CNN’s Midlife Midwife

On Monday, Jan. 10, CNN’s new president, Jonathan Klein, was sitting in his fourth-floor office in the Time Warner Center recalling an adage a former boss gave him about journalistic principles in TV news.

“Jon,” he recalled him saying, “we’re not going to do just anything to win.”

The former boss was CBS News president Andrew Heyward, whose news organization was at that moment on the verge of being flogged from West 57th Street to Television City for looking as though it would do just anything to win.

Nevertheless, “that stuck with me,” said Mr. Klein. “I’d never heard that before. It defines a way of looking at the world that says, at the end of the day, the quote-unquote ‘victories’ are short-lived. The ways you achieve them stay forever and have a greater influence on the world around you. I believe that in my gut.”

But as his CNN predecessors discovered, Mr. Klein is not only in the journalism and news business, he’s in show business. As in show business. A few minutes later, a knock came at Mr. Klein’s door, and in came Nancy Grace, the blond, big-eyed, all-nostrils legal analyst, in puffy fur boots with furball tassels and a fur vest, Tammy Faye Baker as Barbarella. Her new one-hour legal show was about to premiere in two days on CNN Headline News-it was well in progress when Mr. Klein arrived-and she needed love.

“I was expecting a little more than a handshake,” she said, sidling up to his desk after having passed him in the hallway moments earlier. Mr. Klein chuckled and got up and planted one on her. It was their first meeting ever. “I guess that’s why she wanted a kiss,” said Mr. Klein.

So part of Jonathan Klein’s task is bringing CNN back to its position of being to cable what CBS News once was to broadcast television. And the connection between Mr. Klein and CBS News’ Mr. Heyward-two longtime friends, each running a banged-up news network-isn’t without consequence. Since Mr. Klein came to CNN Dec. 13, both his and Mr. Heyward’s news organizations have arrived at a harrowing crossroads-each quaking from an identity crisis, caught between the right wing’s merciless anti-media attitude and the bullying genius of Fox News Channel’s Roger Ailes. Each understands that it is in need of a total reinvention, a chance to re-establish facts over ideological squawking heads and to pull the East Coast establishment media from its wreck on the side of the road.

What a task!

With an anchor replacing Dan Rather yet to be announced at CBS News, Mr. Klein has taken it upon himself to offer the first shot at it. He has made a decision about how to beat Fox: broadcast news.

A number of departed CNN chiefs have made the exact same claim in the past- back to basics-and none succeeded in the face of the Fox News juggernaut that sucked the rest of the media into its conservative vortex. But Mr. Klein said that none of those former CNN chiefs had an indomitable determination: “Well, I think we’ve proven in the first three weeks of my being here that CNN is all about action today,” he said.

Invigorated by CNN’s coverage of the tsunami disaster, Mr. Klein dissolved the network’s trademark political talk show, Crossfire, while proclaiming a healthy future for “storytelling”-old-fashioned news, soaped up with reality-TV drama and delivered by emo-anchors like Anderson Cooper, the gray-ghost newsman who is becoming the embodiment of the new CNN. It seemed to be Mr. Cooper that Mr. Klein considered the exemplar of what CNN now stood for: a reality-TV “authenticity,” with human dimensions, rather than the stentorian, scripted authority of the network era. Mr. Klein called Mr. Cooper “a guy who just felt the tsunami story in his bones, not as a journalist even. It wasn’t a professional curiosity he had, it was a human connection to the suffering. He’s that kind of guy. And you saw it from the anchor chair, which I’ve never seen before, because usually those lights and makeup add a layer of filtration.”

Anchor-poet Aaron Brown’s first-person commentary seemed to be another model of the kind, with Mr. Klein describing his reporting on the tsunami as having “almost reached the level of literature.”

Fond of invoking the ghost of Edward R. Murrow-the very guy Dan Rather said he spoke to sometimes-Mr. Klein was ready to agitate for good old mainstream media values: He dismissed bloggers as “guys in pajamas” (he coined the phrase while defending Mr. Rather on Fox News) and told NPR that pundit shows on cable news were “crack.”

“We report the news,” he said. “Fox talks about the news.”

On Sunday, Jan. 9, Mr. Klein received the blessing of The New York Times, which, in its third editorial, hoped “this”-Mr. Klein’s return to values-”could be the start of something big.” When the Thornburgh report left a smoking crater where CBS News’ Tiffany reputation used to be-along with all the memories of Murrow, Collingswood, Severeid, Cronkite and Moyers-CBS chairman Leslie Moonves promised to steer his ship back to glory by keeping Mr. Heyward in office to overhaul the news division.

But Mr. Klein had already gone to work on his end. He said that CNN already had the slogan it wanted-”The Most Trusted Name in News”-and now it had to live up to its own ad campaign.

“There was a time when CNN was essential viewing. That’s what we’re getting back to,” he said. “We have to be one of those must-view experiences. To do that, we have to provide more real information, more ‘I didn’t know that’ moments. Because the world, post-9/11, is just more complicated and … scary. And people need as much information as they can get. Real information. And I’m counting on them knowing the difference.

“I think there’s been a void over these last few years-a void created by the mainstream news organizations, who got very heavily into a lot of other stuff and kind of got away from just grabbing the camera and taking the pictures of things that are happening out there in the real world. The fundamentals …. Political belief systems have nothing to do with it. We’re not about fomenting an agenda. The tsunami happens and we go cover it-wall to wall. We want to find out what happens when you provide that alternative,” he added.

Mr. Klein seemed to believe that America couldn’t really live without CNN.

“There is always going to be an important role for the guys who grab the cameras and shoot the pictures of stuff that’s actually happening,” he said. “What happens after that in the great repurposing engine that is cable news and the blogosphere is out of our hands.”

Already, Mr. Klein’s flip comments had hit the blogosphere. Mickey Kaus at Slate seemed all shook up that former Crossfire conservative Tucker Carlson had been unceremoniously released from service. “Boy, people at CNN do not like Jonathan Klein!” Mr. Kaus wrote. “Doesn’t he realize it’s hard to be a highly unpopular boss in the Web era, especially at a big media enterprise the press will pay inordinate attention to? Ask Howell Raines.”

“It’s a little early for Mickey to be rooting for my downfall,” said Mr. Klein, who said he didn’t have time to read blogs. But earlier, Mr. Klein had been happy to compliment the blogs with an easy backhand: “I don’t think that blogging, which is, you know, glorified Web-site hosting-that’s what it is. I had a blog for a while, but I just didn’t have time,” he said. “I don’t think that blogs topple news organizations because of the difficulty of sifting through reliable information and mere opinion. But they certainly have arrived on the scene as a player.”

Mr. Klein said that CNN staffers were invigorated by the revolution. But did he actually believe viewers would respond to a heavy rotation of straight news without political-pundit shows?

“Hey, let’s frickin’ hope so!” he said. “I come out of the real world, man. I’m running a TV network. I follow these instincts, and I try and make programming decisions based on what I think is going to attract viewers. And at its core level, I think doing great work can attract an awful lot of viewers.”

His shining example, a one-hour documentary on orphaned tsunami children- Saving the Children-barely got half the ratings of On the Record with Greta Van Susteren at Fox News.

Given the sheer ratings economics of cheap pundit shows, Mr. Klein’s principles may only get harder to maintain. CNN’s initial ratings increases from covering the tsunami have already waned. Still, Mr. Klein is a believer. “We brought them around for two weeks, and I’m sure we can continue to do that,” he said. “That’s the power of the storytelling.”

The question of whether viewers want straight reporting in America-the kind that CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN had the resources to provide and often have-remains an open one. Walter Isaacson, former CNN president, biographer, Time managing editor and chief executive of the Aspen Institute, suspected they do. “As the world of journalism fractures into more and more niche opinionated markets, there will become more of a demand among a lot of people for straightforward reporting,” he said. “Somebody has to actually go to the scene and report the facts. And people are going to want it.”

Contrary to wisdom on the right that said the Thornburgh report forever buried the mainstream press, Mr. Isaacson said it actually proved that, unlike other media, the mainstream media still policed itself with a vigor not found elsewhere.

“In the end, the strength of the mainstream media is that it provides reporting that tries as hard as possible to be accurate and straight,” he said. “And when somebody like a CBS makes a mistake, and publicly rectifies it and gets outside people studying it, it shows the strength, not the weakness, of the mainstream media.”

But it was going to take more than self-flagellation to reinvent news. It was going to take money, and lots of it. The long slide of CBS News began long ago, in the mid-1980′s, when turbulence, cutbacks and takeover threats undermined the CBS News traditions. When Ted Turner lost his takeover attempt to Laurence Tisch, Mr. Tisch began cutting back at CBS to turn the financial ship around, and Mr. Turner … pumped up CNN. “Tisch crippled CBS’s ability to cover as much of the story as they wanted to,” said Mr. Klein, who worked at CBS News during those years. “We were left able to cover basic stories, but at a time that everybody else was expanding.”

Was it too much to suggest that CBS News and CNN just do what the market has been demanding for years and merge? Mr. Klein declined to address that on the record.

As for today, Linda Mason, the new vice president of standards and practices at CBS News, said CBS was not currently suffering from a lack of resources. “Our budget is larger today than it’s ever been,” she said. “It grows every year. Granted, there’s a strain on our resources because of Iraq. There’s money well placed, and we have enough people to do reporting.”

But inside CBS News, employees said they hoped that CBS chairman Mr. Moonves would invest in the news division, largely out of competitive pressure in his race with Viacom co-president Tom Freston for a top seat within Sumner Redstone’s empire. “Going into the future, if there’s any group that will put up the money to make it competitive, it’s these people,” said one CBS News producer. “Just think of how big a star he is if he fixes this place.”

And however much CBS News seemed broken, Mr. Klein said that 60 Minutes remained the standard to which news professionals and he most aspired-both high-end and also highly rated.

“It’s the best show ever on television,” he said. “No question. Hands down. And it just so happens that it’s the most popular show on television.”

Mr. Klein continually described CNN’s new news concept as “powerful, emotional storytelling,” the kind of firsthand reality TV in which anchors emoted and opined more and even the most eye-glazing subjects-Social Security, campaign-finance reform-became stirring conflicts between opposing human faces. If it sounded like old-fashioned newsmagazine fare, well, Mr. Klein said he didn’t like the word “newsmagazine.” It was something new, but he didn’t have a word for it.

“It’s almost like what you’d see on the History Channel five years from now,” he said. “We can do it today. We’re living history.”

Mr. Klein explained that this sort of long-form “storytelling” would fill more cable hours, so they wouldn’t be dependent on incessant interviews with Scott Peterson’s former girlfriend, Amber Frey. Mr. Klein said they had resisted covering the aftermath of the Peterson trial, which Ms. Grace and Mr. King had flogged ruthlessly for the last few years.

“You know, we killed our Amber Frey interview,” said Mr. Klein. “We didn’t pursue it. Everybody else did an Amber Frey interview this week, and they did decent numbers. But we didn’t do it. You know, it’s about living up to the brand promise.”

Which is the new CNN brand: Do almost anything to win, but not anything.

“It’s hard in the real world to live up to that,” said Mr. Klein. “It’s hard to actually do what you need to do to live up to that.”