Little Orphan CNN

In disembarking from his wild, bumpy, year-and-a-half-long ride in television at CNN, Walter Isaacson steps off a second-place cable news network that’s a little less discombobulated, a little more coherent and-though they got spanked when they said this about new hire Paula Zahn-a little more sexy than it was when the former Time managing editor marched into a weary Atlanta in the summer of 2001.

But Mr. Isaacson, 50, who announced on Jan. 13, in the also-departing Steve Case’s wake turbulence, that he would vacate the chairmanship of CNN this spring to take over the presidency of the Aspen Institute research center-a public policy-and-Patagonia job that promises intellectual vigor, fresh air and fewer phone calls from Lou Dobbs-by no means came and conquered television. He leaves TV without having fully harnessed it, without finding a bullet big enough to slay Roger Ailes’ Fox News Channel, without a mega-merger with ABC News, and without authoritatively answering the biggest question that confronts news executives today: how the hell to make smart journalism into smart business.

Maybe he’ll go figure it out in the mountains.

“I wish I had been able to proselytize and sell better the notion of quality real reporting,” Mr. Isaacson told The Observer on the morning of Jan. 14 from Atlanta, in between well-wishing phone calls from Sir Howard Stringer and Christiane Amanpour, and after an early-morning chat with CNN founder Ted Turner.

“That’s one of the great challenges that newspapers, magazines and TV face: How do you make quality journalism sell as good as covering car chases?” Mr. Isaacson said. “How do you do it without seeming holier than thou? How do you do it without seeming like you just want to serve spinach?”

Those questions are among the topics Mr. Isaacson pledged to address at the Aspen Institute-a wonk-elite paradise that, at first glance, appeared to be a well-timed parachute landing for a man who, by his own admission, wasn’t a “natural-born” television executive, a man who may have ventured down South with ambitions of becoming Roone Arledge 2.0-or at least, become excited -but soon found himself buried in unglamorous housekeeping, like Larry King’s contract language.

But over time, Mr. Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time , did grow to like TV. Or: He liked it more than he did when he started. It could be dopier than print, but there was news and talent and adrenaline. He liked mapping out coverage; he liked barreling around the Persian Gulf planning for war, like he did recently. Though it was never totally him , he said he could have done it another couple of years. But Aspen was a glass slipper for a man described by his friend and colleague Margaret Carlson as someone whose “idea of a fine evening is a seminar with Condoleezza Rice and Richard Holbrooke.”

“You have to think of Walter as the biographer of Henry Kissinger, and not a TV guy putting up red and blue pins on a TV schedule,” Ms. Carlson said.

Still, around CNN’s offices in Atlanta and New York, after the predictable I-told-ya-so -ing from staffers who never bought into Mr. Isaacson, there was frustration. Though Mr. Isaacson was an outsider, and his transition was rocky, and he made decisions that worried longtime employees about their future, especially the ones in Atlanta, and he took too long trying to figure out whom to pair Paula Zahn with in the morning, and he may have put Connie Chung on the air with a show ( Connie Chung Tonight ) that wasn’t quite ready, and people fretted, especially early on, that he wasn’t totally engaged -there were still those at the network who came to think that Mr. Isaacson, if he stayed long enough, could have helped change television news for the better.

And so even if Mr. Isaacson, as he told reporters on Jan. 13, kept CNN true to its generation-old journalistic mission while synthesizing in sparkier, show-driven lineup-and, as he kept pointing out, dammit, those ratings are better than they were a couple years ago, even if they’re not nearly as good as Mr. Ailes’ are-his work feels incomplete.

It’s like Walter Isaacson, a Rhodes Scholar, studied television, but is leaving without the degree.

“He had a chance to remake the place,” said one CNN source. “I see it as sort of a missed opportunity.”

So now CNN is on to another fearless leader: Jim Walton, a Turnerland lifer, a chunk of it spent in sports at the now-dead CNN/ Sports Illustrated network. Mr. Walton is an Atlanta guy-he remembers the days when “the news was the star,” and won’t be confused with his showbizzy boss, Turner Entertainment president Jamie Kellner-and his appointment should give comfort to all the people at the network who thought Mr. Isaacson was making it too personality-driven, and those who thought the Bronxville resident was swerving the network northward, to New York, where Ms. Zahn, Ms. Chung and Aaron Brown all toil. Mr. Walton will be working with executive vice president and general manager of CNN/US Teya Ryan, another veteran who saw her responsibilities widen under Mr. Isaacson.

It’ll be up to Mr. Walton and Ms. Ryan and others to try and build upon what Mr. Isaacson set into motion. Or blow it up-though that seems unlikely. CNN appears to have decided it will stick to what it knows-news. It’s now got the personality-names doing the news, and it will dabble in opinion, but it’s unlikely to ever swerve entirely in that direction. MSNBC did that, of course, and well … you remember MSNBC, don’tcha?

What CNN has to get better at, and what Mr. Isaacson by his own admission struggled at, is selling itself. Give Mr. Isaacson and Eason Jordan, CNN’s president of news gathering, a half-hour or so, and they can describe a news network so worldly (bureau in the Congo!) and influential (Saddam watches!) it makes The Washington Post look like The West Side Spirit . Though its highest-profile operation is here in the U.S., CNN is a thoroughly international brand. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press named CNN the most trusted news brand in America. CNN won four Emmys in 2002.

Mr. Isaacson succeeded in convincing many in his newsroom that these battles were worth winning and still are worth winning. He arrived at a shop that had been battered by large layoffs in the wake of the AOL Time Warner merger and fought strongly for the preservation of the network’s core journalistic mission (though the layoff fears do continue; witness the recent upset over the dismissal of a handful of CNN correspondents). He convinced people at CNN-at least a lot of them-that they weren’t in the same business as the Fox News Channel, that though the two networks were poised competitors, they had different goals and ambitions.

But he didn’t set the world ablaze. It’s unclear how great of a distinction the public draws between what CNN does and what its competition does. Or television critics, many of whom continue to judge CNN’s success or failure-and, by extension, Mr. Isaacson’s own success or failure-largely in contrast to the network’s ratings performance against Fox.

Part of the problem was Mr. Isaacson’s doing. It’s not easy, but he had trouble distilling good journalism into a marketable asset. He was hesitant to make distinctions between CNN and Fox publicly-he was fearful of being seen as a news snob, or riling Fox itself, which was always quick to pounce on any CNN public missteps.

But by largely refusing to engage in the CNN vs. Fox ratings-war discussion-Fox ultimately passed CNN on Mr. Isaacson’s watch-Mr. Isaacson allowed others to define the battle for them, and usually at CNN’s expense.

Here the departing CNN chairman expressed some mild regret.

“It wasn’t in my nature to try and get into public pissing matches,” he said. “Maybe that was wrong. But I didn’t feel it because I didn’t feel that Fox was the major two-way fight we were in. But there are some who would argue, and perhaps they are right, that truly making a stark, bitter battle with Fox would have done us good. But I don’t know. It just wasn’t in my nature.

“If you engage them in a two-way fight you allow them to determine the battlefield,” Mr. Isaacson continued. “I didn’t want to accept that as the battlefield, and that may have been a right or a wrong decision. But I didn’t want to define the battlefield as getting into a tangle with Fox. But in absentia, they got to define the battle as who gets the best ratings with brash, opinionated talk shows or whatever.”

Ratings do matter, of course. While CNN may not consider itself in the same business as Mr. Ailes, or want to hire the likes of Phil Donahue to try and gain traction, surely it would like to be No. 1 again.

But can it? CNN’s ace in the hole has long been that it is the dominant cable news network during breaking news events, and for a great many of them-O.J. Simpson’s car chase, Monicagate, Sept. 11-the network has been the cable outlet of choice. There are signs that even this dominance is eroding, however-Fox, for example, outperformed CNN in the ratings for the midterm election night last year-prompting speculation that, barring CNN getting some incredible journalistic coup like it had in Baghdad a little over a decade ago, Fox is well-positioned (and may be just … newsy … enough ) to prevail in the ratings during wartime, too. Considering CNN’s history-the fact that the former Chicken Noodle News network burst onto the scene during the first Iraq campaign-that would be a tough pill to swallow in Atlanta.

Mr. Isaacson insisted that being No. 1 in the ratings isn’t the end-all and be-all. Asked if CNN was comfortable being No. 2 in the ratings to Fox, Mr. Isaacson said he was.

“I’m comfortable that it’s not just a ratings race-there’s many ways to get ratings in cable TV,” he said. He said there were other measures of being the leading cable news network besides ratings.

Mr. Isaacson will not stay long enough at CNN to redefine television. As for legacies, the recent back-burnering of the proposed CNN-ABC merger was a bummer; Mr. Isaacson was in favor of the seismic move, which besides helping preserve elements of both networks, would have given the CNN chairman a clear defining triumph. Instead, he’ll have to settle for having protected the CNN franchise, staving off the opinion-palooza, and, more modestly, very modestly, bringing the world shows like American Morning with Paula Zahn and Connie Chung Tonight . (O.K., so it’s not Today and 60 Minutes .)

The Great Walter Isaacson Television Experiment is nearly over, sooner than some predicted it would last, longer than others hoped. In a few months, he’ll be gone, off to enter an arena-public policy making-that he said he always had an interest in. He is enthused. He’ll resettle in Washington, D.C. and spend time at Aspen campuses in Colorado and Maryland and help other big shots-and bigger shots-figure out the kind of problems he wrestled with himself.

And when Walter Isaacson turns on the television news, he’ll understand it better, though he may not miss it. At the Aspen Institute, as in Atlanta, Walter Isaacson will be giving another new life a go.

“Believe it or not, you can still be 50 and think, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?'” Mr. Isaacson said.