At around 7:30 on Monday night, at a CNN studio on the seventh floor of the Time Warner Center, Lou Dobbs stood in front of a bank of cameras and waited for the show he hosts to return from a break. Via an earpiece, he chatted with a producer about an upcoming segment on how some 21,000 people had entered the country illegally by passing through government-controlled border checkpoints.
Mr. Dobbs cocked his head to the side and flicked a pen back and forth in his right hand. “This is an incredible story,” he said. “Unbelievable. How many times a night do we say that?”
To judge by Monday night’s show: often. Over the course of an hour, Mr. Dobbs and his correspondents chewed over stories about Mexican murderers trying to enter the U.S., soaring home foreclosure rates, increased gasoline prices, and a group of illegal immigrants in Arizona known as the Zip Tie Bandits. CNN political analyst Bill Schneider weighed in with the results of a poll showing that 81 percent of Americans were “angry about something.”
Again, and again, during breaks, Mr. Dobbs cocked his head, and shook his pen. Unbelievable.
Over the past several years, Mr. Dobbs and his head-shaking outrage—alternately focused on illegal immigration, amnesty advocates, corporate honchos and government bureaucrats—have transformed his program from a buttoned-down business broadcast into a nightly showcase for Mr. Dobbs’ own populist opinions. Since the start of the year, according to figures provided by CNN, Lou Dobbs Tonight averaged 866,000 viewers, and 236,000 in the crucial 25-to-54–year-old demographic—both increases of 12 percent over the same period last year—making it the second-highest-ranked show in CNN’s nightly lineup.
Those numbers have made Lou Dobbs Tonight a crucial chess piece in CNN’s ongoing effort to catch up to Fox News. To wit: Monday night’s telecast marked Mr. Dobbs’ arrival in prime time. Henceforth, his powdery populist mien will appear at 7 p.m. rather than 6 p.m. By moving the show back an hour, CNN executives have sandwiched their two most popular broadcasts, Lou Dobbs Tonight and 9 p.m. fixture Larry King Live, around their most problematic time slot: the 8 p.m. hour, previously occupied by Paula Zahn. CNN hopes that when Campbell Brown kicks off her new show in that time slot in February, she will benefit from the so-called programming “hammock”—with Mr. Dobbs and Mr. King pulling up her numbers from either end.
And the move to prime time isn’t the only reason this was a big week for Mr. Dobbs, 62. On Tuesday, Viking Press would release his fourth book, Independents Day: Awakening the American Spirit. Throughout the week, Mr. Dobbs would be crisscrossing the city in a fevered promotional blitz, with stops ranging from Larry King Live to Borders. Elsewhere, the full moon of Mr. Dobbs’ pale face hangs over the city on billboards from Times Square to Madison Square Garden.
Independents Day—a foot-stomping polemic that inveighs at every turn against what Mr. Dobbs sees as the government’s assault on the middle class—weighs in at a modest 213 pages. The index includes such entries as “Elites, dangers of,” “Criminality, of illegal aliens” and “Cocaine, Mexico as a source.” In a brief introduction, Mr. Dobbs employs some form of the word “elite” (“these lofty elites,” “the elites of politics,” “the elite establishment,”) no less than 17 times.
And on the phone with NYTV on Monday afternoon, Mr. Dobbs, with a little prompting, took another shot at his Public Elitist Number One—Governor Eliot Spitzer, who he has been criticizing night in and night out for the past month, thanks to the governor’s plan to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. “He is a man who behaves as if he’s in a monarchy,” said Mr. Dobbs. “It’s an arrogance, an elitism that I find repugnant.”
Mr. Dobbs also makes a habit of disparaging the two major political parties, arguing that both have sold out ordinary Americans in favor of corporate interests. (“I consider the political parties to be … opposite wings of the same bird with the American people getting the bird,” he told NYTV.) He said he would use his show to spotlight any viable third party candidates, should they emerge.
In his book, Mr. Dobbs upbraids the cable news networks, including his own, for their daytime obsessions with “car chases, petrochemical plant and factory fires, and train derailments”— as well as with Anna Nicole Smith. Had he ever used his growing clout at CNN to advocate internally for more serious news coverage network-wide? “I try and demonstrate by example the tenets of the craft that serve us well,” said Mr. Dobbs.
So: How much anti-elitism can viewers take?
Reese Schonfeld, the co-founder of CNN and nascent cable news blogger, called Mr. Dobbs somewhat of a “one-trick pony,” but said he had little danger of wearing out his welcome as long as concerns about immigration remain high. “He’s a very good broadcaster. If he sees enthusiasm failing, he may be able to switch to something else,” said Mr. Schonfeld. (Mr. Dobbs has done so once before: Immigration has essentially replaced corporate outsourcing—a subject to which he now devotes far less time—as his nightly bête noire.) “After all,” Mr. Schonfeld continued, “who would have thought that a solid, well-respected Wall Street guy would switch all of a sudden to a populist, anti-immigration nativist?”
Back at the studio, Mr. Dobbs was wrapping up his inaugural 7 p.m. broadcast. Around 7:45, CNN cut to a preview of the upcoming 8 p.m. show, with temporary fill-in anchor Rick Sanchez.
Mr. Sanchez likes to remind people that he’s a Cuban immigrant, and he once challenged Mr. Dobbs’ anti-immigration line on air, leading to a heated back-and-forth. But if there was tension between the two anchors, they kept it bottled up.
“You know what I’m going to call you every time I see you in the hallways,” said Mr. Sanchez.
“You mean, besides Mr. Dobbs?” said the elder anchor.
“I’m going to call you ‘Prime Time,’” said Mr. Sanchez.
Mr. Dobbs smiled. A few seconds later, CNN cut to a commercial break. Off camera, Mr. Dobbs cocked his head and repeated the word, as if he were testing the sound of it: “Prime Time.”