Yesterday the world got a premature look at the CNN apocalypse video, cable news' very own requiem for Planet Earth. There's been some curiosity over how seriously employees treated the tape, but according to former employees, an ex-CEO, and a CNN archivist, they've all been trained to use the tape.
Tom Johnson served at the helm of CNN from 1990 to 2001, and in that time he led the company through what many see as its golden years, from its stunning Gulf War coverage to the OJ Simpson trial to the original dot-com burst. Sadly, we never got to see how exactly Johnson's CNN would cover the unending tidal wave of entropy that will eventually rip apart the universe itself, but we know they would've been prepared.
Reached over email, Johnson explained that those who needed to know, always knew about what could very well have been CNN's final report.
"I viewed 'the end of the world video,'" Johnson wrote. "During my tenure, we always asked our most senior producers," including eventual CNN Headline News chief Bob Furnad, "to know how to locate the tape."
"Most of us saw both humor and seriousness in it," he explained. "Ted always worries about a nuclear accident or another possible end of our world. His "Nuclear Threat Initiative" project with Sam Nunn and Warren Buffett is worth googling."
That's last bit is a reference to this, which is a non-profit with an aim to "strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and to work to build the trust, transparency, and security that are preconditions to the ultimate fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's goals and ambitions."
Turner pledged $250 million to start the organization, which is on top of the already-staggering billion-dollar donation to the United Nations.
Though the tape was made in the 1980s, it wasn't solely created as a vanity project for a burgeoning media empire. The threat of a world-ending event back then wasn't just limited to crazies and crackpots; it was a real possibility. The United States, along with NATO, and the Soviet Union, along with the rest of the Warsaw Pact, faced each other with potentially the greatest threat of nuclear warfare during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The world wasn't stirred with worries that Russia would continue invading eastern Ukraine; it was consumed with fear that one tiny slip, one small misunderstanding, could spell the death of all of us. And most ominously of all, in that one decade alone humanity came incredibly close, multiple times, to putting a bullet in our own heads.
There were Department of Defense psychological operations, which entailed flying multiple B-52 strategic bombers, loaded to bear with nukes, directly at Soviet airspace until they peeled off at the very last second. Just to see the Soviets twitch, and hopefully reveal a weakness in their defenses.
There was Korean Airlines Flight 007, a regularly scheduled civilian flight from New York to Seoul, which was shot down by a Soviet interceptor on a chilly September night. All 269 people on board the Boeing 747 were killed, including a congressman, Lawrence McDonald.
There was the time the Soviet ballistic missile warning system failed, and only one man, Stanislav Petrov, recognized that the swarm of incoming American nuclear missiles was probably a false alarm.
And then there was the time that President Reagan thought it would just be a hilarious joke if he used this zinger as a sound check before his weekly radio address:
"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes."
It wasn't broadcast over the air, but someone who was a reporter in the presidential press pool at the time said that back then, the tension with the Soviet Union was so thick there was a distinct possibility that Reagan was just using his folksy manner to declare the deaths of billions.
So when Ted Turner and CNN were prepared for the worst, they were just being prudent.
Since we acquired the video some time ago, and especially since its publication, both former and current CNN staffers have approached us about its use. Most were bemused; the worst-kept open secret in the company was now out in the open.
Fuzz Hogan, former CNN employee for nearly 20 years, Midwest bureau chief and head of the national desk, told us that he was first introduced to it on his first day on the job, before he even left training:
Thousands of people received the training in playback, and as far as I know, most if not all heard of this (I mean, it's possible the person who trained me had unique knowledge and only shared it with a few, but it was definitely presented as a "oh, by the way, here's something funny." I have no memory of who actually trained me. At that stage, just a few weeks in, we were being trained on new things almost every day (TelePrompter, camera, script-ripping, etc.).
If I recall correctly, half the training for that position at Headline News was in playback (where you load the tapes into machines so the technical director can play them from the board in the control room), and half was in Master Control where, in those days, a more grown-up person controlled Master itself (going to breaks) and your sole job in that hour-long shift was to switch the one-inch reels that recorded air. As part of showing me around master control, my trainer said something like "and check this out," and showed me a drawer with a piece of paper taped to it that said indicated it should be the last tape played on CNN and Headline News and suggested that would be the end of the world. It was something of a parlor game to guess what the tape would be. The truth, as you reported, was among the guesses, so I'm assuming the truth was known around the building.
But, to be honest, it didn't come up much. The kind of thing you'd tell non-CNN friends, just like you'd tell them about the obituary shelf, where we had obits ready for people who were alive... that sort of thing.
But though the tape itself is treated around the offices as an amusing relic, an archivist who still works for CNN told us that the video itself serves a serious purpose today:
Yes, it is legitimate and new employees tend to be "initiated" by being shown videos like the Doomsday one. My very first boss (as an intern in DC) showed all of us the video to demonstrate how the system worked. It's a great example because it explains how Holds & other metadata requirements can be used.
It turns out CNN has an official protocol for how the tape would be handled in the event of the apocalypse; the first step requires a staffer at the Library Reference Desk to sign off on the tape's use.
This seems reasonable on its face. But if you were the second-to-last last CNN employee on Earth, would you really go looking for a librarian?
Illustration by Jim Cooke