN-TV facilities which apparently were pioneering in the open newsroom concept,” she says.  “Now, that’s something we’re all used to seeing:  people scurrying in the background or a live set as opposed to a really staged and sombre one.”

CHAN-TV is the legal name for what was then BCTV or Global BC as it is known today.

Other than a quick epilogue, the book ends in 1987.  “You know, I think I would have had an easier time finding a publisher for this book if it had been more of an all-comprehensive look at the 40 years,” she admits.  “But, really, to do that, would have taken years and I really was intrigued by the beginning.  After it got underway and it became famous, there have been many books that have been written about the Gulf War, which in so many people’s estimation is what put CNN on the map, even though it was 10, 11 years old at that point.  Tiananmen Square.  That was another seminal moment for CNN.  And there are terrific books and films made about not just Tiananmen Square but CNN’s role in it.  I guess I’m really interested in the beginning of something and the rest other people can take care of!”

Look for Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News from Abrams Books.