By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
NEW YORK -- When Campbell Brown left her high-profile perch at NBC and launched a nightly CNN talk show seven months ago, her luster seemed to dim amid the crackling cable landscape.
Even sympathetic colleagues wondered whether her straight-arrow style would be sufficient to avoid the fate of Paula Zahn and Connie Chung, two other broadcast network hotshots who flamed out in CNN's 8 p.m. time slot.
In recent weeks, though, Brown has begun to find her voice with commentaries that have drawn both kudos and condemnation. From the moment she urged John McCain's campaign to "free Sarah Palin" to talk to journalists, Brown has seemed like more of a player.
"I often feel like I'm stating the obvious," says Brown, casually dressed with laceless sneakers, sipping Snapple in her Columbus Circle office. "It can't just be 'Campbell Brown thinks blah blah.' It needs to be the elephant in the room. Sadly, journalism doesn't always state the obvious."
But aren't the soapbox segments also an attention-getting device for a woman going up against Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann?
"That, to me, is a bit ridiculous," Brown says. "There was never any grand plan of 'Oh, maybe this will get us ratings.' . . . Anybody in cable has to be willing to open themselves up and share that with the audience. Otherwise you're just flat."
As she faces the challenge of maintaining the show's momentum after Election Day, Brown has her skeptics. "They're giving her a sort of soft launch as a more opinionated personality to set her up post-election," says Marisa Guthrie, a correspondent for Broadcasting & Cable. "She doesn't have that angry conviction that O'Reilly and Olbermann have. Campbell is a good journalist, and they should just let her be a good journalist. I don't know that this new persona she's trying on is actually going to work for her, because I don't know how real it is."
CNN President Jon Klein says Brown's "common-sense journalism" evolved naturally and "wasn't built in a lab or concocted by consultants."
"One of her concerns coming in here was that she did not want to be turned into some sort of performing seal," Klein says. "So much coverage can be overwrought and overthought, and here's Campbell just blowing the referee's whistle, saying 'Wait a second.' Truth doesn't have to be accompanied by histrionics, by foaming at the mouth."
Brown's "Election Center" remains in third place, averaging 854,000 viewers since she took over, behind Fox's O'Reilly (2.8 million) and MSNBC's Olbermann (1.2 million). But with the campaign boosting most cable news shows, she averaged 1.3 million viewers last month, trailing Olbermann by 25 percent, compared with 42 percent the previous month.
Brown, 40, admits that the transition from NBC correspondent and "Weekend Today" co-host to cable personality was a bit bumpy, and it couldn't have helped that she attempted it six weeks after giving birth to her son, Eli, now 9 months old. At first, says Brown, she found herself moderating a "shoutfest" with talk radio guests. "When you put extreme partisans on and they go at it, I hate that." So she changed her booking approach and now uses CNN reporters along with such strategists as Bill Bennett, Kevin Madden, James Carville and Donna Brazile.
Unlike Olbermann and O'Reilly, Brown says, "I don't have a punching bag to hit. They do. One's going after the left and one's going after the right. I'm just not interested in hitting something all the time. They're always going to have a built-in audience of people who want to hear what they have to say. What I'm doing is more of a gamble."
Brown made headlines last month with a persistent interview of McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds, in which she kept challenging him to name one decision Palin had made as commander of Alaska's National Guard. The McCain camp promptly canceled the candidate's scheduled appearance on Larry King.
Her self-described "rant" about Palin came on Sept. 24, when the campaign tried to keep reporters out of the Alaska governor's photo ops with world leaders at the United Nations: "I have had enough of the sexist treatment of Sarah Palin. . . . I call upon the McCain campaign to stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower who will wilt at any moment."
On Oct. 6, Brown said it was "just outrageous" for Palin to say, of Obama's past contacts with onetime Weathermen bomber William Ayers, that he "pals around with terrorists." But she said that "Obama's hands aren't clean, either," noting that he had released a Web video about McCain's role in the Keating Five scandal after saying the issue was "not germane."
Two days later, Brown admonished McCain for "inciting crowds" against Obama and accused two of his surrogates of "race-baiting" for calling the Democratic nominee Barack Hussein Obama.
Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain adviser, says that when she was at the Bush White House she "admired" Brown's approach but now believes the anchor is one-sided. "I find her work at CNN a stunning departure from journalism in the tradition of tough, smart women like Andrea Mitchell, Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, to something that looks and feels a lot more like commentary in the mold of Keith Olbermann," Wallace says.
Brown says the campaign has not offered specifics to back up its complaints about her supposed bias. "That as a journalist I dared to ask them to explain what Governor Palin's foreign policy credentials were? That I dared to ask the campaign to give journalists basic access to their vice presidential candidate? This is why they are lashing out? Give me a break."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton calls Brown "very tough" on his side. While chiding both candidates for being vague about their economic proposals last week, Brown said Obama's answers "sound like they are coming from someone living in la-la land."
Brown says she operates on a case-by-case basis. "You're never going to hear me say, 'Well, I've been critical of Obama five times so now I need to be critical of McCain five times.' That is a false equivalence, and that's what I think is wrong with journalism."
But she has evolved since saying in an interview last year that "I'm not going to do opinion. That's not who I am." Now that she is taking a more aggressive stance, Brown has decided to use her new slogan as the name of her post-election show. It will be dubbed "Campbell Brown: No Bias, No Bull."
"As silly as slogans and catchphrases are," Brown says, "ours defines what we're going through here."
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."