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Tom Johnson

      . . . former CNN President & CEO. Mr. Johnson retired from CNN in 2001 after 11 years at its helm. He was president & publisher of Los Angeles Times (ő77-‚90), editor & publisher of The Dallas Times Herald (ő77-‚77), EVP of the Texas Broadcasting Corporation (ő71-‚73), and served as President Lyndon B. Johnson‚s deputy press secretary and special assistant. Mr. Johnson has served on the boards of the Rockefeller, Knight, Mayo, and LBJ Foundations and Stanford University‚s Professional Journalism program. He is currently leading a national campaign to remove the stigma of depression.

Excerpts3:48 secs

      The decline in television, radio and newspaper news and programming deeply concerns Tom Johnson, the former president and CEO of CNN. Don‚t blame editors and reporters for poor quality, he says, defending his beloved profession of journalism. Take it up with the owners of the public and private companies who control news outlets. They‚re the ones who decide what you‚re getting and they‚re the ones who can fix it. Advertisers are co-conspirators. They respond to raw ratings with an obsession for the youth market, keeping news organizations from doing quality news, he says. And the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a role to play, too.

      It may all look depressing, but not hopeless, says Tom Johnson, who knows about depression. He battled this mental illness in secret for a quarter of a century.  No more. He‚s now devoted the rest of his life to bringing depression out of the closet, while he champions better journalism.

      Mr. Johnson is unequivocal in naming what he calls the greatest enemy of very good electronic journalism -- overnight ratings. He‚s seen „The Nielsonsš and other such rating services drive media outlet owners and managers to pressure their news departments for sensationalism in the interest of generating numbers. That hurts the news business, he‚s observed first hand. And in a democratic society where people govern themselves, what hurts news hurts everyone.

      When will owners see the light? Mr. Johnson is realistic. Economic realities of staggering profits argue against either programming or the news getting better any time soon. He knows it will take a lot to return to reasonable profits instead of today‚s maximum ones. But that‚s what it will take to put quality back in the news and programming driver‚s seat. So what‚s a people to do?

      Consumers are powerful, he knows, urging us all to put the power of the purse to work. Demand better news and programming. If you don‚t like what you‚re seeing or hearing or reading, don‚t buy what advertisers are selling. Be sure to tell owners and advertisers what you‚re doing. Mobilize.  Use grassroots power.

      Since the airwaves still belong to the people, maybe some re-regulation (not rampant de-regulation) is in order. The FCC could once again regulate the people‚s airwaves. They might also halt the massive station ownership consolidation that has silenced the voices of local communities. The FCC could require radio and television stations to serve the public interest, not just licensees‚ bottom line.

      And forget, „Now we‚re held accountable to the ratings.š Tom Johnson is clear -- that is NOT how it should be, especially in news. Journalism‚s highest responsibility is to hold itself to the highest standards of reporting. Accept nothing less, he insists. Why? Because media organizations now shape every level of our communities, from the neighborhood to the planet, and will shape our future.

[This Program was recorded January 10, 2003, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Tom Johnson describes his life-long love affair with the news profession to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell.  He describes the highest responsibility of the news.

Conversation 2

Mr. Johnson describes what it takes to be a very good news person: a passion for one‚s work; the willingness to read a great deal and widely; the need for extensive study of what lies behind current events; and a good grasp of writing.  He gives vivid examples of why „ratingsš are the greatest enemy of excellence in electronic journalism. He considers how today‚s overwhelming influence of ratings might be addressed, applauding those advertisers who are willing to refrain from placing commercials in shows with very low standards.

Conversation 3

Deeply concerned both about the state of current journalism and about literacy in America, Mr. Johnson assigns direct responsibility for the decline in today‚s media to owners -- people who own the private and public companies that control news outlets.  He remembers when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required at least some programming be in the public interest and calls for greater accountability. He points out America‚s airwaves are still owned by the American people, proposes that responsibility and station licenses be re-connected, and considers the pros and cons of media cross-ownership. He asserts the need for champions of quality, suggests the FCC be among them, then considers why Americans do not understand how they are perceived by the rest of the world.

Conversation 4

Continuing on how America looks from the inside and the outside, Mr. Johnson again emphatically puts responsibility for improving the quality of all media outlets on media owners.  He explains why owners are central to making much-needed improvements, starting with accepting more reasonable profit margins, and makes his point with a series of examples.  Democracies are governed by the masses, he reminds us, and argues America needs better-informed voters. He objects to the central role money and ad campaigns play in influencing American voters, then summarizes the news profession‚s responsibilities.  

Conversation 5

Tom Johnson says he paid a very high price for his career success, battling severe depression since the early 1980s. He describes his own battle and the epidemic proportions of depression in America.  Calling for openness in facing and medical coverage for treating this disease, Mr. Johnson offers very good news -- most people who suffer from depression can find relief. He expands, particularly eager for people to hear, „You don‚t have to take your own life.š  Get help, he urges, then talks about the signs of depression and tells how to succeed in the struggle against the disease. He offers hope.

Conversation 6

Journalism is still the best profession of all, Mr. Johnson continues to believe, and explains why. He compares life to ballgames -- it‚s the 4th quarter/last inning that matters most -- and describes how he intends to spend this part of his life.  Recalling why he loved working for Ted Turner, Mr. Johnson then urges everyone to exercise consumer-power to improve the quality of the media: buy from responsible advertisers, don‚t buy from those who are not. He reaffirms his commitment to quality programming.


Mr. Johnson was a good sport when faced with inadequate directions to our recording location.  We‚re delighted things worked out, even if it wasn‚t „Easyš!

We thank Tom Johnson‚s assistant, Ashley VanBuren, for helping us schedule this Conversation and both Ms. VanBuren and Mr. J.B. Fuqua‚s assistant, Karen Heiser, for providing background information in a most timely fashion.

Related Links:
For 11 years, Tom Johnson was a key to the success of CNN news. You can now listen to CNN on the Internet, where you can hear Mr. Johnson and others who have appeared on „The Paula Gordon Showš(sm) as part of „CNN LookOut,š which is updated twice a week.

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