CNN pioneer Ed Turner dead at 66

April 1, 2002 at 8:01 AM
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WASHINGTON, March 31 (UPI) -- Ed Turner, whose guidance helped CNN realize its promise as a relentless source of breaking news worldwide -- and who opposed softening the cutting edge of coverage -- succumbed to liver cancer Saturday. He was 66.

Turner began at CNN in 1980, six months before the untested news network went on the air, working his way up from managing editor and Washington bureau chief to executive vice president of news gathering in 1984.

He left his mark on CNN, and on the news industry, by emphasizing something previously unfamiliar in television and made possible by the cable channel's limitless space for news: relentlessly complete round-the-clock coverage of big stories that swamped the competition.

He typically deployed more resources than anyone else to coverage of major events and devoted massive amounts of time on the resulting correspondent reports. The pattern became a CNN trademark with the network's wall-to-wall coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, of the mysterious death of child model JonBenet Ramsey, of the Gulf War and the Challenger explosion, the Claus von Bulow trial, Solidarity's uprising in Poland and the billiard room rape case in New Bedford, Mass.

He resigned in 1998, eight years after being disappointed at not being named president of the network and as other cable outlets grew to emulate CNN's pioneer accomplishments.

The man who was named CNN president in 1990, Tom Johnson, said, "Unlike some other people, Ed welcomed me," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "He said, 'Tom, I should have been chosen. I wasn't chosen and you were. But I assure you I will work hard for you.' I would not have survived my first year at CNN without Ed," Johnson said.

The network Saturday ran its own extended obituary for Turner, who was no relation to CNN founder Ted Turner. Former anchor Bernard Shaw, one of the original on-air team, said, "The things that this network does routinely and the kinds of people who work for CNN ... are a testament to what Ed Turner stood for."

Turner was known inside CNN and out for his unerring and instant recognition of a story's weight, being first with the heavy commitment of news crews and then staying ahead of the competition as the story developed. Cissy Baker, now Washington bureau chief of Tribune Broadcasting but then CNN's newsgathering line chief, shared Turner's penchant for aggressive hard-edged coverage. She said, in the CNN obituary, "He always knew what needed to be covered long before anyone else knew."

CNN Miami Bureau Chief John Zarella said Turner "regarded everyone who picked up a camera, who edited a piece, who ran an assignment desk, who cut a package, who sound-teched with equal regard. Everyone was part of the process and without everyone ... that fell apart."

Turner made clear he was skeptical of efforts to transform news coverage into a mechanism of civic betterment, a forum devoted mainly to public participation or a less intrusive, even less obnoxious presence on television screens. He maintained society was better served by independent news operations free to delve into anything without overarching guidelines fashioned somewhere else.

Quoted in dissent in a study of alternative approaches to journalism sponsored by the Washington-based Annenberg Program in Communication Policy Studies, Turner said, "I am not a historian. I am not a playwright. I am not a poet. I am not a psychiatrist. I can just barely manage to fill the newscasts that we have. And I am proud of that."

Turner continued, "We are chroniclers of events. It is our responsibility, first and above all, to try to explain to our viewers what happened today, why it happened and what maybe it will mean for tomorrow."

Before CNN Turner had built the then Metromedia Washington, D.C. television station WTTG into a solid news performer, pioneering an 10 p.m. news broadcast an hour earlier than competing stations while young staffers Connie Chung, Bob Schieffer and Maury Povich built reputations that led to network prominence.

Turner also worked for United Press International's television news operation UPITN, was news director of Oklahoma City's KWTV back in his home state and was a producer of the CBS "Morning News," even before he met a 23-year-old CNN news producer and reporter, Katie Couric, later to become the NBC "Today Show" leading personality.

After CNN Turner tried unsuccessfully to launch California News Service and organized a joint venture between public television's WETA-TV and The Freedom Forum, called the Forum Network.

Turner had learned several months ago of his liver cancer and died at Georgetown University Hospital in the District of Columbia. Survivors include a son Chris, currently a CNN news staffer.

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