Burt Reinhardt, broadcast executive who helped launch CNN, dies at 91

May 10, 2011

Burt Reinhardt, whose broadcast journalism career began in the newsreel era and spanned well into the age of the 24-hour cable news cycle when he became one of the first presidents of CNN, died May 10 at his home in Marietta, Ga., of complications after a series of strokes. He was 91.

An Army combat cameraman during World War II, Mr. Reinhardt later was managing editor of Fox Movietone News and executive vice president of UPI Newsfilm, the television film service of the United Press International wire service. He helped establish the agency’s worldwide television operations in the 1960s.

He was executive vice president of the non-theatrical and educational film division of Paramount Pictures before CNN creator Ted Turner enticed Mr. Reinhardt to help launch the start-up news network. In his autobiography “Call Me Ted,” Turner described Mr. Reinhardt as “a seasoned professional who knew how to get things done.”

As executive vice president from 1980 to 1982, Mr. Reinhardt approved all financial decisions and helped hire most of the network’s initial 200 employees, including the network’s first anchor, Bernard Shaw.

“Reinhardt was at the heart of a news organization that ‘could squeeze Lincoln off a penny,’ ” Shaw once told the trade paper Variety.


Burt Reinhardt, former President of CNN. (Courtesy of CNN/TBS)

In 1982, Mr. Reinhardt succeeded Reese Schonfeld as CNN president. During the next eight years, he oversaw the network’s steady expansion, including the creation of 20 news bureaus worldwide and a suite of popular shows including the debate program “Crossfire” and the talk show “Larry King Live.”

“It was Burt’s way of running the company that helped save the company,” Schonfeld said in an interview. “CNN had to save every penny and every nickel until the company became prosperous.”

According to Schonfeld, Mr. Reinhardt knew that for CNN to succeed, it was imperative for the network to be on a breaking story early.

“He would say, ‘There is no way you can spend too much money on the first day of a breaking story and no way you can spend enough on the second day if you missed it first.’ ”

During his tenure, Mr. Reinhardt helped build the network’s affiliate infrastructure, enabling the continuous 24-hour reporting channel to exchange news with local outlets across the country and later charge fees for use of its over-the-air reports. He later expanded this exchange system into international markets, including Japan and China.

He pushed successfully for live coverage of all space shuttle launches — which enabled the network to carry live coverage of the Challenger explosion in 1986 — and devote days of around-the-clock reporting from Midland, Tex., for the 58-hour successful rescue of toddler Jessica McClure from a well in 1987.

“This was instrumental in the success of CNN,” said Tom Johnson, the veteran journalism executive who succeeded Mr. Reinhardt as president. By 1984, the network had amassed almost 30 million viewers a day, according to the New York Times.

In 1988, Mr. Reinhardt and another top executive, Ed Turner, ordered the placement of the omnipresent logo, known as the “yellow bug,” tucked in the lower right-hand corner of the TV screen.

The placement angered many of the affiliates who claimed it was a distraction to viewers, but it further helped to build the network’s brand.

Burton Reinhardt was born April 19, 1920, in New York City. He began his career in 1939 with Movietone News, the newsreel company, as an assistant cameraman. During World War II, he was a combat cameraman with the Army’s pictorial service in the Pacific.

A son, Barry S. Reinhardt, died in 1960.

Survivors include his wife of 59 years, Diana Shaw Reinhardt of Marietta; a daughter, Cheryl S. Reinhardt of Chapel Hill, N.C.; a son, Gary Reinhardt of Provincetown, Mass.; and a grandson.

At CNN, Mr. Reinhardt was known for his frequent, surprise appearances in the newsroom, leading to the creation of the term “Burt Alert,” which signaled for staffers to hide food, which wasn’t allowed near electronic equipment.

“CNN has had a profound impact on the news industry,” Mr. Reinhardt once said. “It has revolutionized the way people find out about their world. Working here presents new challenges every day, but it is indeed a labor of love.”

Most Read Local