Extended Interview: Walter Isaacson
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: Walter, when we looked at the competition among the cable news channels three years ago, CNN was in front and the other two networks trailed. Now CNN and Fox are very close, and in January, Fox’s ratings will be higher than those of CNN. What’s happened?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think it’s really good that you have great competition among news networks, and for that matter all the networks in general. It’s bringing more and more people in to watching the news. And we each try to do it in our own way, in our own style. But the point is to get a whole new generation of people and people in general more re-engaged in news, and this has happened a lot since September 11th of course.
When I was growing up, you had the civil rights movement, Vietnam, everything else that made the news very compelling. I think you’re seeing that happen again, and I think you’re seeing a lot of younger people and all sorts of people coming back to watching news.
TERENCE SMITH: When you look at the ratings, it seems that many people have come back to the news with a sense of urgency, but many have gone to Fox. Why?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think we have our style of doing news at CNN, and it’s going to be, we hope, good credible journalism, very fair, based on reporting, based on covering the world the way no other network does, with 30 or so bureaus, 1,000 journalists. It may not be as ideological or as edgy, and sometimes it may not be as sort of exciting as some other places, but when people really need the news and they want journalism they can count on, they’ll go to CNN.
TERENCE SMITH: In this new competitive period, they brought you on to run this network. What are you trying to do with it?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I come with journalistic experience. I don’t come with television or showbiz experience and stuff like that. And I come with a real passion for saying, “Let’s just cover the story right. Let’s not take our eye off the ball or the fundamental mission of CNN, which is journalism, which is good coverage.” And sometimes that will win in the ratings when the news is really hot. Sometimes it may pale in the ratings when people are looking for something flashy or more entertaining, but don’t take an eye off the ball of this core mission, which is journalism.
TERENCE SMITH: How much does it concern you if it does lose in the ratings?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think that we shouldn’t be fixated all the time on the ups and downs of the weekly ratings, of the quarter-hour ratings. I think more people always come to CNN. The cumulative amount of people who come there on any given week, and that’s because they know they can count on the news there. I think it’s great that there are other networks, other channels, just not news but in many types of ways that are providing people with information, so I think I’ve got a lot to worry about without just fixating on a ratings race.
TERENCE SMITH: Let’s talk about people then. You’ve recruited some new faces to CNN. What characterizes them in your view, and what are you trying to accomplish by adding the Aaron Browns, the Paula Zahns, the Connie Chungs, et cetera?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think if you look at the people we’ve added and the schedule we now have, it’s focused on people who are good journalists and are trustworthy, and they have a sense of personality. They can connect with the viewer, but they’re coming at it as reporters. That may be Paula Zahn or Fredricka Whitfield or Connie Chung or Aaron Brown. From the beginning of our schedule in the day to the end these are not people who want to shout at you, these are not people who are trying to make big ideological points. These are people whose core is reporting and journalism, but with some personality so it makes it enticing.
TERENCE SMITH: A different philosophy than the one that was described in the earlier days of CNN.
WALTER ISAACSON: CNN used to believe that only the news was the star, and it didn’t matter who was presenting it. I do believe it’s good to have compelling personalities who are smart, who can have conversations with the viewer, who know about the news, who aren’t just reading at them through a tele-prompter. So that if you look at Paula Zahn or Connie Chung or Aaron Brown or Fredricka Whitfield or Judy Woodruff or Wolf Blitzer, you know these are smart people. These are people who get the story. They’ve covered the study, and they can bring it to you in a way that makes it feel personal. So I like having that, but still keeping the reporting and the journalism at the core.
TERENCE SMITH: You’ve hired these people, and you’ve hired some of them at very substantial salaries at the same time CNN has had to cut a lot of people. Papers say 400 people. How do you justify the two?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think we’re building CNN now. There’s more people probably working as journalists at CNN than when I came. We just opened a bureau in Dubai. We have 30 bureaus overseas. We are a very well-off network. We’re doing quite well, and I think it’s because we believe in covering the world. So we’re not doing any more layoffs of people around the world or anything like that, and we have our lineup pretty much set. So, knock on wood, I think we’ve got it in balance now.
TERENCE SMITH: But a change in emphasis from line personnel to star power?
WALTER ISAACSON: No, I wouldn’t say so. I think we really want to have great reporters in the field. If you look at the 30 or so people we had covering Afghanistan, you look at people like everybody from Nic Robertson and Christiane Amanpour, to Bill Hemmer to Sheila MacVicar, all those people who went in to cover the war region and who are still there after everybody else has left. I think that’s where we’re putting a lot of emphasis. And I don’t know whether you count them as stars. I count them as stars. I count Christiane Amanpour, Sheila MacVicar, Bill Hemmer, people like that as stars, but they’re also basically great reporters.
TERENCE SMITH: There’s also been a great deal, as you know, about the promotion of some of these people. There was the now-infamous ad about Paula Zahn, calling her “just a little bit sexy.” What were you trying to say with that?
WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, that was a mistake and that was the week between Christmas and New Year’s and a couple people in the Promotion Department got a bit zealous, but I don’t think we were trying to do anything.
TERENCE SMITH: No, but they thought they had it right. They obviously put it out.
WALTER ISAACSON: I think it was a mistake.
TERENCE SMITH: I mean explain that in terms of the way you describe and promote a network?
WALTER ISAACSON: No, they made a mistake.
TERENCE SMITH: Simple as that?
WALTER ISAACSON: Uh-huh.
TERENCE SMITH: When you look at the competition, Fox is often described as right of center, ideologically right of center. Is it so to you, to your eyes?
WALTER ISAACSON: I’m going to keep my eye on our ball, which is CNN, and I think the main thing about CNN is that it’s based more on reporting, more on journalism than on opinion or ideology. I’m not going to try to characterize the other networks. We have to compete in a universe of 200 networks, so we have to carve out our own niche, and to me, that niche is just basic shoe-leather journalism with some good journalists at the helm you can trust as presenters.
TERENCE SMITH: But by implication of what you said, then the others base it more on commentary and ideology?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think you’ll look at what the others do.
TERENCE SMITH: There’s also been a public back and forth between Roger Ailes of Fox and Jamie Kellner of your organization, with Ailes saying at one point, “We can beat CNN with both hands tied behind our back.” It sounded like a barroom brawl. What is this all about?
WALTER ISAACSON: I know. You’ll have to ask them what they were fighting about. I think it’s important for us to keep our eye on the ball at CNN, which is not be distracted by the two or the eight or the 200 other channels people could be watching, but say there is a need in this world for an organization that has, you know, 1,000 journalists around the world, that has good smart personalities, be it Aaron Brown, Paula Zahn, Connie Chung, Larry King, helping present it to you.
TERENCE SMITH: So Roger Ailes is not getting to you?
WALTER ISAACSON: I see Roger every now and then. He has his own style. We have ours. No.
TERENCE SMITH: Surveys will also show that people regard CNN as liberal, somewhat to the left of center. Does that make any sense to you?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think it’s really important that we try to be straight and try to be fair, and, yes, you can look around and occasionally [ask] did we get that exactly in balance? And that’s part of my job, is to keep pushing, to say, “Are we fair? Are we showing all sides of this? Do we have our journalistic integrity?” And to me, that’s the core role I’m supposed to be playing at this network, and every now and then, yeah. I say, “Let’s push back a little bit here, or push back there.” But it can come in a variety of forms.
TERENCE SMITH: You drew some headlines by going up to Capitol Hill, meeting first with the Republican leadership up there. What were you trying to accomplish and what did you learn?
WALTER ISAACSON: I was meeting with a lot of people in Washington, met with a lot of the Republican leadership on the Hill, and then the Democratic leadership. You want to hear feedback. How do they perceive the network? And if you don’t have your ears open, you’re not going to be able to figure out what you should be doing.
TERENCE SMITH: Was it simply that, or did you believe that there was some sort of communications gap between prominent Republicans in Washington and CNN? After all, Tom DeLay was calling it the Clinton News Network or the Communist News Network, and saying he wouldn’t appear on it. Was there a gap between the Republican and more conservative leadership on the Hill and this network, and was that what you were trying to close?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think that there were some Republicans on the Hill who felt that they weren’t being listened to at CNN, they didn’t have a pipeline to CNN. If you’re not going to be a conceited network, you really have to make sure everybody has a pipeline to you, and I wanted to make sure that people from all sides of the aisle felt they could talk to me and to CNN directly, and that was sure easy to do, because people did want to talk, and it’s worked out well.
TERENCE SMITH: Was Walter Isaacson going up on the Hill to make nice to Republicans because of the harsh comments they had made?
WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, I think some of the people on the Hill felt that they hadn’t had a good pipeline into CNN, hadn’t had their ideas heard, and I just wanted to wander around the Hill and meet a lot of people and make sure they knew they could talk to us.
TERENCE SMITH: I wonder, when you look at the interviews and the people you interview on CNN, what you try to achieve, what balance, if that’s the right word, that you try to achieve in their political slant or ideology?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think when you’re looking for people to interview, you want to make it fair and honest. You’re not just bringing people on so you can beat them up or, you know, make fools out of them or something. And you want to have people on various sides. And more than just two sides to each situation. So you want to bring a variety of people on. You want a diversity of opinion, of outlook, of background and everything else. And we tried very hard to do that.
TERENCE SMITH: As this competition has intensified, has Fox taken viewers away from CNN or brought new viewers, as far as you can tell, into the mix?
WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, my sense is that the great competition in news across the board has brought new viewers in, people who have different approaches, different styles, different philosophies, and I don’t know that we’re necessarily trying to steal a viewer from a particular news network. I think we’re all trying to bring new viewers in with our programming, and it’s increased the number of people who look at news. This is a very good thing. I come from a world of magazines, where there used to be not only three or four news magazines on the rack every Monday, but maybe 150 magazines people could choose from, and if you could bring them into that realm, bring them into the tent, it was great, and that’s what’s happening these days in news.
TERENCE SMITH: You talked before about trying to get younger people, get their attention, get them to watch television, which polls show they don’t do very much; read newspapers, which they do even less. What do you do? How do you accomplish that? What do you do to entice and interest younger viewers?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think it’s important to bring a new wave of viewers into watching news, and first and foremost the news has helped us do that. The news has happened since September 11th to make people realize that the world matters and that they have to take it seriously. Secondly, I think you tell it as good storytelling. Anybody who tells a good tale with interesting ideas behind it will find viewers of all ages.
Thirdly, we’ve tried to hire some younger reporters, Anderson Cooper, Serena Altschul, people you may not know, but part of a new wave of young reporters, and I think that’s going to help.
TERENCE SMITH: MSNBC, what’s going on there? They seem to have fallen back from a position in terms of viewers from where they were. Why?
WALTER ISAACSON: Oh, boy. I have enough trouble giving you the explanations of what CNN is doing. I’m not going to be the spokesman for the other network. Sorry. I just don’t think it’s appropriate for me to sort of say, here’s why they’re failing. Here’s why Fox is doing this or whatever.
This is a real positive business we’re in. People like you, people like me become journalists because we actually believe it can help — that drawing more people into the news, helping explain it more works. And so I don’t think tearing down other journalists is part of my mission in life.
TERENCE SMITH: Look at Headline News, the changes you’ve made. Describe them and tell me what you’re trying to do with that.
WALTER ISAACSON: Headline News is faster paced. It’s got more information on the screen. It appeals to younger viewers. I really love that. I like to multi-task. I like to be able to see the weather, the sports, the time, the temperature, the headlines, as well as see people. Some hate that, and you’ve got other choices if you really hate that. But I’m really committed to it because I find headlines to be the most powerful interesting new form of TV news that’s come down the pike in a long time.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s been the effect, in your view, and from your perspective, of the AOL Time Warner merger on CNN?
WALTER ISAACSON: I haven’t thought about that much. I haven’t seen much of an impact. It’s a big company. They protect us. When a war comes along we know there’s resources behind us. There’s no real meddling from the corporate level.
TERENCE SMITH: They also are famous for demanding a certain return from their increments and elements like CNN.
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, they’re not demanding more of a return than we can give, and they gave us all the resources we need to cover the war, and when it came time to not make our numbers because we were spending a lot to cover the war, nobody got on my case. So that was very useful.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there an operational role in this CNN for Ted Turner?
WALTER ISAACSON: Ted was a genius. He helped invent CNN. He doesn’t have an operational role there, but he’s one of the people who helps be a visionary for the entire corporation.
TERENCE SMITH: One of the controversies after September 11th — and I wonder what you think of it — has been the suggestion of jingoism in the press, people wearing flag pins in their lapels, using language very supportive of the war effort and that sort of thing. And you had a memo that was published about balance. Tell me what you think about that, whether you think the news media went overboard and what you were trying to accomplish with that memo.
WALTER ISAACSON: I think it’s very important to have a sense of balance in covering the war, but you don’t have to be morally neutral about terrorism. Terrorism is a horrible thing that is the great threat to civilization on our planet. So I wanted to make sure that even as we covered all aspects of the war, we kept in mind what had caused this war, which is an act of horrible terrorism.
TERENCE SMITH: When you looked at the media generally, did you see jingoism and flag waving that offended you or influenced you one way or the other?
WALTER ISAACSON: I was mainly looking to make sure that CNN captured the right tone after September 11th.
TERENCE SMITH: You didn’t want to see any flag pins on CNN?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think that’s up to the various anchors and the various people. We didn’t decree any rules in that regard.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, to look ahead a little bit, where does this business of cable news go? What role does it play now? What role should it play?
WALTER ISAACSON: Well, I think by the fact that you’re doing the story, and so many stories have been done about the cable news, it shows that cable news is sort of the hot thing these days, and this is great. I mean those of us in the news business are glad not to be off in a corner, but to be front and center as being what’s happening and what’s hot now. And you see that with the amount of talent coming in, and the amount of viewers coming in. And I hope that continues to grow. There are many ways to do cable news. Ours is going to be a little bit more focused on journalism, probably have a little bit more international coverage, probably have more reporting in it than others, but it will include a mix. And we’ll have fun stuff as well as well-reported stuff.
TERENCE SMITH: It’s interesting, because of course, it always used to be said that the front page of The New York Times set the nation’s news agenda. Has that changed?
WALTER ISAACSON: I think with news happening so fast, and the fact that wherever you go, from a newspaper newsroom to a diner in New Jersey, whatever, you tend to see CNN on in the background, that cable news has started to be much more important in setting an agenda. It’s sort of the background to our lives. It’s a background to the lives of most journalists. It may not be the biggest source of news, but it’s there first helping to set the agenda.