Lou Dobbs: Space Cowboy or Space Cadet?

Lou Dobbs stood atop an overgrown foothill on his 300-plusacre,Sussex County, N.J., estate and looked out at all that is his: the 30 horses and three dogs, the man-made pond, the 80-year-old mansion, the small white cottages where the stablehands live. He was talking to a stranger about his latest obsession: a yet-to-launch Web site called Space.com.

The evening sky was overcast, not a star or planet in sight. Nonetheless, Mr. Dobbs looked up. “I want to build the biggest and best site about space and all the relevant subjects surrounding it,” Mr. Dobbs said. “We’re going to work with scientists, academics, business people, journalists, astronauts, policy makers, writers, authors, the workers-the best and the brightest for the biggest destination of them all. Yee-ha !”

But the “ha” affixed to the “yee” didn’t have the oomph one would expect to hear next to the words “chance of a lifetime.” Just one week before, Mr. Dobbs was the anchor of the highest-rated cable business news program on the air-CNN’s Moneyline News Hour , a show he built up from scratch-and was president of Ted Turner’s financial news channel, CNNfn. He was one of the most recognizable characters on a network that is known more for its night-vision shots of cruise missiles than of its on-air personalities.

Then on Monday, June 7, giving one day’s notice, Mr. Dobbs suddenly resigned from all of his posts after 19 years with the network. It came two weeks after an embarrassing spat with CNN president Rick Kaplan spilled onto the airwaves. Many observers took the departure to mean Mr. Dobbs, 53, had lost a long-running power struggle between himself and Mr. Kaplan, who arrived at CNN from ABC in August 1997. After all, who would leave a giant cable empire for an embryonic Web site about space?

The leaving part, most people understand. This is a man who had expended his capital at CNN, ticking off everyone from lowly researchers to some of the highest-ranking honchos in the corporate suite.

It’s the space part that has folks snorting. But not so fast. Mr. Dobbs’ view of the sky that night at his home might have been obscured by rain clouds. But when he looks at Space.com, his vision is clear: billions and billions of stars, and millions and millions of dollars. Lots of which some say will be his.

Mr. Dobbs was here to tell the world, or at least the part of it that cares, that he left because the top executives at Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner Inc. were nickel-and-diming him-him!-over how much he could invest in his Space.com venture, and that helped him realize it was time to go. A Web site about the promise of space, he said he realized, was more important to him than his recently inked, $10 million contract with CNN.

“I left a lot of money at Time Warner, so when I tell you money isn’t everything, I really mean it,” said Mr. Dobbs, with a gray-eyed stare that looks right through you.

Normally at this time of the evening, Mr. Dobbs would be behind a desk, in front of a television camera, in a dark-blue business suit and starched white shirt telling Wall Street about the merger of the day or the ups and downs of the stock market. But this evening, though every golden-gray hair was perfectly in place, he was dressed in an untucked, chartreuse Cutter & Buck polo shirt, pleated khakis and 10-year-old moccasins. And he was at home, in New Jersey, four-wheeling up one of his grassy hills in a visitors’ Jeep.

Was he feeling misty-eyed, he was asked.

“Nope,” said Mr. Dobbs. “You reach a certain point in life where you believe your accomplishment and your contribution should speak for itself. You reach a point wherein you have enough money, but that isn’t the reason you do things. You’re doing things for the love of the job, the people and the organization. But when the frustration, whether petty or profound, whether over personality or philosophy, makes that level of commitment fragile … the outcome was rather predictable.”

Hardly.

When word that Mr. Dobbs had tendered his resignation first hit the 20th floor of CNN’s 5 Penn Plaza on Tuesday, June 8, most of his staff didn’t believe it. They were thinking about everything Mr. Dobbs would be leaving behind for his space Web site, even if he does predict it will make him even richer one day: a rock-solid, $1 million-per-year contract and a chance at tens of millions more if the CNNfn.com Web site goes public. They were thinking about the times Mr. Dobbs had said he was quitting before-in one case even packing his boxes-only to change his mind after some sweet talk by Mr. Turner.

But this time, Mr. Turner wasn’t around. And on the next afternoon, June 9, Mr. Dobbs went before his reporters and producers with CNN chairman Tom Johnson and told them, indeed, he was leaving. When the first champagne bottle was uncorked, they believed him.

There had been plenty of speculation over Mr. Dobbs’ future with the network in the months leading up to his resignation. “He was moaning and groaning,” said one of Mr. Dobbs’ associates. The trouble had begun in 1990, when Tom Johnson was hired away from the chairmanship of the Los Angeles Times to become CNN president. Mr. Dobbs had been considered to be a front-runner and was reported to be on his way out the door when news of Mr. Johnson’s appointment arrived. It is said that Mr. Turner begged him to stay.

Why wouldn’t he? Mr. Dobbs had established himself as the biggest money-getter at the network and Mr. Turner appreciated that. (Mr. Turner did not respond to requests for an interview.) Even in the earliest days of CNN, Mr. Dobbs’ Moneyline show was bringing CNN big bucks, bigger bucks than anything else. And at the time of Mr. Dobbs’ resignation, it was bringing in the highest ad rates at CNN-$17 for every 1,000 viewers reached.

By then, CNN was Mr. Dobbs and Mr. Dobbs was CNN. In fact, he was so attached to the network that for a while he had a red and black network logo stenciled on the bottom of his pool (it’s since been removed). “When you think of CBS, you think Dan Rather,” explained one former CNN news executive, who requested that his name not be used. “When you think of CNN, who are the morning anchors? No one knows. You think of Lou Dobbs. It’s a tremendous, tremendous loss for them.”

Mr. Dobbs’ early evening program was a destination for Wall Street. It’s said that if you’re one of the new, Joe Blow investors, a day-tripper, you watch CNBC. If you’re a Wall Street boss, you watch Lou Dobbs because he’s certain to have the chief executive involved in the biggest deal that day .

“Given the fact that he had been doing it for so long, he had a good deal of stature. He did draw the chief executives,” said Larry Wachtel, market analyst for Prudential Securities.

Mr. Dobbs pointed out over the hills behind his house, where his property line ends. His yellow lab, whippet and Burmesemountain dog, Max, Chipper and Rocky, were circling his house and looked like tiny, moving dots from the high point where he stood. Mr. Dobbs stands 6 feet 2 inches tall. His face is ruddy and he speaks in a deliberate, deep voice. He was feeling philosophical. “The less you have it as a kid, the more you want it as an adult,” Mr. Dobbs said softly, in perfect news-anchor speak. Mr. Dobbs “grew up poor,” the son of a small businessman in Rupert, Idaho.

Mr. Dobbs was brought into CNN at the beginning, in 1980, when the 24-hour news channel was still just another one of wacky Ted Turner’s far-fetched ideas.

“We didn’t have money, we couldn’t buy celebrities,” said a former CNN executive who was there at the beginning. “We had to go out and find stars, not great stars, but they certainly became appreciated and well-respected journalists.”

Among them was Mr. Dobbs, a Harvard-educated television reporter who was working at KING-TV, a local station in Seattle. “I thought he was bright and smart and telegenic,” said CNNfn correspondent Myron Kandel.

As Mr. Dobbs’ stature grew, so did a reputation for bursts of temper and a big-as-TV ego. He rarely followed the teleprompter and often yelled loudly when he didn’t like a script. He’d fire someone right on the spot-only to rescind it hours later. While he had his detractors, he also inspired fierce loyalty, building his own fiefdom within CNN that scared other executives away.

“I think I was fired eight or nine times,” said Kelli Arena, a CNNfn correspondent who has worked with Mr. Dobbs for 15 years. “The first couple of times I took it seriously. But then it didn’t phase me. Lou is very much the product of ‘push people as hard as I can and I’ll get the best out of them.’ Let me tell you: There are a lot of bastards in this industry, some real unpleasant people. Dobbs isn’t one of them. I’d rather have someone blow up and forget about it than someone who didn’t, but carried a grudge.”

That’s O.K. for the underlings. It’s another story when it’s the bosses. Then again, he was protected by Big Ted, who had him up to the New Mexico ranch for some friendly fly-fishing every summer. “Lou screamed at anything that took away from him,” said the former CNN executive. And got away with it.

Even when executives in July 1992 learned that Mr. Dobbs had accepted payments from Paine Webber, Shearson Lehman Brothers and the Philadelphia Stock Exchange for speaking on promotional videos. He was reprimanded and agreed to return $15,000 in speaking fees. An in-house memo, signed by Mr. Johnson, went out telling the troops of the reprimand. But he wasn’t fired. “We kept saying ‘One of these days, he’s going to do something and … Ted won’t be here to save him,’” said the old-time executive.

When it came time to hire a new CNN president in 1997, Mr. Dobbs was passed over again. This time, Mr. Kaplan-an 18-year veteran of ABC-was brought in. Still, Mr. Dobbs did get his own perks. He was named president of CNNfn, CNN’s financial channel. And he was allowed to develop the CNNfn Web site, which became a huge success. Moneyline , though, would fall under Mr. Kaplan.

Like Mr. Dobbs, Mr. Kaplan is an imposing man. He stands 6 feet 7 inches and has a booming voice. He’s also close with President Clinton, something he doesn’t mind people knowing. That was said to offend Mr. Dobbs, an avowed Republican.

Mr. Kaplan was brought in to help CNN stabilize after losing 18 percent of its ratings. The problem: CNN is only being watched when a major story breaks-like O.J. or the Gulf War. But when America wants its news on a day-to-day basis, it goes to the networks. And the emergence of MSNBC and the Fox News Channel didn’t help.

Mr. Kaplan went to work wooing viewers. He hired big names from ABC, like Willow Bay and Jeff Greenfield, and built a new, network-style news show called Newsstand . Meanwhile, he was asking more from the CNN staff-better graphics, fuller packages and more focus on domestic stories. It offended the old guard at the network, who in the words of one, remembered the days of “trench fucking warfare. I mean we worked 16-hour days, 7 days a week, all of us executives did. And suddenly you see these people come in with enormous salaries and a way of operating that wasn’t necessarily what you were trained to do and hired to do. It caused a lot of friction.”

Mr. Dobbs was said to be in that camp. But his ire wasn’t public until the debut of Newsstand , with its report of the notorious Tailwind story, which wrongly alleged that the United States had used nerve gas against its own Vietnam defectors. Mr. Dobbs was furious, publicly calling for Mr. Kaplan’s head, Peter Arnett’s head and even Mr. Johnson’s head. But as time passed, it became clear that Mr. Kaplan wasn’t going anywhere, even though his multimillion-dollar Newsstand never took off with viewers.

Mr. Dobbs declined to talk much about Kaplan and the Tailwind fiasco. “That’s someone else’s story, thank God,” he said, pointedly. Mr. Kaplan declined to be interviewed.

After the Kaplan hire, Mr. Dobbs kept building his own empire, hiring network news executives of his own to run CNNfn and help out on Moneyline -David Bohrman from NBC and Jeff Gralnick from ABC. And the CNNfn Web site he started from scratch was taking off as one of the most successful business sites on the Internet. When Time Warner, which bought Mr. Turner’s empire in 1996, tried to put the Web site under the auspices of its new on-line division, Mr. Dobbs announced expansion of CNNfn.com in The Wall Street Journal to ensure his position over it.

If that didn’t ruffle feathers over at Time Warner, the events of May 20 certainly did: During the 6:30 Moneyline broadcast, Mr. Kaplan wanted to break in for a live-though scheduled-speech by President Clinton at a Littleton, Colo., memorial for the Columbine High School massacre. Mr. Dobbs opposed the idea and angrily told his audience, “CNN president Rick Kaplan wants us to return to Littleton.” It is a cardinal rule of television journalism that on-air personalities keep control room fights in the control room. Mr. Dobbs had broken that.

The timing of the fight was apparently not in Mr. Dobbs’ favor. He was entering discussions with his bosses about his interest in a new Web site called Space.com. By Mr. Dobbs’ account, more than a year before, CNN executives had said it would be O.K. for him to take a third interest in the site while maintaining his duties at Moneyline , CNNfn and CNNfn.com. He wanted to nail that down soon, as the Web site is to launch July 20. Everything seemed O.K. until June 7. That’s when Turner Broadcasting and Time Warner executives raised concerns over competition for ad revenue between Space.com and CNNfn.com. They also weren’t comfortable with his level of investment.

“I thought it would be a nice, simple, easy thing,” said Mr. Dobbs. But when he realized it wasn’t, he alerted Mr. Turner that he would be leaving.

“If he was perhaps in as high esteem as you would have expected, they could have bent all the way,” said another, longtime CNN staff member. “He created the situation where they had to make a choice. He was so used to having everyone bend for him and I think he was shocked when they didn’t bend all the way.”

Mr. Dobbs almost admits as much. But he begs to differ over how much help he wanted from Mr. Turner. “If this were just Ted Turner and Lou Dobbs, it would be simple. But Time Warner is a big media company. It has rules and positions and policies which its management believes are reasonable and protective of the company’s interest.” But, he said, as soon as the executives balked at his investment he realized that Space.com was what he wanted to do.

“It’s the best thing that could have happened, from my standpoint,” said Mr. Dobbs, calling the people in the space industry “my heroes.”

While Mr. Dobbs’ idea for Space.com may sound wacky to some-he said it will feature good science fiction, stories about the latest astrological breakthroughs, business stories-it seems he’s on to something. First of all, the lead investor is Venrock, a Rockefeller family investment arm. And, then there’s all the other space activity. Bill Gates has recently launched a $9 billion company that will create a network of satellites that will allow people to build large wireless computer and telephone networks. If Mr. Dobbs’ site can help people log into space opportunities like that, he could do quite well indeed, especially if he can take it public. Even if CNNfn.com were to go public, that would have been a Time Warner thing, not a Dobbs thing.

That’s why, Mr. Dobbs said, he laughs about all the talk of his departure and rumors that he’s in discussions with CNBC and Fox News. “The potential [of Space.com] is enormous, both in terms of what we’ll be able to add to our culture in terms of public knowledge and the marketplace.”

His relationship with Mr. Turner, he maintained, will go on, and there will be more ranch visits and fly-fishing. There are no hard feelings. Still, he comes off bitter when he discusses his departure.

“For 19 years, I delivered. That may have made some people who weren’t delivering very uncomfortable. Frankly, I don’t care,” he said.

But as rain was starting to fall along with the darkness, Mr. Dobbs wanted to stop talking about it, put it all in the past, where he said it belonged. “It’s only been one week, during which I found out I have more friends than I ever dreamed possible. People are offering funding, C.E.O. jobs, directorships and support and all of that pettiness at CNN is not only ancient, but irrelevant. History and Space.com is all about the future. And so am I.”