Tune In To 'Up All Night' For The Story Of Daniel Schorr And The Birth Of CNN

Jun 13, 2020

Ted Turner and Daniel Schorr: Doesn't sound like a likely match, does it?

The Mouth of the South, as Ted Turner was called, and Murrow Boy Dan Schorr — one was on President Nixon's Enemies List when he covered the Watergate investigations for CBS. The other made some of his own worst enemies with, well, intemperate remarks.

Yet the first major editorial hire CNN founder Ted Turner made before the network signed on, just about 40 years ago on June 1, 1980 ... was Daniel Schorr. Who of course went on to feature on Weekend Edition and other NPR programs when he was this network's Senior News Analyst.

"Just imagine Dan Schorr in Las Vegas, walking into a hotel suite in which Ted Turner sat with a lady friend. Dan said to him, 'Look, I will not do something I don't want to do. I need it written into my contract that I don't have to do any promotions, that I don't have to say anything I don't want to say,'" says Lisa Napoli. She writes about this moment — and many others — in her new book, Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News. Schorr, she says, "had this contentious problem with CBS. So he didn't want to repeat it, and he didn't trust Ted. So he went downstairs and wrote out by hand his contract and it said, 'I will not have to say anything I don't want to.' And Ted said, 'no problem,' and signed it, and the rest is history. He was the first employee."


Interview Highlights

On CNN's rocky debut

There were so many obstacles. A satellite went missing. [Avid sailor] Ted went missing at sea. He couldn't necessarily raise the money that was necessary. And people just didn't believe that he could pull it off. But Dan gave him a legitimate leg in the game, so to speak, at a time when people just didn't believe, Scott, that anybody would want to watch 24-hour news.

On Schorr's career before Turner hired him

Dan had had an amazing career up until that point ... in fact, [Edward R.] Murrow had personally asked Dan Schorr to join his team. And Dan really wanted to go work for The New York Times. But The New York Times wouldn't hire him because he was Jewish. He found out years later.

And Ted was Ted. He changed broadcasting. He flipped the switch on 24-hour television before he did on 24-hour news and [had a] storied and crazy business career after that. So, yeah, that worked out for both of them.

On their eventual rift

Well, basically, that document that Dan ginned up by hand in the Las Vegas hotel had guided their relationship for several years. And then as management changed, they resented the idea that Dan would be able to refuse assignments. And at one point — and this is very interesting, considering our landscape now — they tried to sit Dan next to a former politician as a news analyst. And Dan was so disgusted by the concept that a politician would be considered a news analyst that he refused to do it. And there were rumblings, and as I say, management changes. And so when Dan's contract came up, they basically just said, you know, this isn't acceptable to us anymore. So the thing that got him in the door in the first place — as is often the case with startups — vanished as time went on.

This story was produced for radio by Ned Wharton and Ed McNulty, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ted Turner and Daniel Schorr - doesn't sound like a likely match, does it? The Mouth of the South, as Ted Turner was called, and Murrow Boy, Dan Schorr. One was on President Nixon's enemies list when he covered the Watergate investigations for CBS, the other made some of his own worst enemies with - well, let's put it this way - intemperate remarks. Yet the first major editorial hire that Ted Turner made at CNN - before the network even signed on 40 years ago June 1, 1980 - was Daniel Schorr.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Schorr asked the president why he is refusing to debate John Anderson.

DANIEL SCHORR: What is the Anderson threat? Is it the fear that he may rob both you and Reagan of the margin of victory and throw this election into the House?

JIMMY CARTER: I mean, I don't look at it as a particular threat. Although...

SIMON: The voice of then-President Jimmy Carter, of course, speaking with Dan Schorr, whose own voice would later become such a fixture on this and other NPR programs when he was NPR's senior news analyst. Lisa Napoli tells the story of Dan Schorr's hire, among many others, in her new book, "Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, And The Birth Of 24-Hour News." She joins us now from Boca Raton, Fla. Thanks so much for being with us.

LISA NAPOLI: Thank you so much for having me.

SIMON: In fact, you've got a copy of that one-page contract they signed. Well, tell us the story.

NAPOLI: I fished it out of the Library of Congress from Daniel Schorr's papers. Yes. Just imagine Dan Schorr in Las Vegas walking into a hotel suite in which Ted Turner sat with a lady friend. Dan said to him, look, I will not do something I don't want to do. I need it written into my contract that I don't have to do any promotions, that I don't have to say anything I don't want to say. He'd had this contentious problem with CBS, so he didn't want a repeat, and he didn't trust Ted. So he went downstairs and wrote out by hand his contract, and it said I will not have to say anything I don't want to. And Ted said no problem and signed it. And the rest is history. He was the first employee.

SIMON: CNN almost didn't get on that June 1, didn't it?

NAPOLI: There were so many obstacles. A satellite went missing. Ted went missing at sea.

SIMON: He was a big sailor - former America's Cup sailor.

NAPOLI: A famous yachtsman, yes. He couldn't necessarily raise the money that was necessary and people just didn't believe that he could pull it off. But Dan gave him a legitimate leg in the game, so to speak, at a time when people just didn't believe, Scott, that anybody would want to watch 24-hour news.

SIMON: They both have a secure place in broadcast history - don't they? - whatever their differences were at one point.

NAPOLI: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, Dan had had an amazing career up until that point. As you say, one of Murrow's boys.

SIMON: Murrow Boy, of course, the phrase for people that Edward R. Murrow hired at CBS.

NAPOLI: Yes. In fact, Murrow had personally asked Dan Schorr to join his team. And Dan really wanted to go work for The New York Times, but The New York Times wouldn't hire him.

SIMON: Because he was Jewish.

NAPOLI: Because he was Jewish. He found out years later. Yep. And Ted was Ted. He changed broadcasting. He flipped the switch on 24-hour television before he did it on 24-hour news and storied and crazy business career after that. So yeah, it worked out for both of them.

SIMON: What drove them apart, ultimately?

NAPOLI: Well, basically that document that Dan ginned up by hand in the Las Vegas hotel had guided their relationship for several years. And then as management changed, they resented the idea that Dan would be able to refuse assignments. And at one point - and this is very interesting considering our landscape now - they tried to sit Dan next to a former politician as a news analyst. And Dan was so disgusted by the concept that a politician would be considered a news analyst that he refused to do it. And there were, you know, rumblings and, as they say, management changes. And so when Dan's contract came up, they basically just said, you know, this isn't acceptable to us anymore. So the thing that got him in the door in the first place - as is often the case with startups - vanished as time went on.

SIMON: There's a story Dan told me years ago, you know, after they'd broken up, if you please, and he hadn't seen Ted Turner for years. And it was at some function - it might have been the White House Correspondents Dinner. And he said Ted Turner came over to him, grabbed his hand, and said, Dan, remind me now, am I mad at you or are you mad at me?

NAPOLI: (Laughter) Yes, I've heard that. It's pretty great, you know, when titans can mend fences and, you know, put past grudges behind them, you know? It did work out for both of them. And, you know, CNN launched many a career, relaunched Dan's career and changed the world for better or worse, depending on how you feel about listening to news all the time. But yes, I loved imagining their interactions, and I sure wish I could have seen them myself.

SIMON: Lisa Napoli's new book is "Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, And The Birth of 24-hour News." Thanks so much for being with us.

NAPOLI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MANNHEIM STEAMROLLER AND THE CAMBRIDGE SINGERS' "CONJURING THE NUMBER 7") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.