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Turner reflects on CNN at 25

Says he would do some things differently if still in charge


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Ted Turner

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- CNN founder Ted Turner said Wednesday he was more proud of the network he founded 25 years ago than anything except his family. But, when asked, admitted he would do some things differently.

And he expressed bitterness toward the man who agreed to the deal that wrote him out of the organizational chart more than five years ago.

"The only thing I can suggest, and I love it the way it is, but I would like to see us return to a little more international coverage on the domestic feed and a little more environmental coverage," Turner said in response to a question from CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour before an audience of hundreds of journalists from around the world on the network's anniversary.

"And maybe a little less pervert of the day," said Turner. "I mean, there's a lot of perversion around, I know that, but is it really news? I mean, some of it is. I guess you've got to cover Michael Jackson, but not three stories about perversion at the lead of every half-hour."

CNN is planning to add an hour of international news to its domestic lineup, Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S., recently announced.

Original goal for CNN

Turner said he had envisioned CNN filling the role on television that The New York Times fills in newspapers, and implied that CNN once did so, but may have slipped.

"Somebody's got to be the most respected name in television news, and I wanted that position for CNN," he said.

"I wanted to be the New York Times of the airway -- not the New York Post, but the New York Times -- and that's what we set out to do, and we did it," he said, referring to the tabloid.

"In 20 short years, by all the surveys, we became the world's most respected news source. The New York Times had been there for 100 years. We did it in 20," Turner said.

"And you can coast on that reputation for a long time but if you're going to hold that position, which I think would be the most profitable position, too, you have to earn it."

Inside edge in first Gulf War

Turner made his comments at a conference attended by CNN employees and contributors to the network's World Report program, which he credited with helping CNN gain its exclusive coverage of the first Gulf War.

Before the war, Iraqi journalists attended the annual conferences in Atlanta, Turner said.

"We made friends with the Iraqi television people like we've made friends with everybody in the room," he said, pointing to the crowd.

In 1990, as war clouds gathered, "We had the position where we were liked over there and we were also known as being fair, and the Iraqis kind of chose us -- if there was going to be anybody broadcasting out of there."

Turner also credited former CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan for ensuring the network had the technical capability to broadcast from Baghdad when no one else could.

"Basically, by making friends all over the world, which included the Iraqi television people and (Deputy Prime Minister) Tariq Aziz -- the secretary of information or whatever he was -- we got access that others didn't, and when the war started, we were broadcasting and nobody else was.

"You know, by being nice, sometimes it works out real well. On the other hand, being nice to Gerry Levin didn't."

Turner was referring to the Time Warner chief executive who signed off on the merger with AOL in 2001. Levin has since left the company.

"I'd rather put myself in the Iraqis' hands than in some Americans'," Turner said.

CNN 'was about an adventure'

Turner, 66, said he had no doubt in 1980 that the network would succeed. "Failure was not an option," he said, despite the fact that it was undercapitalized.

"I figured, if we just got on the air and got started, when people actually saw how important it was going to be to have news available any time of the night and day, that I'd be able to raise more money later on, which is what I was able to do."

But a desire to get rich was not his sole motivation, the billionaire said.

"It was about an adventure. I really thought that the world would benefit having lots of different information about all different parts of the world," he said.

Turner said that at the network's inception he was not worried about the competition posed by the Big Three broadcast networks.

"We put our focus from the very beginning on national and international news," he said. "That really wasn't available from CBS, NBC and ABC, because they were too busy covering the trivia."

In 1985, the network launched CNN International, an idea Turner said he got three years before when he met Cuban President Fidel Castro.

"He said, 'Ted, the whole world needs CNN. I use it all the time and it's very important to me.' So I said, 'Well, if Castro needs it, certainly the capitalists around the world could use it, and perhaps some other communists too.' "

Turner, not known for his modesty, credited his own efforts for helping to end the Cold War, and noted that he launched the Goodwill Games in 1986 as a way to ease international tensions through sports competition.

"I thought, between sports and news and television and friendship, that you could end the Cold War and, by God, we did," he said.

He acknowledged that the size of his role is unclear. "It's hard to measure, and it doesn't really matter which straw breaks the camel's back. But it was an important straw."

Turner said that of his achievements he prizes the success of CNN second only to that of his five children.

"Your family comes first. That's the first and most important thing," he said.

As the journalists rose in a standing ovation, Turner cupped his hands to his mouth and said, "We did it together!"


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