CNN Chief Courts GOP : LUSENET : Exposing Rightwing Corruption : One Thread

August 6, 2001

CNN Chief Courts GOP

By John Bresnahan and Mark Preston

In an effort to improve his network's image with conservative leaders, new CNNchief Walter Isaacson huddled with House and Senate GOP leaders last week to seek advice on how to attract more right-leaning viewers to the sagging network.
Isaacson met with Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House GOP Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.), Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to talk about CNN's image with conservatives and how it can be improved.

Isaacson confirmed that he also reached out to senior White House officials, but he denied that he was seeking counsel on how to boost CNN's ratings with conservative viewers.

"I was trying to reach out to a lot of Republicans who feel that CNN has not been as open covering Republicans, and I wanted to hear their concerns," Isaacson said in an interview Friday.

"I definitely did not say, 'How do we attract the conservative viewer?'"said Isaacson, who stressed that his message was, "Let me hear what you think of CNN, and I am here to introduce myself."

To Republicans, Isaacson's presence on Capitol Hill is a sign of weakness and shows how much Fox News Channel, founded just under five years ago, has eroded CNN's lead as the top cable option for political news.

But Isaacson, the former editorial director of Time Inc., disputed assertions that he was on a mission to keep up with Fox.

"It really doesn't have to do with any other network," Isaacson said.
"It wasn't some programming strategy or our relationship with Fox or anything like that."

Nevertheless, Isaacson's counterpart at Fox, Roger Ailes, gently mocked his competitor's recent swing through Capitol Hill, while admitting it was a clever business move.

"I think it is a real sign of progress that after [21] years, CNN has found out that there's more than one point of view,"jibed Ailes.

Democrats, on the other hand, weren't pleased by the spectacle of Isaacson courting Republicans.

"That is a byzantine thing for the head of a news organization to come up to meet with one political party to ask what can we do or how do we make things better," groused a senior Democratic Senator.

"That's an interesting idea of balance," a Democratic Senate chairman dryly remarked. "It is totally inappropriate."

Isaacson deflected the criticism by saying that he's planning a September visit to Capitol Hill in which he will "meet with Democrats and more Republicans."

During this trip Isaacson also intends to sit down with one of CNN's most vocal Republican critics, House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (Texas).

DeLay, who has lambasted CNN as the "Clinton News Network" and "Communist News Network," actually suggested a boycott of the network during a recent bicameral GOP leadership gathering. None of the others Republican lawmakers who were in attendance agreed to take part.

It also demonstrates to GOP strategists that their unrelenting attacks on the media, in which television and newspaper reporters are accused of being biased against Republicans and conservatives, are beginning to hit home with those who decide what gets aired on the nightly news.

"[Isaacson] is panicked that he's losing conservative viewers," said a top aide to one of the GOP lawmakers who met with Isaacson.

"He said, 'Give us some guidance on how to attract conservatives.' He said he 'wanted to change the culture' at CNN. I think he perceived that they have a problem, and they do have a problem."

DeLay has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the Atlanta-based news organization.

"DeLay is on a jihad against CNN," claimed another GOP aide, who said the Texan believes that CNN's coverage of issues clearly favors liberal Democrats over conservative Republicans.

In a telephone interview on Friday, DeLay himself said he "won't go on CNN. They have such a liberal bias. It's quite evident to everyone."

Watts, for his part, was muted in his critique of CNN and said that the network has been fair to him in the past, although he also offered high praise for Fox.

"Fox is rocking. There's no question of that," said Watts, who had breakfast with Isaacson last Thursday.

"Do I think that [CNN] has a liberal bias? They probably do," said Watts, who appeared on the network's "Late Edition" program two Sundays ago. "But I am still not willing to concede that venue [to Democrats]."

Fox News has cut into CNN's once overwhelming lead in recent months.

For example, an average of 140,000 people were watching Fox News at any given time between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1, 2000, according to Nielsen Media Research. During the same time period this year, 282,000 people were tuned into Rupert Murdoch's news network.

In contrast, 308,000 viewers watched CNN between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1, 2000. During the first seven months of 2001, viewership climbed to 321,000. CNN is seen in 82 million homes, while Fox News is available in 67 million homes, according to Nielsen.

CNNhas also suffered from a series of negative stories in recent years, ranging from recent layoffs of hundreds of employees to the black eye it received for its reporting of Operation Tailwind, a piece about an alleged secret mission by the U.S. Army in Laos during the Vietnam War.

-- Cherri (, August 08, 2001


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