By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009
Ten minutes before his debut as a CNN host last Monday, Roland Martin called his pastor back in Chicago. They proceeded to pray.
His divine hope, says Martin, who has repeated the ritual each evening, is "that God uses me as an instrument for his will to provide insight to those who are listening."
As Martin speaks, in great cascades of words that flow by like a rushing river, it is clear this is no garden-variety pundit. He is African American, the first to host a prime-time cable news program since Alan Keyes's brief run on MSNBC seven years ago. He is ubiquitous, holding forth in venues as varied as morning radio, a syndicated column, an Essence magazine blog and a forthcoming book. And he is a take-charge family man, insisting that four nieces who he felt had a poor home environment move in with him and his wife, an ordained minister.
Martin is filling in for Campbell Brown, whose second child is due this week, and after her two-month leave he will anchor a CNN nighttime program on the weekend. If the past is any guide, his ambitions are larger than that. When a CNN recruiter first asked him to appear on a program in 2002, Martin recalls responding: "You might think this is an arrogant statement, but you book me one time, trust me, you're going to book me again."
CNN President Jon Klein says Martin "had a quality about him that made you stop and listen to what he had to say. I think it's because he's a professional journalist wrapped in a bundle of energy. . . . He lets you know how much he cares."
Still, the 40-year-old Houston native might seem an odd choice to host Brown's "No Bias, No Bull." During the campaign, CNN used him as a liberal commentator who backed Barack Obama, regularly pairing him with a conservative. But Martin balks at being pigeonholed.
"When you create these boxes, frankly, people only look at the boxes," he says. "We have to open up our boxes and realize there are actually people out there who refuse to be driven by ideology or party labels."
Martin says he isn't a party-line liberal. He is opposed to abortion and backs the death penalty. He criticized the Obama administration for opposing school vouchers for poor students. He cast his first presidential vote for George H.W. Bush.
Klein says Martin's left-leaning stance is not a problem because "now we're asking him not to express his point of view but to host interesting conversations among a range of people."
The son of an Amtrak employee and an insurance adjuster, Martin graduated from Texas A&M University, later working as a reporter and editor for two black newspapers in Texas and for Savoy magazine. In 2004 he became executive editor of the Chicago Defender, a struggling black weekly. Melody Spann-Cooper, chairman of Midway Broadcasting, gave him a morning show on Chicago's WVON.
"He has one of those personalities that is in your face," she says. "Roland is not afraid to buck the system. He gives it to you straight, no chaser."
Martin took on Chicago's Democratic machine over patronage and what he considered a paucity of contracts for minorities. "A lot of people did not take to Roland right away," Spann-Cooper says.
One who still hasn't taken to Martin, now a commentator on Tom Joyner's radio show, is Chicago Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg. They clashed bitterly on Martin's old radio show.
"I see him as a man who can't think, can't talk, and here he is doing both on television," Steinberg says. "I find it mystifying that CNN would take this local laughingstock and inflict him on the rest of the nation."
Martin, who says he "smacked him around" on the radio over a controversial column, calls Steinberg "a media wimp . . . a know-it-all with a penchant for being snotty."
The Rev. James Meeks, pastor of Chicago's Salem Baptist Church, who prayed with Martin by phone last week, says he is dedicated to evangelical Christianity. "As self-confident as he is, he relies on a source from within -- God," Meeks says. "He's a person who's unashamed of his belief." A gadget freak who owns three iPods and two BlackBerrys, Martin often sends text messages assuring the reverend he is on his way to church.
That same intensity was on display last summer when he persuaded his sister to send her daughters -- 10, 9, and 5-year-old twins -- to his Chicago condominium. Martin says the older girls were functionally illiterate. "I frankly felt my sister and her husband were not doing a good job raising their kids," Martin says. He says his sister talks to the children every night and takes them back when school is out.
After drawing praise -- and a Peabody Award last week -- for its campaign coverage, CNN has lagged in the evenings. Last month, for the first time, MSNBC edged out CNN in prime time. Fox News, meanwhile, drew more viewers than both networks combined.
Klein says CNN had its best first quarter since 2003, up 17 percent since the same period last year. CNN is a 24-hour network, he says, and prime time "is such a small sliver of our overall business."
Brown's program was up 5 percent last month over her debut the previous March, according to Nielsen ratings. For the first quarter, however, her 1.07 million viewers put her behind her more opinionated rivals: Fox's Bill O'Reilly (3.35 million), MSNBC's Keith Olbermann (1.36 million) and Nancy Grace of Headline News (1.17 million). So Martin is taking over a fourth-place program.
He can overwhelm at times with his level of bombast, but has toned it down on "No Bias." Martin roamed the set last week, rarely sitting down, taking calls from viewers and challenging his guests. He moderated a debate over Notre Dame protests against a planned appearance by Obama based on the president's support for abortion rights -- but never divulged his own opinion.
Martin first met Obama at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner in 2003, and they have stayed in touch. He was part of a group of liberal commentators granted an audience with the president-elect days before the inauguration. In television, says Martin, "you cannot have the same people talking to folks in a changed America."A Human Touch
Katie Couric made news in London last week when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner -- who made himself available to all three network anchors -- told her that he was prepared to pressure bank CEOs to resign.
But the most emotional moment came when Couric interviewed Tina Owen and her husband, who were "made redundant" with 27,000 others at a Woolworths warehouse and expect to lose their suburban London home. The CBS anchor rubbed Owen's shoulder and offered words of encouragement.
"Nothing tells the story of the economic crisis better than real people who are really struggling and in real pain," Couric says. "It was heartbreaking. When Tina started to cry, it was so moving to everyone. . . . When I cover a huge international event like this, I'd feel bad if I just sat at the desk and didn't get out and actually report."Dropping the Ball
In a front-page story one year ago, The Washington Post reported that Puerto Rico Gov. Anibal Acevedo Vila had been indicted for "soliciting thousands of dollars in improper contributions in exchange for favors and government contracts." But some Puerto Ricans are now complaining that the paper did not carry a word when Vila, who was defeated for reelection, was acquitted on March 20.
Kevin Merida, assistant managing editor for national news, says this was "an oversight" and a "mistake" following a late Friday verdict in which the Justice Department did not issue a release. But he says The Post did mention the outcome as part of last week's story on the department dropping charges against former Alaska senator Ted Stevens.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."