Business

Cable news' longest-serving executive is retiring after 40 years at CNN

Posted January 29, 2021 3:31 p.m. EST

— The longest-serving executive in the history of cable news is retiring, and CNN will never be the same.

Around the network he is known simply as Rick. "Ask Rick." "See what Rick thinks." Sometimes more ominously, "Rick wants to talk." Or, with a sigh of relief, "Rick OKed this."

"Rick" is Rick Davis, the executive vice president of news standards and practices, charged with keeping CNN's editorial standards high across all of its platforms.

He has held the role since 1998, and his career with CNN dates back to 1980, and the day the cable news network was founded.

"I'm sure I've watched more cable news than anybody in the history of the world," Davis quipped in an interview.

When Davis is not watching CNN, he is "checking the competition," he said, "morning, noon and night for 40 years."

Now Davis is planning to take a break from the endless news cycle. He is retiring from CNN on January 31.

The in-house tributes during his final week at the network are a testament to how much he contributed.

"Like each of you," CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker wrote to the staff, "I cannot imagine this place without him. In fact, no one has ever known this place without him. Rick Davis was here when it all began, more than 40 years ago. He is a CNN Original. CNN would not be what it is without him."

"Rick has held almost every job at CNN," Zucker continued. "Which is why he has the respect of everyone here. He knows this place better than anyone. He has more institutional knowledge than anyone who has ever worked here."

Veronica Molina, CNN's senior vice president of standards and practices, said "our stories and journalists are better because of him. CNN is better because of him. This world, yes, this world is better because of him."

On a pandemic-era video conference call in honor of Davis, CNN anchors and correspondents like Dr. Sanjay Gupta thanked him for having their back by scrutinizing their work and catching their mistakes before airtime.

Gupta recounted Phil Kent, the former Turner Broadcasting CEO, calling Davis "the Olympic flame of CNN."

"The Olympic flame burns for two weeks," Kent said, "and Rick's lasted decades."

'Man, we're in the big time now. This is real.'

Davis, a 1974 graduate of American University in Washington, got his start through basketball. He was working as a scorekeeper for the Washington Bullets, the NBA team now known as the Wizards. He wanted to break into television news, and he was given an assist by sportcaster Nick Charles, who he met at the basketball games. Charles was working at WRC-TV, the NBC affiliate in DC, at the time.

Charles called "and said, 'Yeah, there's an opening here for four dollars an hour for a [production assistant] part time.' And I took it," Davis recalled.

Davis said he was "willing to work overnights and whenever they needed me as a part timer," which led to his promotions at WRC. "Then three years later," he said, "when Nick was hired as the first sportscaster at CNN, he recommended me." He became the first executive producer of CNN Sports.

Ted Turner's CNN was then a scrappy startup in Atlanta that wasn't yet on the air. Many television veterans doubted that there was a market for 24-hour news on television. Turner delighted in the idea of proving them wrong.

Davis produced the second hour of the network's existence, June 1, 1980.

"Oddly, CNN started on Sunday, not a weekday," he recalled. "So the first hour was a regular newscast with Lois Hart and Dave Walker, our co-anchor team, husband and wife. And then we came on at seven o'clock and did a sports wrap-up show, which we were always scheduled to do going forward on Sunday. So we we stuck to that schedule."

Outside, Turner spoke to staffers and well-wishers who gathered for a launch ceremony. Davis said the dedication Turner gave that day has been "the guiding light" for generations of CNN journalists. In an interview for "Reliable Sources," he recited the dedication:

"To act upon one's convictions while others wait; to create a positive force in a world where cynics abound; to provide information to people when it wasn't available before; to offer those who want it, a choice. For the American people, whose thirst for understanding and a better life has made this venture possible."

Davis is the last remaining executive at CNN who was present on launch day. He marvels at just how dramatically the business has changed since 1980. "We had no email, we had no cell phones, we had no Internet," he said. Landlines and beepers were the main ways to keep in touch.

Davis recalled taking some time off from the sports division to help cover the 1984 presidential campaign. "I walked into the Dallas Convention Center in 1984 and I looked up and I saw a CNN anchor booth as prominent as ABC's, NBC and CBS. And I thought, 'Man, we're in the big time now. This is real.'"

Later in the decade, when the 1988 presidential race was getting underway, Davis helped launch "the first ever half-hour show totally on politics." CNN viewers know it well: "Inside Politics." (It is now one hour long.) Then he moved to Washington and became the senior producer of "Crossfire." There was a hunger for more programming from DC, and Davis helped satisfy it. When the Persian Gulf War broke out, the president of CNN at the time, Tom Johnson, suggested a Sunday panel show about the media's coverage of the war. This was the precursor to "Reliable Sources," which became a formal weekly show in March of 1992. Davis was the founding executive producer.

"I think it's the longest-serving show with the same name at CNN," Davis said.

Davis had a producer's eye for talent as well as topics. In 1995, he recalled, he tapped someone new "to anchor 'Inside Politics Weekend.' His name is Wolf Blitzer. And I'm proud to say that I got Wolf on the air as a host for the first time on 'Inside Politics.'"

"I really had no experience in hosting a show," Blitzer recalled in an email message. "I was still reporting from the White House. He took a big chance and I'm so glad he did. He did work with me and help me every step of the way. And over the years he was a tremendous help in making me -- and indeed so many CNN journalists -- so much better in our work. He was a mentor and a good friend."

A 'skeptical filter' for CNN

The next phase of Davis's career began in 1998 when CNN suffered an embarrassing setback. The network retracted a story that had said the U.S. military used nerve gas in Operation Tailwind, a covert action during the Vietnam War. Johnson issued an apology and said "we are taking vigorous steps to strengthen our internal procedures to assure that mistakes of this type do not occur in the future."

Davis, who had no involvement in the Operation Tailwind story, was asked to move back to Atlanta and run a new standards and practices department.

CNN's system, known as the TRIAD, consists of senior editors on The Row; standards editors; and lawyers.

"We triple team these tough stories," Davis explained, "and challenge our colleagues to make sure what they're doing is accurate. What have they left out? What do they need to go back and check out? Have they been fair to the other side?"

In an interview, he emphasized that the process is a team effort. "We are the skeptical filter for our colleagues regarding the work they're doing before it gets published," he said.

Mistakes still happen, as any journalist can attest. "We're not perfect," Davis said. And CNN's output has only increased over the years, across multiple networks, platforms and apps.

"We do a postmortem when we make a mistake," Davis said. "We huddle up with everybody involved to find out what went wrong [and ask] what can we do to make sure that it doesn't happen again. We take that very seriously because our brand is based on trust."

In retirement, Davis intends to spend more time mentoring young journalists. He has set up scholarship awards at American and at the University of Maryland, where he earned his master's degree.

Additionally, on Thursday the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism and CNN announced the Richard Davis Endowed Distinguished Graduate Fellowship in Journalism. The fellows "will be mentored by designated leaders and staff at CNN in the Washington, D.C., bureau," the college said. "CNN mentors may be involved in supporting the careers of the fellows to create a pipeline of exceptional candidates with a goal to expand diversity in the newsroom and mentorship in newsroom leadership."

On February 1 Calvin Sims will take the helm as the new executive vice president of standards and practices. Sims joined CNN late last year, bringing to the network decades of experience across the media business, including twenty years at The New York Times.

Davis said he plans to watch at least a little bit less cable news in retirement. But "I'm a news junkie," he said, "so I'm going to still be watching a lot."

"I'll probably ping you with a suggestion or two," he added.

Molina, who worked with Davis for ten years, said she will miss him as a leader, "but most importantly for the person he is. He changed my life, the way I see the world and the way I treat others."

She praised him for defending journalistic principles, making sure everyone in the proverbial room was included, and bringing a sense of humor to the job.

"He leaves an incredible mark at CNN, in all of us, in the world," she said. "It must feel amazing to know that his legacy will continue and that we will all be thinking: What would Rick do?"

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