Welcome back our Interviews segment, where I email questions to someone with an extraordinary story which I believe will inspire others and encourage dialogue and critical thinking.
Continuing the exchange with Rick Lockridge, former CNN employee and broadcast producer, we will be picking up right where we left off. In this second and final part I’m talking to Rick about his experience at CNN when the network was acquired by AOL and how the now infamous ‘merger’ impacted CNN. We also look at the complexities of balancing ethics and commercial aspiration in cable news.
Don’t forget to check out Part I.
APRIL: What was your experience with AOL as a company?
RICK: I started to get an idea of what AOL was all about when I covered a mobile phone show in New Orleans (those shows used to be a very big deal, back when we were all waiting breathlessly for the latest iteration of a BlackBerry or a Palm Pilot or a flip phone) and we stopped by the large AOL booth to see what they had going on and whether we should add it to our coverage of the event.
Well, I had just started shooting (I was shooting the story because I had a separate contract with CNN to shoot and edit as well as report; I believe I was the first person ever to have this arrangement) when a large very loud, very large AOL VP came over and grabbed my camera with her both of her astonishingly fleshy hands and yelled at me to stop. Well, it’s a good thing she was a lady because I’m not someone who lets anyone grab my camera.
She and I had some very strong words in which I let her know that I was there as a credentialed journalist who had been invited by her own PR folks—a couple of young ladies who were at that very moment trembling behind her — to cover AOL’s latest innovations (I’m being generous by using that word) for CNN. I eventually prevailed and even got an apology but the arrogance and the sense of entitlement that VP showed was quite something. It was a peek at AOL’s C-suite culture; something I’d get an even better look at a few months later. (It’s worth noting here that despite her discourteous behavior, I covered AOL then and elsewhere with complete professional detachment and I held no grudge. I hope we can talk about that lost art later on as we examine all the other seemingly lost arts in journalism).
Months later, after AOL had acquired Time Warner and were therefore our titular bosses, there was some big story involving spam, and I covered it for a couple of days for the network. Since AOL was at that time the largest deliverer of spam in the world (owing to its success gobbling up millions of users through its free CDs), I naturally had to try to get a comment from AOL about the growing spam scourge.
This put me back in touch with some of those C-suite folks and I got into a ferocious argument with a different VP who told me not only would AOL not make an on-the-record comment but that I was not to mention AOL in the story.
Well, this was perhaps the most shockingly stupid and arrogant bit of PR dumbfuckery I had ever encountered, and it was with my own parent company!
“Of course you have to comment,” I told her, “because how would it look for the parent company of CNN and the biggest deliverer of spam in the world to refuse to comment for a CNN story?”
This idiot AOL veep was certain I would back down and omit any mention of AOL from my story. I didn’t. She threatened to go to my boss (who was, I think I have previously mentioned, a spineless weasel, in contrast to my previous boss at CNN, who was awesome). I knew he wouldn’t stand up for me but I also knew the people who really mattered at the network (he wasn’t one of them) would back my play. And they did, and I put AOL in the story and mentioned that they would not comment on the spam issue.
I was starting to get a fuller picture of who was really running AOL, and what their culture was all about.
APRIL: Wow. That is quite the story. I’ve always found AOL absolutely horrible but that’s only from a customer point of view.. Were you ever a customer?
RICK: I was covering something about internet access, and for a brief time I had to actually join AOL as a customer to be able to get inside its famous “walled garden” and compare its features to its competitors’ features. I can’t remember now exactly what the main thrust of the story was now, but I do remember I had to use my own personal credit card to become a member. (CNN didn’t issue us credit cards; we had to use our own personal cards and expense everything in those days).
So I did, and after the story was done, having no further need of AOL, I called to cancel my service. No problem, they said, you’re canceled. Except I wasn’t. Like tens of thousands of other customers, they didn’t let me go. For 2 months. They continued to bill my credit card despite multiple phone calls by me and multiple assurances by them that yes, I was canceled.
I wonder how many people remember just how unethical and dickish those AOL phone reps were back in the day. They were incentivized to prevent, by any means possible, their customers leaving. Sometimes (often?) that meant lying to the customer, as they lied to me, that their account was closed. Meanwhile, their corporate overlords pretended not to notice the outrageous violations and insisted to the media that AOL was adhering to the highest standards.
Do you see where I’m going with this? Now, some 25+ years later, we see CNN “journalists” flagrantly violating any and all of the basic, universally understood tenets of journalism, while their bosses, especially the odious Jeff Zucker, have the chutzpah to insist that CNN is adhering to the highest standards. The irony is as in-your-face as a Don Lemon crotch-grab.
APRIL: How did people react to the merger.. your colleagues, boss?
RICK: The AOL merger had a lot to do with the cultural change, because (as I put it to my co-workers at the time), AOL, with its acquire-customers-at-all-costs-and-never-let-them-go culture was colliding with CNN’s culture, which was more of a “service” culture. It’s funny to me that some of today’s so-called journalists have referred to themselves as “firefighters,” because back then, CNN was more than a little bit like an actual fire station—at least, my part of it was. We sat around a lot waiting for something to happen, and then when there was a big story, we swarmed over it. That meant, though, that there were long periods where we weren’t covering anything with any urgency—and, by the way, I really hated that.
My boss (the weasel) was really big on lying low and only going out after a story once a high-ranking network producer asked for it. This used to drive me crazy. “I didn’t work my ass off in 4 local news markets to come here and hang out in a cubicle,” I would say. But like other managers, my manager’s bonus was somewhat dependent on how much money he didn’t spend on news coverage during the year, which meant he wouldn’t let us travel and cover stories unless a big-shot producer asked for it.
APRIL: That is actually disgusting behavior. What was Ted Turner like, it would seem like he’s the exact opposite to your boss..
RICK: Ted Turner, a genuinely nice man, never interfered with anything we were doing, but his shadow was always looming (in a good way). He had installed the original mission statement for CNN, which was “no stars, just news.” And he was often visible at CNN Center, sometimes standing alone in the food court (did I mention the awesome food court?) in his suit and scuffed shoes, deciding (as we all had to) which delicious fare to consume on that day.
When I saw the scuffed shoes, I knew I liked him right away. He had all of the charisma and magnetism of a hugely successful billionaire, but none of the hubris one might expect.
In a way, the organization back then reflected him: we were worldwide, big and powerful, but still humble. I guess I’m still surprised he held such sway over us (or at least me) despite having zero involvement in the news side of the business.
I should also give credit here to Rick Kaplan, who was the president of CNN during much of my time there. He was a physically imposing ex-network-news producer; a guy about 6’5” and a good 350 lbs and with what was said to be a ferocious temper (I never experienced it; he was always very fair to me). Rick was a big part of the “self-policing” culture at CNN, inasmuch as everybody knew better than to cross him. That was a good thing. I’ve often said—everywhere I’ve worked— that someone in every newsroom needs to be an enforcer (a perfectionist, if you will). They will be a huge pain in the ass, and you only want to have one of them around, but you definitely need one.
APRIL: Well it sounds like people like Rick were desperately needed to balance out people like your boss…
RICK: Yes but unfortunately, CNN was also heavily laden with weaselly middle-manager Peter Principle types; usually people who had come up through the ranks and found that they were not particularly good at reporting and not particularly good at producing and too lazy to do the grunt jobs like shooting so they thought to themselves, hey, why not try management?
So that was a weakness—and that weakness just made Rick Kaplan more powerful and more feared. It seemed nobody would stand up to him, even when he did things that were Not So Good, like blowing through the entire annual budget for a flagship show in just its first couple of months on the air. On the other hand, Rick was such an outsized personality that I wonder whether any effort to check-and-balance him could ever have been successful. Clearly, though, he was an instrumental part of the still-functional self-policing Good Journalism culture at CNN.
And when he was kicked out—in the most gutless way you can imagine; Kaplan learned he was fired by looking at CNN’s new “org chart” during a big all-hands meeting on how the network would be restructured and not seeing his name anywhere on it—quite literally, no one in the building had the balls to tell Kaplan he had been fired! — well, that’s when things started to take a turn. Now we have no more Ted. No more Rick. And here come the hyper-aggressive AOL overlords, and standing in their way are only the weaselly underbosses who had just knifed Rick Kaplan in the back. In hindsight, it was easy to see how things could and would only go downhill from there.