WASHINGTON, March 3, 2016 — Media mogul Ted Turner is anathema to conservatives. His involvement in liberal and international causes is extensive. He has long advocated for liberal and progressive candidates and was even married at one time to the poster child of American liberalism, Jane Fonda. But his liberalism wasn’t always so front-and-center.
In the early 1980s, Turner was discreet about his political views. His upstart CNN had a reputation as an objective news source. With CNN’s initial format featuring short stories rotating around the clock and news updated only when it mattered, there was not a great deal of room on the then-fledgling network for what conservatives would term “nefarious editorializing.”
For conservatives, the actual media Anti-Christ in the early 1980s was CBS. With Dan Rather ensconced in the anchor chair since 1981, the network quickly developed a reputation for a left-wing bias. Conservative organizations like Accuracy in the Media began to declare that CBS was “Rather Biased.”
Over at CNN, Turner remained publicly discreet concerning his political leanings through the early 1980s. One result was that his network developed a reputation for objectivity. He was eager to increase the size of his media footprint and was soon huddling with members of the conservative movement to get support.
In the early 1980s I worked with several conservative groups. At that time, my former boss, U.S. Sen. Gordon Humphrey (R-N.H.), Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and other congressional leaders were collaborating with Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich also created the prestigious Heritage Foundation and was often referred to as the “godfather of the New Right.”
Weyrich and the others were putting together a group they called “Conscious Ownership.” The idea behind it was simple: Conservatives are capitalists and should make money, so why not do it in a way that benefits their principles? If conservatives owned media—which even then was seen as firmly inhabiting the left’s sphere of influence—they could make profits while while helping change American culture, or at least the political debate.
News of their interest in this cause eventually got to Turner’s people, and conversations began about getting significant financial backers on the right behind an effort to help the media executive in a hostile takeover of CBS. In fact, Sen. Helms began a conservative effort of his own called “Fairness in the Media.”
Although there was no formal announcement by anyone about this collaboration, the New York Times noted, “The Associated Press reported that a spokesman for Fairness in Media declined to say whether Mr. Helms and Mr. Turner were working together.”
Today, the very notion that thought groups associated with Turner and the likes of Jesse Helms could be working together would be dismissed out of hand. But that clearly was not the case in 1985.