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
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
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
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
“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
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
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
“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.
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