Happy to chase ratings, but not cars

CNN News Group CEO Isaacson says he now gets to focus on journalism -- the serious kind

Television

August 11, 2002|By David Folkenflik | By David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

If you're desperate to watch live coverage of car chases, you won't want to turn to CNN.

So says Walter Isaacson, who gets to decree things like this because, for 13 months, he has been chairman and CEO of the CNN News Group. In that job, he oversees essentially all editorial content put out under the CNN banner.

Since taking charge, he's grappled with the structural and immediate challenges facing the longtime cable news leader -- including something of an identity crisis as it became evident that Fox News Channel would assume the ratings crown, which it did last winter.

In an interview, Isaacson says CNN has just embarked on a time of stability in philosophy and personnel that should emphasize its heritage as a place where the news counts. He's particularly proud of a new Pew Research Center study that finds CNN remains the most trusted source of news on television.

"In a heavy news environment, I'd rather have more news," Isaacson says. "Fox brings on its conservative opinion programs. We have Christiane [Amanpour] and Nic Robertson. That's the one that you pretty much have to keep as your main focus."

It's an approach that would seem to help distinguish CNN from its rivals, Fox News and MSNBC. With more journalists abroad than any other U.S. news outlet, CNN has the greatest global reach when it matters. As explosions rocked the inaugural day of Colombia's new president a few days ago, for example, CNN's was the only U.S. television correspondent based there.

Depending on how ratings are gauged, CNN has increased its audience by about 65 percent compared with the same point last summer. Yet Fox's ratings have grown even more than CNN's over the same period. MSNBC, a distant third in the cable news game, has moved toward a more exclusively talk-show format, with chat shows from Phil Donahue, Curtis Sliwa and former Crossfire hosts Pat Buchanan and Bill Press.

Donahue's re-emergence, in particular, spooked CNN officials, who fretted they might dip to third place. But MSNBC's prime time ratings, while aided by Donahue and Chris Matthews of Hardball, still lag behind Fox and CNN.

A two-track approach

Isaacson came to CNN from corporate sibling Time magazine. As editor, he was seen by many within the industry to have re-invigorated the magazine by making it more accessible, with a greater acknowledgement of popular culture. At CNN, he is hailed as a serious journalist with a keen intellect.

Yet Isaacson was hired to move the channel away from its tradition that "The news is the star." Instead, he's instituted a two-track approach, where celebrity journalists present news but avoid the strong opinions that have propelled the success of Fox figures, such as cable ratings king Bill O'Reilly.

Even as CNN was laying off many longtime journalists, Isaacson spent months assembling a team of people familiar from broadcast news. Big names included Paula Zahn, formerly of CBS and Fox News, now the host of American Journal; Aaron Brown, late of ABC, CNN's lead anchor on NewsNight; Connie Chung, who has been an anchor and correspondent at all three broadcast networks; and Fredricka Whitfield, formerly at NBC. The winter marked a stretch of contract negotiations and corporate budget issues that Isaacson admits not enjoying at all. But he says CNN has emerged with its mandate "to stick to more journalism, [with] less shouting of opinions."

For example, Isaacson promises a more "button-down" approach to American Journal, CNN's high-stakes entry into the morning-show wars, and he says he expects to see Bill Hemmer join Zahn full-time on the show. Yet the program itself is a hybrid, with frequent appearances by Anderson Cooper, a former ABC news correspondent and host of that network's "reality" game show The Mole.

In the meantime, it's been a summer when cable news -- all cable news -- has lurched from stories about corporate malfeasance to Middle East conflict to abducted teens. Isaacson doesn't dismiss the abductions, which are actually declining in frequency, as a valid story but says such context is necessary.

"At Time magazine, I knew exactly which kinds of covers would sell," Isaacson says. " 'Does Heaven Exist?' Newsweek just did that, but I don't mean to knock them -- I did one when I was [at Time]. Sexy celebrities. Fad diets." (Newsweek's current cover line is actually "Visions of Heaven.")

"I also knew that if I made it my goal only to raise newsstand sales, I could ruin the magazine," he says. "You could put car chases on every hour, and our ratings would double. You could also hurt the credibility of CNN."

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