CNN chief to step down

January 14, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Veteran journalist Walter Isaacson said yesterday that he will step down as chairman and CEO of the CNN networks to head the prestigious Aspen Institute, a nonprofit group dedicated to the study of global problems.

He will be replaced by Jim Walton, a 22-year veteran of CNN who has served as Isaacson's top deputy. Isaacson's departure came at a surprising time: Stephen M. Case, the chairman of parent company AOL Time Warner, announced his resignation over the weekend.

"This opportunity was unexpected and unsolicited, and the timing is not perfect, but it is exactly the type of job I have long wanted," Isaacson wrote in a memo to CNN staffers. "It offers the chance to do things I truly love or want to do: writing, exploring ideas, engaging in policy issues, and seeking solutions to social and international problems."

Isaacson, a former managing editor of Time magazine and a biographer of Henry Kissinger, was selected to help reinvent CNN. Under his leadership, CNN introduced highly "branded" programs, creating shows around such network figures as Connie Chung, Paula Zahn and Aaron Brown.

That effort did not arrive without some cultural clashes. From its start two decades ago, CNN was built on the idea that "the news is the star." But the emergence of Fox News as a tough ratings competitor led to a push for change.

Yesterday, Isaacson pointed proudly to surveys that show CNN to be the most trusted outlet for television news. And he also noted that CNN's ratings have risen since his arrival in summer 2001, though those of Fox News climbed even more steeply. Fox has taken a ratings lead with a blend of straight-forward and cheeky reporting with hard-edged talk.

"Fox has made us better," Isaacson said yesterday. "We've kept our eye on the mission of being a reported network."

Said Fox News Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes: "Walter Isaacson is an excellent journalist with enormous talent ... whose knowledge of the news business raised the bar for the industry."

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