Circuslike though it may seem, now it’s reality. “There’s no more Uncle Walter to say ‘That’s the way it was,’ ” Chris Matthews tells me. “Uncle Walter didn’t know the way it was. He was an Establishment liberal.”
For all his bluster, Klein’s frustration was building. As Olbermann zoomed past CNN, a senior CNN executive told him, “I think you’re in a no-win situation: You’re looking to an intellectual liberal audience who doesn’t watch cable news.”
“What else do I do?” Klein responded. “We can’t become the opposite of Fox News. I don’t know what else to do.”
This spring, CNN and CBS rekindled merger talks, but issues over editorial control and CBS’s thorny union contract couldn’t be resolved. And Klein was worried about losing Anderson Cooper, his biggest star, in prestige if not ratings, when his contract expires in mid-2011. This spring, he tried to strike a deal with CBS News that would essentially share Cooper between the networks, but CBS rejected the offer (last week Walton signed Cooper to a new multiyear deal, which includes a daytime talk show).
What might have made the most sense is to go upscale, sacrifice some numbers for prestige, keep Campbell Brown, hire Charlie Rose, show the advertisers how respected you are, let the rest of its unglamorous hours in far-flung places—hotels in Singapore and Mumbai, and just about anywhere you name—pay the bills. But this is TV, and nature took its course. “I got shot,” Klein told me. “People get shot in this business.”
Fox, meanwhile, seems on the verge of winning an election with the help of a movement—the tea party—it did much to create. But it, too, is increasingly riven by schisms that mirror those in the Republican Party itself. Bill O’Reilly has gone RINO, palling around with Jon Stewart. Beck, a one-man tea party, is going rogue, and the Establishment is pissed and worried. “People are uncomfortable with Beck,” one person working at Fox News says. “He gets 2 million at five o’clock? He would be dying at HLN. He’s not a popular guy within Fox. Hannity’s not really happy with Beck. Beck is a hired gun who’s benefiting from Fox News.”
And wisecracking, high-spirited Phil Griffin, though his patron Jeff Zucker is gone, and new bosses at Comcast are on the way, knows which side his bread is buttered on. “Barack Obama was good in the lead-up, but I do think that in life, in Paradise Lost, Satan comes across much better than God. Evil is always more interesting than good,” he says. “I’m not passing judgment. It’s just a fact.”