The New York Observer, January 29, 2001
By James Verini
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.