News - Reverse carpetbagger

Don’t be surprised when CNN executives head to new york

Having delivered his lines to the thousands gathered in Philips Arena, Ted Turner tottered into a near-empty concession area outside the main hall. With new arm candy in tow and the sounds of Donna Summer echoing from the stage he had just exited, Ted departed CNN’s 20th Anniversary Celebration.

The party on that sweltering evening last June featured a highlight reel that was much more than a sentimental journey through recent popular history. It was a reminder that Ted and his network changed the way the civilization consumes news.

But if you’re reserving seats for the network’s 25th anniversary party, you’d better call Madison Square Garden. Atlanta is still home to Coca-Cola, Delta, UPS and Home Depot. But Atlanta is poised to lose the three letters that gave the city its best shot at realizing its Reconstruction ambitions of becoming the New York of the South: CNN.

Hotlanta, you see, just isn’t cool mediawise. New York is where it’s at — or more precisely, where 30,000 or so media professionals ply their trades. The gravity of Manhattan is hard to resist for an industry that exemplifies herd mentality.

Moreover, the Sept. 11 terrorist attack only underscored, in a bizarre way, the importance with which the world views New York.

The sad fact is that Atlanta is no longer the home of the network Ted built. That’s how a freshly departed, longtime executive and original employee of the network put it recently.

But don’t take his word for it. Just consider what’s happening with two buildings: AOL Time Warner’s in New York and Turner’s in Atlanta. Plans are proceeding apace for CNN to occupy six floors of the Manhattan digs, scheduled for completion at Columbus Circle by 2003. Meanwhile, construction of the Atlanta tower has been delayed in favor of focusing on Techwood campus buildings. And real estate observers predict Atlantans will never see the long-awaited tower on their skyline.

But new Turner chief, Jamie Kellner, and new CNN chief, Walter Isaacson didn’t wait to tip their hand. With great enthusiasm, Isaacson announced recently that CNN would join the broadcast networks with a street-level, studio presence in the nation’s media capital, specifically Rockefeller Center. He described the idea of joining everyone else in doing a morning show in Manhattan as “pretty exciting.”

With the world now focused on New York in the wake of the terrorist attacks, it’s even more likely that CNN’s center of gravity will continue its northward roll.

New York is the center of the media universe, and if CNN is going to play with and sell air time against the big boys, and, perhaps most importantly, if Isaacson’s going to remain a major media player, CNN will be headquartered there.

“There will be shows out of New York and Los Angeles and Washington, but as a Southerner, I believe that we shouldn’t get too locked into the East Coast mentality,” Isaacson was quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which noted that he is “a New Orleans native.”

Oh, please. I’m not even a Southerner, and I find that disingenuous and patronizing. Can’t anyone around here just say it? CNN in Atlanta is over.

Kellner attempted to reassure Atlantans in the hometown daily: “The vast majority of what we produce will come from Atlanta.”

The implication is that high-profile shows will be produced outside Atlanta as they always have been. But CNN will still be headquartered here. Unfortunately, that’s not what he’s saying. Atlanta’s employer-friendly, non-union atmosphere will always make it an inexpensive place to “take in tape” and churn out television.

Atlanta, in other words, will be the home of AOL Time Warner’s low-cost production facilities.

The former CNNer, who asked to remain anonymous, says that Atlanta, to these characters, is a backwater. There is simply no advantage in maintaining executive-level decision-making here. The day the Columbus Circle building is completed, they’re gone. Everyone at CNN who has given it a moment’s thought knows it. Accountants have worked the numbers for the executive move.

The irony, of course, is that Ted understood the value of being an outsider. He built not just a network outside of the media universe but a coveted global brand that eventually netted him sufficient cash, selling it to the insiders, to afford him more ranch land than anyone else and enough dollars left over to give a billion to the United Nations.

Moving CNN to New York may prove its actual demise. Truth is, the network has been headed in that direction since Rick Kaplan began installing ABC talent and imitating network prime time news programming. The “new” Headline News is only the latest installment in the effort to look like everyone else.

(Ironically, the liberal label CNN has unfairly earned is belied by, among other things, the network’s very stand against unions that will keep a vestige of it alive in its generally anti-union birthplace.)

In retrospect, it may have been Ted who doomed his own invention. Once the maverick, he too looked to New York for not only his payday but some sort of validation. And that’s Atlanta’s loss.

Howard Lalli writes on the media for Creative Loafing. He can be reached at

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