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Chasing Fox

When Klein was installed as president in 2004, he faced many of the same problems CNN faces today. Morale was low, and the network was still digesting the disastrous merger between AOL and Time Warner. Klein moved swiftly to put his stamp on CNN, in ways that exhibited his programming and political instincts. On the morning of January 4, 2005, Tucker Carlson told CNN political director Sam Feist he had accepted a job at MSNBC and was resigning his post as co-host of the much-derided Crossfire. When Carlson left to go to lunch at the Palm, Klein issued a press release of his own that said he was canceling Crossfire, essentially spinning the story that he was ousting Carlson and canceling the show. At lunch, Carlson was surprised when he received a call from the Times’ Bill Carter asking him to respond to Klein’s press release. Carlson was livid, but there was nothing he could do. It was a PR masterstroke for Klein, who earned plaudits in the press for kneecapping Crossfire.

Ten months later, in November 2005, Klein made his next major move, when, only weeks after signing Aaron Brown to a new contract, he canceled Brown’s 10 p.m. show, NewsNight, and replaced it with Anderson Cooper’s program. Klein believed that Greta Van Susteren was Fox’s weakest link at 10 p.m., and he decided to marshal resources behind Cooper to try and unseat her, hoping that a win at that hour would lift ratings for the rest of CNN’s prime-time slate. CNN pushed a massive marketing campaign that made Cooper the brand of the network and his face a ubiquitous presence on Times Square billboards, and in magazine and television ads, spending as much as $20 million, some say. The only problem was that the PR blitz failed to generate significantly higher ratings. Jim Walton, Klein’s boss, began to have creeping doubts about Cooper. “We may be creating a star, but not for us,” Walton remarked to a senior CNN executive.

In a senior-management meeting at CNN’s Atlanta offices with Walton and Turner Broadcasting CEO Phil Kent, Klein was in the middle of a presentation when Kent cut him off. “You’ve been in the job for a year,” Kent said icily, according to one person in the room. “I don’t see results. All I hear is talk, and I’m not seeing it. I don’t want to hear you talk. I want to see results.”

In 2007, Klein tried to tack upscale with Campbell Brown, a respected newswoman who’d been passed over for the high-profile Today slot. But her move to cable was troubled from the start. Brown was upset to find out that Klein had assigned Mitch Semel, who’d produced for Conan O’Brien and Nick at Night, to create her new show. After several control-room meltdowns, Klein pushed out Semel in favor of Anderson Cooper’s producer, David Doss. After the election season, the bottom started to fall out. Klein pestered Brown about conveying more emotion on-camera and to attack Olbermann and O’Reilly by name. When she confronted Indiana Republican Mike Pence and demanded to know what specific spending cuts he’d call for to balance the budget, Klein thought he saw an opening. “It was terrific to watch,” Klein tells me. “I came out of my office and said, ‘You should do that every day, have a different congressperson on every day, Democrat or GOP, and say, “What would you cut?” ’ And it would become a viral feature of your show.”

Brown hated the idea; she felt it smacked of a stunt. “I am not sure that picking a fight every night just for the sake of picking a fight is good journalism,” she told me. It was, if one were needed, something of a last straw. Seeing the writing on the wall, Brown took control of the story line herself, releasing her own statement announcing she was leaving.

One afternoon in January 2007, Griffin was in NBC News’s Washington bureau when Tim Russert called him into his office. “Griff, you’re gonna have the greatest election of our lifetime,” Russert told him. “This is going to be fantastic. Own it.”

The previous fall, Griffin debuted a new tagline—“The Place for Politics”—a phrase Russert had happened to say on the air. “It gave us the focus that we never had,” Griffin says. “We once branded ourselves ‘America’s News Channel.’ It was a lie! We weren’t.”

And with liberals ascendant in Washington, there was a new appetite for programming that tapped the fervor on the left. Zucker saw a business opportunity. “We’re failing,” he told Griffin. “We cannot fail. Have a sensibility. Put Keith out there.”

Griffin had had a long and tumultuous relationship with Keith Olbermann. But Griffin recognized Olbermann’s titanic personality could be channeled. And his ratings subsequently proved it. “What Keith Olbermann proved is that political programming with a point of view is what succeeds in prime time,” Lawrence O’Donnell says. “For a while it was unclear whether it was a Fox News phenomenon or if this was something that could work outside right-wing TV.”