CNN Debuts

If you were around on June 1, 1980, you may remember the hype that surrounded the birth of CNN. Many people thought that the whole idea was silly. How could any station possibly talk about news 24 hours a day? And why would anyone want to watch news 24 hours a day?

And yet, CNN did succeed. In fact, it has become one of the most respected news organizations in the United States, and one of the most-watched cable channels. CNN's companion Web site, started in 1995, is ranked as one of the top 100 Web sites in the world.

The CNN story starts with a man named Ted Turner. In 1970, at the age of 32, he purchased a small TV station in Atlanta. It was a UHF broadcast station. In that era, long before the spread of cable TV as we know it today, there were three networks, usually at channels like 2, 5 and 7. Anything up in the teens or higher was, by definition, a small station. The vast majority of people watched the big three.

This UHF station turned into WTBS, which turned into a major cable channel. Shortly after the creation of WTBS, CNN was born. This was very early in the growth of national cable systems. Keep in mind that MTV did not start broadcasting until August 1981, and HBO did not go to a 24-hour format until the beginning of 1982.

So how did CNN go on to become such a major player? It could be said that the Gulf War in 1991 propelled CNN to greatness. When the United States started its air attack, CNN's reporters (Peter Arnett, John Holliman and Bernard Shaw) were able to use satellite phones to broadcast live during the attack.

CNN also became the center of a war of words just four days later. The United States bombed a plant, claiming that it produced biological weapons. The Iraqis claimed it was producing baby formula. Peter Arnett reported:

That night I [Peter Arnett] reported to CNN on my satellite phone what the Iraqis told me: that the plant was the only source of infant formula in Baghdad and was not a legitimate target. And I went to bed. When I awakened in the morning, I tuned in to BBC radio, and discovered that I had reported one of the most controversial stories of my career. White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater called me a liar. President George Bush himself had watched the report, Fitzwater declared, "and was not pleased." The installation was not producing milk powder, as the Iraqis claimed, but was "a production facility for biological weapons," said Fitzwater. And as for CNN reporter Peter Arnett, he was "a conduit for Iraqi disinformation." [Source: Peter Arnett]

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