In an effort to improve his network's image with conservative leaders,
new CNN chief 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
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
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  years,
CNN has found out that there's more than one point of view,"jibed
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
"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
"[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
"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
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.
CNN has 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.
Copyright 2001 © Roll Call Inc