What Makes Walter Run CNN?

Walter Isaacson has a problem. As chairman and chief executive of CNN, he commands the biggest and most influential news network on the planet, a sprawling entity as vital in Karachi, Pakistan, as it is in his hometown of New Orleans. Mr. Isaacson oversees 4,000 employees and 42 bureaus, 31 of them scattered outside the United States. CNN has four bureaus in Africa alone. It is an international lifeline of news, a global brand.

“Wherever I go in the world, the impact of CNN is enormous,” said Larry King, the Brooklyn-born baritone talk-show host who is the network’s biggest star. “When I was in South Africa, everybody knew me.”

There is noise-more than noise-that CNN could merge with ABC News and create Electronic Earth’s supreme cable-broadcast super network. But that’s down the road; AOL Time Warner and Disney need to hash it out.

Right now, Mr. Isaacson, 50, was focused on something else: He needed more people in the United States to pay attention to his shop. The name that established the defining brand in cable news, competitor-less for most of its life, CNN is now the second-place cable-news network, at least domestically, sucking dust from Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel which, with its rowdy rah-rah populist act, has torn past CNN in the ratings. It’s almost as though Atlanta’s other name-brand product, Coca-Cola, was finishing a wheezy second to Red Bull.

In this country, CNN’s international resonance gets treated like David Hasselhoff’s German recording career: Who cares? Fox doesn’t have a bureau in Lagos, Nigeria, but that hasn’t mattered much to the rapt viewers of Hannity & Colmes , or newspaper writers, who are generally more interested in Bill O’Reilly pounding CNN’s flagship acquisition, Connie Chung, in the ratings.

As for the money, CNN still makes a lot more money off of advertising, but Fox News executives are predicting that soon would change, too.

So that means that Walter Isaacson-a professional journalist most of his life, the author of Kissinger and co-author of The Wise Men -also has to be a salesman. He not only has to run his network’s news coverage-on this morning, Oct. 2, he and his colleagues were debating whether they should send a correspondent into northern Iraq, a move that could infuriate Saddam Hussein’s government and lead to CNN getting booted from Baghdad-he has to market it. He wasn’t holy about business-he’d been an executive for almost as long as he’d been a journalist and editor-but it was a somewhat conflict-prone role. He cited a recent CNN decision to budget $36 million far a contingency fund for Iraq war coverage.

“Thirty-six million dollars!” Mr. Isaacson said.

It was now early afternoon on Wednesday, Oct. 2, and he was enjoying an AOL Time Warner perk: He’d left work early to go to Turner Field and catch Game 1 of the National League Divisional Series between the company-owned Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants.

“Now maybe we don’t go to war,” Mr. Isaacson said. “But that money had to come from somewhere. It came from promotion. It came from the fact that there are no billboards. It came from having no radio ads saying, ‘Watch the smartest blah , blah , blah .”

It wasn’t that Mr. Isaacson really wanted the billboards and radio ads. He called a lot of promotion, frankly, “masturbatory.” But the tug between what’s best for news coverage and what’s best for ratings was one of the constant battles he’d endured since he’d taken the CNN spot in July 2001. Walter Isaacson was a newsman. He’d reaffirmed CNN’s commitment to worldwide coverage. He’d hired new talent, launched new shows, and CNN’s ratings needle had moved up ever so slightly. Shows like NewsNight , with its unvarnished anchor, Aaron Brown, earned praise; CNN had won a slew of awards; and a recent study showed that audiences considered CNN to be the most trustworthy of the news networks, with Fox at 8.

But why, Mr. Isaacson often heard, why weren’t the numbers higher? And why was Fox still kicking ass?

“We do very fine in the overnights,” Mr. Isaacson said. “We have really good audiences. But sometimes I think in the world of TV critics, it doesn’t matter. If I put on Fear Factor instead of Aaron Brown and I got a 10 per cent higher audience, they would think I’m smarter and better than I am now.”

Walter Isaacson was not a TV guy. When he got the gig, he was going to stick with Ted Turner’s wild, original vision for CNN-the 24-hour news beast, disgorging information like a Pez dispenser.

And once he got it, what had he done with it? He’d hired Ms. Chung and Paula Zahn. He hired someone from MTV News who reminded nobody of John Chancellor. He’d pumped up the volume and graphics and instructed anchors to stop talking in that “weird singsong” voice that anchors have. He’d gone to Capitol Hill to convince the suspicious Republican leadership they’d get fair play on CNN. Mr. Isaacson was not fundamentally a TV guy; he didn’t want to deviate too far from the news, what he called “the core mission of journalism.” Editorially, he was a Time editor, or at least William Holden, not Faye Dunaway, in Network : that morning he ordered CNN away from a car chase-you can’t beat those-to cover the legal challenge to Senator Torricelli’s withdrawal from the New Jersey Senate race.

Mr. Isaacson, not without ego or ambition, decided that CNN was not just a news network, but his kind of news network, and would be sold as a news network. But it wasn’t done just out of some sense of higher purpose. News was CNN’s card left to play. Fox is essentially an op-news network, and so is MSNBC-actually, no one’s quite sure what MSNBC has become. If CNN would only state its desires, it could own the world.

At Turner Field, Mr. Isaacson watched as his boss, Jamie Kellner appeared and took a seat in the owner’s box in front of him. “Jamie is somewhat cold and calculating about it,” Mr. Isaacson said. “If everyone else is going to try to put on sillier and more opinion people, then you counterprogram.”

TV journalism had become something in the 21st century that nobody could have guessed. It was not necessarily the cheap-stunt sensationalism Paddy Chayefsky predicted in Network -although there was plenty of that in prime time. It primarily consisted of savvy counterprogramming. And that wasn’t intrinsically Mr. Isaacson’s game. A Rhodes Scholar, Henry Kissinger’s biographer, he wasn’t Brandon Tartikoff or Jeff Zucker; he didn’t get a high-voltage electric thrill from scoping out how to place Dawson’s Creek against Matlock .

But now he had to. That was his mission. And the very focus of the mission allowed him to forget about the crazed typhoon smashing around AOL-TW, about Steve Case and the stock price and the agony of Richard Parsons.

It had been a harrowing year in international news, and another war was brewing. In his better moments, he felt a sense of purpose. “I don’t sit around thinking a decision I make will affect the world,” he said. “I do think that if CNN does it right, it actually could matter.”

Then, other times, he wasn’t so sure.

“Maybe nobody cares we’re in Baghdad; maybe they’d rather see that car chase,” he said. “That’s the struggle we’re in.”

Walter Isaacson wasn’t a born television executive. He’ll tell you that.

He said there were moments in meetings after he’d first arrived at CNN when he thought: “Oh my God, I am in an entirely different ocean. I’m not in Kansas anymore.”

Actually, Mr. Isaacson was in Atlanta. A Louisiana boy who became a legendary New York social animal, he did a cultural reversal and went South Toward Home, moving into an airy loft formerly owned by a young dot-com billionaire-for-a-minute (it was equipped with a foosball table). And when the S.U.V.’s rattled by on Peachtree Street, stereo basses thumping, he wondered what in hell he’d gotten into. Although he says now the personal soul-searching was never as bad as people said, about five months into his tenure, the word began to spread that Mr. Isaacson was disillusioned at CNN.

“There was a period when no one was quite sure how engaged he was in various components of things,” said David Bohrman, who produces NewsNight with Aaron Brown .

Part of it was the “anxiety every time you change the boss,” said CNN’s prime anchor and senior correspondent Judy Woodruff. But in those early months, Mr. Isaacson confided to friends that the head-throbbing bureaucratic and budgetary battles were a mammoth distraction. Late last year, there was the critical renegotiation of Larry King’s contract, which Mr. Isaacson said caused him sleepless nights. There were the sensitive, super-sized TV egos, and something you don’t have so often in print-agents. And fundamentally, TV is a separate culture from print.

“If you’re the editor of a magazine, you’ve got a magazine every week,” said the writer and editor Kurt Andersen, who worked with Mr. Isaacson at Time . “It’s like, ‘I did this. On some level, I am the auteur of this thing.’ TV is, by its nature, kind of a moving-target, 24-7 thing that you can never quite feel ownership of.”

That Fox was rubbing CNN’s nose in its ratings dominance, like Billy (White Shoes) Johnson in the end zone, probably didn’t make Mr. Isaacson feel any better. There were personal issues, too: Mr. Isaacson was traveling frenetically between Atlanta and Bronxville where his wife and daughter live.

But what frustrated him most, colleagues said, was the detachment from the journalism itself. Though Mr. Isaacson-as smooth an operator in a corporate culture as you could ask for-hadn’t expected to ride shotgun in news trucks to fires the day he arrived at CNN, the distance from reporting was tough.

“Walter is a news guy,” said Aaron Brown. “I think he suffered from a sense of loss. He could say things and direct things, but he couldn’t write them or report them, and in some cases he would see them and they were not the way he wanted them, and instead he was dealing with sales and budgets and contracts and temperamental people, all of whom wanted his ear. He was a boss. And he could have been managing any number of companies, because that was all he was doing.”

But Mr. Isaacson said he was happier now, settled. New shows he had developed, Connie Chung Tonight and American Morning with Paula Zahn , were on the air. He had a better sense of his colleagues; he was getting to know Atlanta. He was even getting to spend more time with his family. Bureaucratic issues were never going to go away, but Larry King had his deal and, he said of Mr. Isaacson, “I love working with him.”

CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper, hired from ABC by Mr. Isaacson, said, “People feel very protective of him.”

“He’s very engaged now,” said Mr. Bohrman.

But he had a number of battles to resolve, among them the battle between his network’s Sparta and Athens, New York and Atlanta. Atlanta-the network’s nascent hub and news-gathering locus-worried that too much power had shifted to New York, where the network expatriates, Mr. Brown, Ms. Chung and Ms. Zahn, were based. New York was irritated by Atlanta, feeling that it wasn’t providing meatier, stronger stories that gave more than a headline and a sound bite.

Mr. Isaacson, with one foot in each city, said the tension was “partly old-new, partly Atlanta–New York, partly programs versus news-gathering.” Aaron Brown, who battled regularly with Atlanta, said “the Atlanta–New York tension is very small relative to the larger angst created by redefining the relationship between shows and news-gathering.” Though efforts have been made to ease the tension between the two cities, no one expects it to fully go away. CNN’s Washington bureau has harrumphed and made up its mind to hold its own ground, like T-bills.

It seemed as though lately, Mr. Isaacson was growing into CNN. He began assigning stories, reading copy, talking with producers. He pronounced himself energized. “It feels more fun, but also more meaningful,” he said. “I don’t want to say, ‘Gosh, we’re about to go to war-fun!’ But everybody is now focused on the journalism.”

Not all was right with the world, however-not by a long shot.

What makes a TV executive a genius? Victory. And much of Mr. Isaacson’s programming hasn’t exactly taken off. Mr. Brown, Ms. Chung and Ms. Zahn have all improved upon the ratings performances of their predecessors, but they still lose to their competition on Fox News. (MSNBC has largely become beside the point.)

Connie Chung’s launch was particularly bumpy. Critics smashed the show’s first night and said that Ms. Chung looked rusty. On her second night, a kid at a restaurant near her studio pulled a fire alarm that rang through part of the show. Ms. Chung was unruffled. “Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been in the thick of it,” said Dan Rather’s ex-co-anchor. But it’s her task to make her boss a success. So far, not.

“Guess what-it took us a week or two. Mea culpa,” Mr. Isaacson said of Ms. Chung’s show. Mr. Kellner, assessing the changes overall, sounded like Ron Popeil: “The picture is cleaner and clearer; there is hardly anything about the network that hasn’t been polished up a bit.”

But looming above them is the dank shadow of Fox’s stunning success. Once, CNN was the revolution: Ted Turner was Time ‘s 1991 Man of the Year. Now CNN is fusty and a little confused. Neither Mr. Kellner nor Mr. Isaacson said they’ll define a show’s success solely on beating Fox News in the ratings. They point to story scoops, prizes, the blossoming of Headline News-currently battling with MSNBC-and the success of CNN.com, the No. 1 news site on the Web.

Although executives at CNN are reluctant to directly take on Fox’s programming or management, it’s obvious they consider themselves to be in a different business from Rupert Murdoch’s politically corrective news network.

Jim Walton, CNN’s president and chief operating officer, rapped on a table when asked about the ratings. “It is so goddamn important that we are journalists and take the high road,” he said, “because if we start getting into some of this mud and sensationalism and opinions, it’s going to damage the brand and the business.” It was clear Mr. Walton wasn’t referring to Lifetime.

CNN, however, has been reluctant to engage Fox directly in a King Kong vs. Godzilla battle, whereas Fox is delighted to-a Fox spokesman compared Ms. Zahn’s hard news turn to “putting a fresh coat of paint on an outhouse” and outside the Atlanta CNN headquarters, there’s a huge thumb-in-yer-eye billboard touting Fox’s ratings dominance. For the most part, Fox has enjoyed its freedom, running wild.

Roger Ailes’ P.R. Dobermans have been remarkably successful cultivating the media with their eagerness to give lively quotes and play up the ratings competition like W.W.F. matches. Fox’s growth is indeed a phenomenon. And inside CNN, some feel, as Aaron Brown said, that “I would be much more inclined to trade punches with Fox.”

Mr. Isaacson admits that when it comes to Fox, CNN finds itself facing something of a pincer movement. On one hand, the network wants to distinguish itself as the cable-news network of distinguished, reliable journalism. Fox’s news operation is but a fraction of CNN’s. But Mr. Isaacson is cagey about overstating this advantage, for fear of looking elitist-Fox’s game is to fight back with the class weapon, the thwwwaap! from Mr. Ailes’ bludgeon. “Roger is very smart; he will just counterattack,” Mr. Isaacson said.

“I don’t want to get in a pissing match,” Mr. Isaacson added. “I’m too timid to, in a way.”

But the dogfight figures to continue. There’s no evidence to suggest that Fox News’ explosion is temporary, a meteor. Mr. Isaacson tries to reassure his troops that numbers aren’t everything. And the troops generally agree.

“You can go crazy looking at the numbers,” said Larry King, who finds himself in hot pursuit from Fox’s Hannity & Colmes . “Jackie Gleason taught me a lesson years ago; he was a great, great pal to me and helped me a lot. He said, ‘Pal, I could put on a pretty couple tonight having intercourse. I will win the night. It doesn’t mean anything; it doesn’t prove anything. What you want is to be respected, hope the people who watch you, watch you.’

“All you can do is all you can do,” Mr. King continued. “I’ve been doing shows for 45 years. I try to do the best interviews I can. We have a great production team. All I can do is all you can do. I can’t make people watch me more than they watch you. All you can do is all you can do.”

The looming question is, however, as Hannity & Colmes breathes on his thick glasses, can Larry King still do all that he once did?

What reassures Mr. Isaacson is the news. It’s what he knows. Whether it’s prepping Election Day or preparing for Iraq. Mr. Isaacson seems more comfortable with news than any ratings point or budgetary line-item debate. Late in the afternoon of Oct. 2, as he flew to Washington, D.C., via private charter-he flew back commercial, he made sure to point out later-Mr. Isaacson talked about the northern Iraq plan with his globe-hopping president of news-gathering, Eason Jordan.

“Were going to have to take the consequences in Baghdad,” Mr. Isaacson said. “Will they kick us out?”

When Mr. Jordan said they might, it was like booster shot: This was what mattered to Mr. Isaacson. “This is our strategy,” he said later, as the plane cruised toward D.C. “It’s really to stick to the core mission of journalism. And guess what? It’s working pretty well. If you’re reading some of those TV critics, it’s like, ‘O’Reilly beats Aaron Brown’ or something like that, and people say, ‘Oh, CNN is doing badly.’ Well, no, we’re not. We’re actually doing very well.

“Sometimes we’re getting beaten, but guess what? We’re doing the best journalism.”

A merger with ABC-or CBS, if ABC doesn’t happen-would preserve that mission, said Mr. Isaacson. The conversations were still early, and in the hands of the business people. First AOL Time Warner and Disney had to figure out an ownership split-in one scenario, AOL Time Warner owns about 70 per cent to Disney’s 30. Editorial management would likely be more even, but that was to be decided later.

Being “Walter Disney” was a funny thought to Mr. Isaacson: He practically shared a Bronxville backyard with ABC News’ president, David Westin.

“It makes sense conceptually to have some form of alliance or combination,” Mr. Isaacson said a couple of days later. “It allows you to protect the global news-gathering and journalism we feel strongly about if you have a cable as well as broadcast outlet for it.”

The possible merger with ABC News has sparked conversation at CNN, which no longer has the kind of junior-partner attitude it might have had five or 10 years ago, about bureau consolidation and the potential for a conflict of cultures; broadcast and cable are different animals. More than a handful of CNN personnel are ABC expats. “I can’t imagine Peter Jennings not being happy with having all the access to international bureaus that CNN has,” said Ms. Chung.

Asked about how he’d respond a merger, Aaron Brown, who came from ABC News, said, “Well, it depends if I work for Peter or Peter works for me.” He was joking, kind of. As was Larry King: “When they go on vacation,” he asked, “do I do Good Morning America ?”

But it may be through a merger with ABC News that Mr. Isaacson gets to make his mark upon television news-not as a place-holder, but to make his own mark as a pioneer in the way that TV news executives don’t often get to be pioneers any more. He has the depth to add depth and tone to television. The question is: Does Walter Isaacson have the ambition to do anything more than succeed? Does he want to become one of the hard-nosed generals in the Reuven Frank–Fred Friendly–Burton Benjamin–Roone Arledge succession of network-news heads who fought for and achieved an advance in the medium?

“The goal is to reverse the course of everybody getting out of serious news-gathering,” he said. “CNN has avoided getting out of serious news-gathering. And I think we can probably avoid it another five years, maybe 10 years if we’re lucky. But we know if something like this happens, we can avoid it indefinitely.”

Mr. Isaacson will try and hold the fort. Even if everyone around him obsesses over ratings and the critics whack him and his shows and stars prove to be flops, he pledged to maintain news. He’s no innocent-CNN will always run its share of dumb stuff. Maybe even tonight. But after a trying year and a few months in the center of it, Mr. Isaacson seemed to have begun to believe in television news, and that if it was done right, it could gain a toehold of truth in a slippery and dangerous world.

“That is why you like it,” Walter Isaacson said. “That’s why you don’t abandon that mission.”