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Chasing Fox

The loud, cartoonish blood sport that’s engorged MSNBC, exhausted CNN—and is making our body politic delirious.

Illustration by Gluekit  

In the spring of 2006, a year and a half after he was hired to run CNN/U.S., Jonathan Klein went to his boss Jim Walton with an idea. CNN was in trouble. While the network remained a profit engine and an iconic brand, prime-time ratings were stalled. Fox News had surged ahead in the cable-news race, and now, alarmingly, Keith Olbermann was coming on strong. His anti-Bush broadsides were transforming his 8 p.m. MSNBC show, Countdown, into a bombastic counterweight to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, and combined, both personalities were drowning out CNN’s Paula Zahn, the respected television veteran who was anchoring a standard newscast during the 8 p.m. slot.

And so Klein set out to poach Olbermann. At the time, Olbermann had a window to negotiate in his MSNBC contract and Klein made a hard sell. He told Olbermann he could bring Countdown to CNN—the two even discussed which members of Olbermann’s staff would make the move with him. “Jon and I were in very deep discussions on a regular basis for me to go over there,” says Olbermann. “One of the premises was we would have put MSNBC out of business.”

Ted Turner’s vision of the primacy of the news remained something of a religion at CNN. But Klein was hired to take risks. A former executive vice-president at CBS News, Klein had a reputation as an expletive-spouting showman. He was based at CNN’s offices in the Time Warner Center, lunched frequently at Gabriel’s and Porter House New York, and enjoyed reading his quotes in the Times. When he took the job in 2004, he insisted CNN give him the title of president. It was a style that didn’t always sit well with Walton and senior executives in Atlanta, which had been the power center that imbued the network with a folksy, cautious sensibility. A CNN lifer who had joined the network as a 23-year-old video journalist, Walton cast himself as a protector of CNN tradition.

Walton pushed back on Klein’s plan to hire Olbermann. “I’m not gonna be the guy who’s gonna turn CNN into an opinion network,” he told executives in meetings. But in Klein’s view, CNN already was an opinion network. For an hour each night, Walton tolerated Lou Dobbs’s anti-immigration tirades. Klein pressed Walton to reconsider, but Walton held firm. “I bailed out when it became apparent that the people above [Klein] were less than sanguine about this,” Olbermann tells me.

There has been plenty of movement since then at CNN: Campbell Brown came and went; Lou Dobbs was finally forced out; Larry King at long last retired. But ratings have mostly flowed in one direction: downward—down 40 percent since 2009.

Klein faced a possibly insoluble cable-news riddle: How do you build the kind of excitement that draws in viewers without being partisan? At a Time Warner board meeting this spring, Walton was forced to defend CNN’s ratings issues. The pressure on Klein ratcheted up. In April, Klein began talks with British talk-show personality Piers Morgan. In June, he announced that he would hire the famously black-socked and disgraced former governor Eliot Spitzer. Klein faced stiff internal resistance to hiring Spitzer. When one CNN executive expressed to Klein the concern that viewers risked being turned off by Spitzer’s hooker scandal, Klein had snapped, “I don’t give a fuck.”

Pairing him with a female co-host was delicate. “They were concerned a young, beautiful co-host wouldn’t work,” said one source familiar with the show’s development. Finally, they settled on Kathleen Parker, an attractive 59-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winning conservative columnist. The Parker Spitzer show debuts on October 4.

Klein thought his place at the network was secure. Six weeks ago, CNN signed him to a new contract. But late last month, Walton made his move. Klein was planning to head to a rehearsal for the Parker Spitzer show when he stopped by Walton’s office. In a five-minute conversation, Walton told Klein he was out. “You’re the best president CNN has ever had, but we’re making a change,” he told him. In Klein’s place, Walton was bringing in longtime CNN executive Ken Jautz, a former CNN Berlin bureau chief who had successfully juiced the ratings of sister network HLN by taking it down-market and tabloid. For now, Jautz is staying the course. “Our business model is based on quality journalism and nonpartisan programming,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong; we have a ratings challenge in prime time.”

The rise of Fox News on the right and MSNBC’s follow-up pincer movement on the left have trapped and isolated CNN inside its brand, desperate to find a way forward. There are still times—presidential elections, global catastrophes—when news as it was traditionally understood can still win the ratings game. And CNN, because of its premium advertising rates, international networks, affiliates, and websites, is still surprisingly profitable: Last year, CNN generated $500 million in profit, its best year ever. But it’s a television commandment that thou must succeed in prime time. Even in prime time, CNN actually gets plenty of viewers, but they tend to click through rather than linger. And Fox’s secret is that viewers stay. That’s because Fox’s rightward flanking maneuver, capturing a disenfranchised part of the audience, was only part of its strategy. The news, especially political news, wasn’t something that happened. It was something that you shaped out of the raw data, brought out of the clay of zhlubby, boring politics, reborn with heroes and villains, triumphs and reverses, never-ending story lines—what TV executives call “flow.” And the beauty of it was that the viewers—the voters—were the protagonists, victims of evil Kenyan socialist overlords, or rebels, coming to take the government back. There was none of the on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand relativity crossfire that mirrors the journalism-school ideal of objectivity. All the fire went one way. The viewers, on their couches, were flattered as the most important participants, the foot soldiers in Fox’s army; some of them even voted.