Ted Turner was the trailblazing visionary. Reese Schonfeld was the brilliant, maniacal first CNN president. And Burt Reinhardt was CNN’s godfather: a soft-spoken man of few words, great intelligence, and cutting candor. Like a mafia don, Burt had a sly smile and a twisted sense of humor.
During his decades as a top CNN executive, Burt made you feel lucky to be alive, to have a job, and to have a penny in your pocket. As far as CNN’s pennies were concerned, Burt was a scrooge, and his thriftiness helped keep CNN afloat during the network’s financially challenging early years. When I joined CNN in 1982 earning the legal minimum wage of $3.25 an hour, I felt fortunate because I knew if the law permitted it, Burt would pay me less.
During those early years, I got to know Burt by calling him at home at three o’clock in the morning, and I did so many, many times. His home phone number is etched in my mind: 953-3397. As I worked on the overnight shift on the International desk for six years in a row, a key part of my job was calling CNN’s bosses in the wee hours to alert them to breaking news or to ask an urgent question about whether to spend big money on news coverage. I took twisted delight out of calling some of my bosses at 3am, but I dreaded calling Burt at that hour because he had strategically placed his bedroom phone next to his wife, Diana, who I always awakened first. Diana and Burt were good sports about being called in the middle of the night, and they somehow spoke coherently at that hour, unlike other CNN executives.
Burt was always gracious but blunt. In 1989, when my immediate boss, the head of international newsgathering, was fired on orders of Ted Turner, I was the second-ranking person in the department. Burt summoned me to his office the next day, saying there was no way I would be promoted to oversee international newsgathering because I had worked so many years on the overnight shift, no CNN executive had ever seen me in the light of day. The big CNN bosses knew me only from my endearing 3am phone calls. Burt told me, “You don’t deserve the job, and you won’t get it.”
Those harsh words coming from anyone other than Burt would have been heartbreaking or infuriating or both. But Burt’s calm, confident demeanor was such that when he spoke it was like a Jedi mind trick; As much as you might disagree with Burt, you knew he was right. So I never asked for the promotion. When the job went to me, anyway, Burt told me he strongly objected. But Burt said he liked me and would do all he could to help and support me. He delivered on that promise again and again.
I did not like Burt Reinhardt. I loved him. He was a living legend, a wonderful mentor, and a treasured friend.
Diana, we extend our condolences to you, and we extend our heartfelt thanks to you for sharing Burt with us.
Burt, thank you and bless you.