CNN Snaps Back to Action

A few days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, Paula Zahn received a telephone call from Henry Kissinger’s office. A representative for the former Secretary of State was calling the newly hired CNN co-anchor to tell her that Mr. Kissinger was marooned in Germany, and that like a lot of people he had been spending much of his time riveted to CNN. “It was his only source for information,” Ms. Zahn said.

The Cable News Network’s long-consuming identity crisis seemed finally to have ended.

The telephone call from Mr. Kissinger’s office was not especially surprising; CNN has long been a powerful presence overseas-particularly since the Gulf War. In addition to an international audience, the 24-hour news network is an umbilical cord for Americans living abroad, with viewers in the hundreds of millions and a brand name as big. (Of course, Mr. Kissinger had also been a guest on CNN numerous times, and the network’s new boss, Walter Isaacson, wrote a biography of him.)

What was surprising was that CNN-after having burgeoned for more than a decade as America’s source for breaking global news-had been trying to claw its way back, after having been razzle-dazzled and confused by competitors into almost changing its identity to a less stentorian and direct news source to one that was lighter, more generationally accessible.

Now CNN was devoting itself to the story for which it seemed to have been institutionally designed, the biggest of its 21-year life. From ground-zero footage to an interview pitch for Osama bin Laden to the green, night-vision images of U.S. soldiers parachuting into Afghanistan, CNN was back in the straightforward business of being the American public’s 24-hour intravenous tubing for world events-and the world’s snapshot of the American consciousness.

It’s easy to forget that just this summer, CNN was a seriously addled operation. The network had lost both viewers and mind share to Rupert Murdoch’s upstart Fox News Channel, which had successfully counter-programmed CNN’s starchy, increasingly untethered, news-intensive format with a pugilistic blend of analysis, ideology and loud-mouthed talk.

Compared to Fox-and zippy, Brian Williams–heavy MSNBC-CNN looked lost, beside the point. It had what looked to be a pretty weary team, unmemorable in the increasingly personality-driven cable cosmos. Even Larry King looked suck-cheekedly tired of hearing about Bill O’Reilly . The network had skinned hundreds of employees, stockholder sacrifices to the AOL–Time Warner merger. Many of those left behind felt nervous.

That was six weeks ago.

Back then, Fox News was touted as the harbinger of a new world where personalities and controversy were as important as news gathering. CNN, once cocksure and flak-jacket fleet-footed, was second-guessing its purpose for the days when there wasn’t a plane crash or a celebrity trial to cover. Mr. Isaacson, the former Time managing editor-one of AOL Time Warner’s shining lights-was sent down to save the place, with the hope that he would do for the network what he had done for Time : give it a pep shot, give it, as Mr. Isaacson himself said, “a little bit of juicing up.”

No one talks like that anymore. There is no need, of course, to juice up this story; if anything, reports of anthrax and terror threats need to be modulated, toned down. Culturally, CNN has returned to its safari-vest war-zone days; the increasingly exiled Ted Turner himself showed up in Atlanta on Sept. 11 to kick in. Summer’s problem child is autumn’s superstar; CNN suddenly feels hefty and relevant and central to AOL Time Warner; Gerald Levin tells Mr. Isaacson to succeed the old-fashioned way, to spend what he needs on breaking news, satellite trucks, live shots, live shots, live shots.

“They are doing,” said Mr. Isaacson the other day, “what CNN was born to do.”

Talk about a mission statement: CNN now has more than 30 on-air correspondents in the Middle East. Its news veterans are no longer questioning their roles.

“I’m grateful for comments I’ve read from Walter Isaacson, Jerry Levin and senior management, that CNN has found its way again, after a certain period of trial and error in trying to adjust to the unprecedented corporate pressure for unusually high profit margins,” Christiane Amanpour wrote in an e-mail Oct. 19 from Pakistan. “I think this period of reevaluation is a vital opportunity for all of us, all TV news organizations, to stick to our mandate of informing the world, informing Americans about the world.”

Ms. Amanpour has felt this strongly for a long time, but it would be ludicrous to suggest that everyone inside CNN was on that page prior to Sept. 11. Before the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, staffers at CNN weren’t thinking about Peshawar and Islamabad; they were wondering if Mr. Isaacson was going to start a late-night comedy program like The Daily Show . There were notes in the press asking if he was interested in Rush Limbaugh.

“It’s really been a complete turnaround,” says one CNN staffer. “CNN was going in the direction that Time magazine was going-at least that’s how everyone saw it. And then this happened, and then the ratings go sky high and Isaacson’s talking about returning to our roots.”

Of course, there’s a certain obviousness to the post–Sept. 11 change. “The notion that CNN has rethought where it is going is like saying, ‘Well, an asteroid crashed into the planet Earth, would it reassess your notion of the real-estate market?'” said CNN’s Jeff Greenfield.

And yet, there is general relief at CNN that the network had not changed aggressively before world events turned. “They were lucky,” said an executive at a competing news network. “If they had gone all the way down the road of making themselves look like [MSNBC] and Fox, completely recast their characters and gone soft, they would have had a difficult time.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Isaacson has adjusted, too, transitioning from AOL Time Warner’s handpicked out-of-box savior-a non-TV guy running the world’s biggest TV network-to the general of what is likely to be a protracted international war story. The first week of September, Mr. Isaacson was introducing Ms. Zahn at an impromptu press conference, answering showbiz questions about snatching her from the jaws of Roger Ailes at Fox News. (Fox had fired Ms. Zahn after it learned of her CNN offer and sued her agent, too.) A month later, he was in a room with a group including CNN president of newsgathering Eason Jordan, mulling over questions to submit to Osama bin Laden.

If anyone was capable of making such an adjustment, it was Mr. Isaacson, the supple hard-news guy who made Time a more vibrant newsmagazine product. Asked to describe CNN’s core mission, he sounded a bit like Ms. Amanpour. “CNN has always believed that the world matters,” he said in his 34th Street corner office, decorated with both a portrait of Albert Einstein and a purple lava lamp. “You are providing a real public service if you report well and take the world seriously. And this [story] has been so big that it doesn’t just help focus what CNN does-it helps focus what we as a people do.”

Of course, this is the news business, and CNN has been criticized for its handling of exclusive material, for its relationship with the Taliban-friendly Al Jazeera network, for the propriety of submitting questions in advance. Some of the criticism is legitimate-although it’s pretty fun hearing competitive G.E., Viacom and Disney-employed network news executives inflating like tweedy associate professors at the Columbia Journalism School.

“What happened on Sept. 11 is so big that it’s not a competitive issue any more,” Mr. Isaacson said. “Certainly we have all the viewership we could possibly …. ” Mr. Isaacson stopped himself. “There is a much larger issue here, which is performing public service, being responsible and intelligent about this story-and it’s not a competitive issue. All of us in the media, be it papers or magazines or other TV networks, are kind of spurring each other along by doing a good job.”

It’s a news conundrum, of course. Mr. Isaacson and fellow executives no longer appear to remember that they are in a profit-driven business. But there is a sense throughout the network that CNN has turned a corner. “It just feels so [much] more purposeful now,” said one staffer. “It [CNN] just goes immediately into a war footing; it’s a comfortable pattern.”

And as strange as the circumstances that led to their creation were, those six questions to Osama bin Laden, too, offered evidence of CNN’s potency. The plain-spoken, almost folksy questions-including “How can you and your followers advocate the killing of innocent people?” and “Do you or your followers have any [nuclear, biological or chemical] weapons, and, if so, will those weapons be used?”-may have crinkled the noses of the suddenly stickling competition, but they cut straight to the heart of what was worrying people around the globe. The questions themselves were a story, even if Mr. Isaacson was surprised by the fuss they caused and held out little hope for a response. “We just aired a bunch of questions and put it on TV and figured that if anything ever came back, we’d look at it,” he said.

It is not correct to say that everything is perfect at CNN, of course. There is scattered grousing among correspondents and producers who do softer news and find that they are suddenly beside the point. There is also a belief that the network needs to spend less time on live shots and concentrate more energy on allowing reporters to develop stories. Finally, there is some anxiety that free spending overseas may lead to another round of layoffs. “People are worried,” said another CNN staffer. But Mr. Isaacson said that AOL Time Warner’s “Jerry Levin and others have said, ‘This is important to do right-you have the resources you need.'”

Meanwhile, CNN’s central nervous system-both culturally and literally-is increasingly becoming New York, instead of Atlanta, the traditional home base. Mr. Isaacson, who spends three days a week in Atlanta, says that’s not true-“I think it’s good that news gathering and a lot of the decisions are made in Atlanta,” he said-but many in CNN believe a major move north is a done deal, especially once AOL Time Warner completes its Emerald City offices in Columbus Circle. Ms. Zahn’s morning show, launching next spring, will be produced from a glassed-in studio on Sixth Avenue. And a new 10 o’clock news hour anchored by ABC News refugee Aaron Brown is a New York show as well.

“They keep saying that the base is going to stay down there, but you can feel the big shift,” said a CNN source. “It’s been very encouraging to be in New York …. Half the problem with CNN is that it’s run out of Atlanta.”

Indeed, for many people at CNN-but especially the often-neglected New York bureau-the past six weeks have been a shot in the arm, albeit a terribly painful one. It’s been a vindication of sorts for the suddenly war-torn Ms. Zahn, who found herself derided by her former employers at Fox News when she left them; Fox News chairman Roger Ailes said he could have gotten better ratings from a “dead raccoon.” Ms. Zahn said only that “I think that Sept. 11 has had such an enormous impact on the way all of us think about our place in the universe that, if you are petty enough to go back and obsess about frivolous stuff that doesn’t matter, that’s your loss.”

Mr. Brown, a respected if low-key news veteran whose highly hyped hiring last spring also produced some eyebrow-raising, feels bolstered as well. “It’s sort of sickening to say it,” said Mr. Brown, “but for now, I’m probably the principal beneficiary of the worst terrorist attack in human history.” Then he quickly added: “There was a guy named Art Kent in the Gulf War, and where is Art now? I have no sense for whether this is a meteor or comet, but I know right now my life has changed.”

Ultimately, CNN employees believe, things will go back to normal; every day won’t bring new terror scares and reports from the Afghan front. And there will once more be a time when CNN’s international reach won’t be as critical as its need for style and sensibility. There will again be a time when the network will once more need Mr. Isaacson’s “juicing up.”

But right now, that day is hard to imagine. Like the rest of us, people at CNN see one story in front of themselves for a long time, and it’s difficult to think about anything else. The other day, Mr. Greenfield had a visitor in his office when he suddenly looked at the TV screen in front of his desk.

“Oh, look, there’s O.J. Simpson!” he exclaimed. CNN was briefly showing footage from Mr. Simpson’s trial on road-rage charges. ” See ! We are carrying something else.

” God ,” Mr. Greenfield said plaintively. “It’s so reassuring to see O.J.”