As King enters, CNN says Dobbs seeks freer forum

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 13, 2009

Lou Dobbs and CNN agreed to part ways after the TV host grew frustrated by the network's efforts to tone down his outspoken and controversial style.

The explanation emerged Thursday as CNN named John King, a journalist known for his straightforward political reporting, to fill Dobbs's weeknight slot beginning early next year. Dobbs's last show was Wednesday.

CNN President Jon Klein said the decision grew out of weeks of discussion with Dobbs after he had directed the anchor several months ago to rein in some of his more controversial opinions.

Klein didn't specify which issues raised concerns for the network. But Dobbs and Klein were plainly at odds during the summer when Dobbs continued to explore allegations that President Obama wasn't born in the United States even after Klein had issued internal memos declaring the "birther" controversy dead.

CNN has attempted to steer a middle ground in its talk programming between its rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Fox News employs popular conservatives such as Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. MSNBC has carved out a niche as Fox's ideological rival, with liberal prime-time hosts Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow.

Dobbs's CNN program stood out for its strong points of view, particularly on such issues as immigration, putting it at odds with the network's emphasis on news analysis and discussion-style programs, such as those hosted by Wolf Blitzer, Campbell Brown and Anderson Cooper.

"We both came to the conclusion that the mission of the network was different from the mission he wanted to pursue," Klein said. "He was very friendly and engaging about it. . . . A few months ago, Lou removed opinion from his show for the most part, in an earnest effort to live up to the mission of the network. It occurred to him that was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He came to us and we agreed. . . . 'Lou Dobbs Tonight' was increasingly standing apart from the network."

Dobbs's advocacy of get-tough immigration policies was among the issues that inspired a "Drop Dobbs" campaign by Latino advocates and liberal organizations last year. The campaign's organizers, who sought Dobbs's removal from the air, claimed success Thursday. "CNN realized its brand was being damaged," said Andres Ramirez, who helped organize the effort. "It realized that Lou Dobbs's brand of journalism is not consistent with CNN's brand."

Independent analysts essentially agreed, saying Dobbs was out of step with the rest of CNN.

"When you have opinion or advocacy journalists, unless they're doing things that are controversial and somewhat embarrassing, they're not pushing the envelope," said Andrew Tyndall, who writes a newsletter tracking the network news business. "And when you're in that role, you have to push the envelope."

King, a former Associated Press correspondent whom many viewers know for displaying election results on a touch-screen "magic wall," has emphasized field reporting on "State of the Union," the Sunday morning program he currently hosts. He has visited 45 states since launching the program in January. He will relinquish the Sunday job early next year as he takes over Dobbs's 7 p.m. Eastern time period.

CNN is struggling in prime time, having finished behind Fox News and MSNBC in October's ratings and behind its sister network, HLN, among younger viewers.

Dobbs, 64, announced Wednesday night that he was leaving the network he helped found in 1980 "to go beyond the role" of a television journalist.

He will continue to host his syndicated radio show, where he might well become a critic of the network he just left.

He signaled Thursday that he would not be restrained on his radio show, saying he hopes "to reinvigorate and renew my commitment to speak truth to power in every possible way." He said he would push issues that "the mainstream media and too much of political orthodoxy in this country refuses to engage."

CNN may have been more willing to tolerate Dobbs's divisive style when his numbers were stronger. "Lou Dobbs Tonight" is down 25 percent in the Nielsen ratings so far this year, to 759,000 viewers, compared with the same period in 2008, a year in which cable news ratings were boosted by interest in the election. It has also lost advertisers in recent months.

Tyndall called the Dobbs departure "a very wise strategic move by CNN. Whether he was let go or walked out, they were on divergent journalistic paths." Dobbs, he said, "got stuck on the immigration issue and that became his reputation, which was fine when the issue was hot. But it's fallen off the radar."

Tyndall described King as "part of a new generation of interviewers. He hasn't yet got a style and a voice; that takes years. He's a work in progress."

In a statement, King, 46, said he is "thrilled" by the opportunity, adding: "There is a lot of noise and conflict in our political discourse, which is fun to cover, but I'm convinced from my travels that people also thirst for more details as well as insight and context."

Without Dobbs, CNN's schedule will now have five hours of straight-news programming between 4 and 9 p.m., with King preceded by Blitzer and followed by Brown. CNN said it will rotate anchors in Dobbs's spot until King takes over.

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