Reese’s Pieces: Mr. Schonfeld, Forgotten Founder of CNN, Is a Man of Many Projects

Reese Schonfeld is not taking calls from the press these

days. He is not ready to talk about “the book.” The book, though only a couple

of weeks away from publication, is off-limits. The book, despite its

provocative title- Me and Ted Against the

World: The Unauthorized Story of the Founding of CNN -is taboo.

For 20 years, Reese Schonfeld’s told the world that he’s the

guy who started CNN. And that is true. He’s launched businesses on the strength

of that fact-a slew of new careers, in fact, including the one he’s recently

embarked upon, as an adviser to the media mergers-and-acquisitions shop DeSilva

& Phillips.

The book recalls that former life, and presumably shares a

few thoughts about Ted Turner and the rest of the CNN crew. Coming at a time of

deep retrenchment at the troubled news organization, it is sure to garner

attention. But Mr. Schonfeld isn’t offering any previews.

“I just don’t see what the story is about,” he snapped at The Observer , as cuttingly as his gentle

but raspy voice would allow.

Maurice (Reese) Schonfeld has never acted like a man with a

secret. And, indeed, what could the book say that hasn’t already been said

about the Mouth of the South? Lithium? Woman chasing? Insensitivity?

But suspense builds sales. And sales are what Reese

Schonfeld is all about. It’s his schtick, and he delivers it well.

Now Mr. Schonfeld is on the other side of the sales counter.

At DeSilva & Phillips, he’s trying to match money with ideas-a real

turnaround from the rest of his life, when he was the idea man trying to catch

up with money. The Food Network was another of his myriad cable creations.

In New York, finance guys who have become newsmen can be

found on every avenue: Mort Zuckerman, Leonard Stern, Bruce Wasserstein,

Michael Bloomberg. Newsmen who have gone into late-life transformations and are

now moonlighting as finance guys, however, are harder to come by.

Then again, there are few out there like Mr. Schonfeld, a

blend of newsman and showman, money man and mandarin. Though he’s entering a

new career in his late 60′s-when most people are thinking about

retiring-excitement almost certainly will follow.

“He convinces people, almost against their will, to do

something that they think is half-crazy,” said Sam Schulman, a managing

director at DeSilva & Phillips, who has partnered with Mr. Schonfeld on

ventures in the past. “But somehow, they do it.”

“He’s an operator,” said his friend Chris Chase, “and he’s

an original.”

Me and Ted

Mr. Schonfeld was the founding president and chief executive

of the Cable News Network from its inception in 1979 until 1982, when he was

fired by Mr. Turner. That he’s used those three years of his life, some 20

years ago, to help get funding for any number of zany schemes since then should

not diminish the accomplishment.

Since CNN, he’s gone on to run numerous production and media

holding companies, launched the TV Food Network, played an unheralded role in

the origination of contemporary reality-based programming, sold cars on the

Internet, lobbied for the implementation of a government-subsidized national

fiber-optic network and sat on the boards of numerous companies. And now he’s

advising on deals for a 14-person M.&A. boutique. A graduate of Columbia

Law School who once sued the White House to gain press access (and won), he

lives on the Upper East Side with his second wife, Pat.

During this eclectic career, he has run into a few monetary

windfalls, such as when Turner Broadcasting, in which Mr. Schonfeld was a big

shareholder, sold out to Time Warner in 1996, and when the E.W. Scripps Company

bought him out of the Food Network. But for Mr. Schonfeld, it’s clear that

money takes a back seat to the act of selling, of making deals.

That brings up Me and

Ted Against the World , to be released in early February by an imprint of

HarperCollins. The bombastic title was not chosen by its editors. Yet Mr.

Schonfeld is acting skittish, as if he doesn’t get the interest it’s

generating.

There are other things he’s skittish about: His early life.

(He grew up in Newark, N.J., and attended Dartmouth College.) His new career.

“Everything we’re doing is confidential,” he barked at The Observer , when asked about the deals

he’s cutting at DeSilva & Phillips. (He later softened up enough to say

that the firm has retained him to expand from its normal mid-size publishing

merger fare into the broadcast and cable markets, and that he is working on

three “media convergence deals”-such as Elle

and Premiere publisher Hachette

Filipacchi’s recent purchase of television concern RTM Productions, which

DeSilva & Phillips handled.)

There are some who wish him well. There are others who

don’t. And there are many who don’t know what to think of him.

“Let me try to be kind to him, because I have a lot of

reservations about him,” said Daniel Schorr, the CNN news analyst. “He’s

adventurous and daring. He’ll try things. Some of them are cock-eyed things.”

But, Mr. Schorr went on, “there’s no question that it was Reese Schonfeld who

really started and made CNN.”

Mr. Schorr would know. He was the first employee hired for

CNN by Mr. Schonfeld. Both men arrived at CNN as veterans in the news business:

After law school, Mr. Schonfeld started as a reporter at United Press Movietone

News in 1956.

But they harbored different concepts of news. Indeed, Mr.

Schonfeld’s track record in the news business suggests a producer as interested

in journalism’s potential to entertain as its obligation to inform. Mr.

Schonfeld likes to speak of “advocacy journalism,” and believes that

journalists necessarily have prejudices and should “work from them.” He calls

“objective journalism” an “impossible ideal.”

“He was fascinated by news,” recalled Daniel Schorr, “a lot

of which he didn’t understand very well.”

Mr. Schorr called Mr. Schonfeld’s management of the network

“a mixture of the wild and the imaginative” that “sometimes paid off”-like the

time he patched into CNN’s coverage of the first 1980 Carter-Reagan

Presidential debate, adding Mr. Schorr and independent candidate John Anderson.

Or the time that November when he sent Mr. Schorr to Iran because he’d heard

there was a break in the hostage crisis and that Dan Rather was on his way.

There was no break, and Mr. Rather was, in fact, covering the election in

Washington, which is where Mr. Schorr would have been were he not on a return

flight from the Middle East, fuming over Mr. Schonfeld’s error.

Still, despite his reservations, Mr. Schorr views Mr.

Schonfeld as a man who knew how to make things happen.

“He was a little bit like Ted Turner himself, if you can

imagine Ted Turner being Jewish,” Mr. Schorr said.

Yet Mr. Turner ultimately turned on his founding executive.

Mr. Schonfeld was booted in 1982 after he tried to fire Larry King’s

predecessor, Sandi Freeman. Mr. Turner objected.

“Reese wanted things done his way,” recalled Guy Pepper, one

of the original directors at CNN and a developer of MSNBC. “But that’s part of

the game.” Mr. Pepper called apocryphal a well-known anecdote in which Mr.

Schonfeld, enraged by an on-air gaffe made by an unknown, 23-year-old Katie

Couric, screamed: “I never want to see her on the air again!” (Mr. Schonfeld

denies the story.)

Mr. Schonfeld claims that Mr. Turner has asked him to return

to CNN numerous times since 1982. Mr. Turner did not return calls for comment.

Whatever the truth, Mr. Schonfeld has parlayed his CNN years into a series of

subsequent ventures, all the while harboring mixed feelings of nostalgia and

bitterness.

“It’s very sad what happened to CNN after I left,” he told The Observer .

He went on during the 1980′s to produce news for assorted

organizations, including Cox Enterprises and News 12 on Long Island, and

simultaneously put together a series of holding companies that invested in an

assortment of media-related ventures. “Anything that made people blink when

they heard it, Reese wanted to be involved,” said Mr. Schulman, who was Mr.

Schonfeld’s partner in a number of them. “He liked the shock value.”

Chris Chase, who is billed as the co-author of Me and Ted Against the World , said,

“He’s always got 16 things going.” But she added that he does not see them all

through. “He starts something,” she said, “and then he just gets bored. So the

next thing comes along and he starts that.”

The Iron Chef

In 1987, Mr. Schonfeld returned to the intersection of news

and entertainment, when he launched, with Monkees creator Ward Sylvester, the

production company Current Trends. Among other bizarre shows, they produced A Matter of Life and Death , a prime-time

special that aired in 1989. It consisted of a debate between two reporters over

the execution of a Florida death-row inmate and included a live feed from the

inmate’s cell.

Current Trends failed to produce any hits, and in 1993 Mr.

Schonfeld moved in the direction of entertainment-albeit the oddly informative

kind-when he conceived of and began assembling funding for another 24-hour

cable network, this one devoted entirely to food.

There are not many people who could attract investors to a

channel made up of little more than cooking shows and infomercials for

countertop rotisserie ovens. But Mr. Schonfeld did it, with the bulk of the

money coming from dusty old Scripps, publisher of The Providence Journal .

As good as Mr. Schonfeld has been at getting investors to

part with their money, he’s been less successful at maintaining the partnerships.

Mr. Schonfeld often leaves “a little wake of resentment in his trail, and the

relationship between him and the people for whom he’s made something is

strained,” said Mr. Schulman of DeSilva & Phillips.

And though he has ultimately profited from his ventures, Mr.

Schonfeld has not been above biting the hands that fed him. In 1999, he filed

suit against Scripps, which by that time had completely bought him out. It was

filed on behalf of a group of advertisers against Scripps’ Home and Garden

Television network. Mr. Schonfeld had no financial stake in the matter-until it

was settled for $2.5 million. (Scripps executives declined to comment for this

article, and Mr. Schonfeld, typically, did not go into details.) The same year,

he sued his former partners in the International News Network, with which he

was briefly involved in the late 1980′s; he lost.

“His problem has been with the people who have the money,”

said Mr. Schulman. “As a solo player, he’s had to make his own deals with some

pretty tough characters.” As a result, he said, Mr. Schonfeld has developed a

hard-nosed, but subtle, style of doing business. “He’s an extremely astute

negotiator and creative deal-maker in non-traditional ways,” Mr. Schulman said.

“He has a strategic sense of how to get people to do what he wants that does

not consist of banging on the table and glaring at them. He’s brilliant at

thinking of ways to rope people in by attacking them from fronts they’re not

expecting.”

It was at Mr. Schulman’s suggestion that Mr. Schonfeld was brought

on board at DeSilva & Phillips. Mr. Schonfeld insisted that he is not

working “for” the firm, but rather “with” it. He maintains his own office on

Fifth Avenue. The arrangement may prove ideal for both DeSilva & Phillips

and the fiercely independent Mr. Schonfeld. They get his first-rate Rolodex and

his unquenchable desire to make deals, and he gets to continue his road show

with a smaller risk of leaving a wake.

So far, it seems to be working out. “Deal-making is a

natural thing for him,” said Reed Phillips, the Phillips of the firm, in

glowing tones.

“Reese has enormous vitality,” said Chris Chase. “He’s an

original. An idea person.”

Ms. Chase’s kind words may be one sign that perhaps Reese

Schonfeld has entered a less turbulent period of his life. Last year, Mr.

Schonfeld enlisted his friend of 20 years to co-write Me and Ted Against the World with him. Ms. Chase said that it was

“a lovely working situation in every way”-until Mr. Schonfeld found that she

was writing a history of the early days of CNN and not a biography of him. He

scrapped the 40 chapters Ms. Chase had written and went to work on his own.

“I think I was really just a hired hand, and I was too dumb

to know it,” Ms. Chase said.

Mr. Schonfeld, for his part, says he is sorry their partnership

ended as it did.

“I finished an entire book, and he’s now finishing another

book,” Ms. Chase said. It should be noted there was not the slightest bit of

resentment in her voice.