"You can't imagine the world without it."
That's the tagline on CNN's advert touting the 25th anniversary of its founding as the world's first 24-hour-news channel on June 1, 1980. For once in this age of incessant media hype, it's a boast that's actually accurate.
For people who are old enough, it's confirmed by a simple glance back to how news was delivered before the maverick media mogul Ted Turner took the biggest gamble of his career to launch the all-news network.
ILLUSTRATION: YU SHA
People used to read their newspapers in the morning, and then usually forgot about the news till the evening, when oracle-like anchors told them what was happening in the world.
CNN smashed that model to smithereens, offering viewers news as it happened -- a key attribute in our get-it-now society, where events are often born, hyped and forgotten before the old-time news anchors have even put on their make-up.
"CNN heralded a new era in TV journalism," says media professor Bob Thompson of Syracuse University.
From a staff of 225 broadcasting to an estimated 1.7 million viewers, the network has grown to a behemoth employing over 4,000 and reaching a global audience of 260 million. Peasants and politicians, models and mechanics, intellectuals and the less mentally gifted, all watch CNN.
Now the news never stops, even though some of it can hardly be called news. Thanks to an incessant ratings war between CNN and its competitors, the items that often fill the airwaves have more in common with a voyeuristic reality television channel than a serious news organization.
Among the spots that played repeatedly in the days leading up to CNN's anniversary were videos of a policeman being run over during a routine traffic spot, a bear taking a dip in a swimming pool and a school bus driver getting into a fight with two of his teenage passengers. In the weeks before, there were days of round-the-clock coverage of the runaway bride story, which can be best summed up this way: If you haven't heard about it, you didn't miss anything.
Some media pundits say the attention paid to these seemingly unimportant ditties prove the "dumbing down of news." But it could also be seen as the price CNN must pay to stay competitive in a modern world where frivolity and entertainment are key attractions.
More profound has been the effect of live omnipresent coverage on actual events. One recent example: the mass pilgrimage to Rome following the recent death of the Pope. While other factors like open borders and improved transport certainly played a role in sparking one of the largest tributes in the history of Christendom, it was undoubtedly the enthusiastic and relentless reports from the Vatican which prompted many of the visitors to make the trip.
But the events which truly showcased the symbiotic relationship between live news and the events they report were the Sept. 11 attacks.
"9/11 was a made for media event," Thompson said. "It was a TV movie directed by the people who planned the event. They knew that after the first plane hit, every camera in Manhattan would be trained on the twin towers."
Elsewhere, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall also owed much to the broadcast of live news via satellite which the government could not control, Thompson argues.
Paradoxically it is these moments of live drama that showcase both the best and worst of CNN. Live pictures of war, struggle, drama and defeat give viewers a spellbinding sense of witnessing history as it happens.
But they also sacrifice intelligence for immediacy -- forcing journalists to speculate and ad-lib on air while they watch the same pictures as the rest of us without the time or resources to digest the raw information.
"In the past the public wasn't part of the process. Journalists used to get all the information and only then publish," said Patricia Dean, the head of broadcast studies at the Annenberg School of Journalism.
"Now the early and erroneous information gets out and the news is distorted," she said.
But these problems have not daunted Turner's enthusiasm and his belief that the organization he founded has been of huge benefit to the world.
"Today, 25 years after CNN first launched, there are more than 70 television channels broadcasting 24-hour news coverage around the world -- a true testament that CNN changed the world of broadcasting and journalism," he crows. "Where would we be today if networks like CNN had not been there to capture `people power' as the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union collapsed?"
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