- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

NEW YORK

He has become a publicity nightmare for CNN, embarrassed his boss and hosted a show that seemed to contradict the network’s “no bias” brand. On top of all that, his ratings are slipping.

How does Lou Dobbs keep his job?

It’s not a simple question to answer. CNN insists it is standing behind Mr. Dobbs despite calls for his head from critics of his reporting on “birthers” — those who believe President Obama wasn’t born in the United States despite convincing evidence to the contrary. The birthers believe Mr. Obama was born in Kenya and thus is not eligible to be president.

Mr. Dobbs’ work has been so unpopular that even Ann Coulter has criticized him.

He has acknowledged that he believes Mr. Obama was born in Hawaii. Yet he gives airtime to disbelievers and has said the president should try to put questions fully to rest by releasing a long version of his birth certificate. He has twice done stories on his show after the public leak of a memo from CNN U.S. President Jon Klein saying that “it seems this story is dead.”

Mr. Klein said those stories were OK because they were about the controversy and weren’t actually questioning the facts. However, critics suggest Mr. Klein is parsing words, that even raising the issue lends it credence.

Mr. Dobbs hasn’t made it any easier by using his radio show to fight back at critics, whom he called “limp-minded, lily-livered lefty lemmings.” He considered going on CNN tormentor Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show to thank him. (Mr. O’Reilly says the birthers are wrong, but he defended Mr. Dobbs’ right to talk about it).

“He’s embarrassed himself, and he’s embarrassed CNN,” says Brooks Jackson, a former CNN correspondent. “And that’s not a good thing for any network that wants to be seen as a reputable, nonpartisan news organization.”

So who needs the headache?

Mr. Klein says Mr. Dobbs does a smart newscast that explores issues that get little in-depth attention elsewhere, such as trade with China, health care funding and the stimulus plan. He suggests that Mr. Dobbs’ CNN work is unfairly lumped in with his unrelated radio show and that he’s judged on the show he did a couple of years ago, when he became a political target for campaigning against illegal immigration.

The two men sat down after last year’s election to make changes, aware that the anti-immigrant image of Mr. Dobbs ran counter to the brand CNN was trying to create. CNN calls itself the network of unbiased reporting compared to conservative commentators on Fox and liberal ones at MSNBC.

Since then, Mr. Dobbs has been doing a relatively straight newscast, Mr. Klein says.

“He brings more than three decades of experience reporting and broadcasting the news,” Mr. Klein adds, “and that’s very valuable to a news network.”

Through a spokeswoman, Mr. Dobbs said he would not comment for this story. However, he is a CNN original. Except for a two-year break a decade ago, he has been with CNN virtually from the network’s beginning. Much of that time was spent anchoring a business newscast that made him hugely influential in the business community and immensely valuable to CNN. Old-timers say the desire of advertisers to be connected with Mr. Dobbs and Larry King essentially funded the network for years.

Mr. Dobbs is considered among the smartest people at CNN and also the most personally intimidating. For whatever reason - the rise of CNBC as a competitor or a sense that opinionated hosts were the future for cable news - he morphed from a business anchor into a polarizing populist.

That version of Mr. Dobbs seemed better suited for HLN, formerly CNN Headline News, which has an opinionated prime-time lineup led by Nancy Grace. Yet reruns of Mr. Dobbs’ show didn’t do well on HLN, which is more female-oriented. Mr. Klein says he and Mr. Dobbs determined Mr. Dobbs was more valuable as a reporter than as a commentator.

The 861,000 people who tune into his 7 p.m. newscast on a typical night are down 20 percent from last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. He’s still ahead of MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews” in that hour.

“It’s very cutthroat,” says Janet Keefer, a Drake University journalism professor and former CNN producer. “As long as he isn’t doing anything that’s driving viewers away, they’ll keep him.”

Fear could be another factor keeping Mr. Dobbs and CNN together.

Mr. Dobbs has never been shy about fighting for his point of view. His feud with former CNN chief Rick Kaplan spilled out on the air in 1999 when he objected to having his “Moneyline” show pre-empted for a speech by President Clinton about the Columbine school shootings. “CNN President Rick Kaplan wants us to return to Littleton,” he said. Mr. Dobbs soon left CNN and returned after Mr. Kaplan left.

With Mr. Dobbs hosting his own weekday radio show, the thought of him launching anti-CNN missiles every day has to be disconcerting. It’s also not hard to imagine Fox News chief Roger Ailes coveting Mr. Dobbs as a prize for his struggling business news network, offering reports to the main news channel as well.

Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Media Matters for America have called for CNN to take Mr. Dobbs off the air; he’s proved to be a galvanizing and attention-getting force for his critics. At CNN, they’re hoping the controversy dies down with the heat of August.

However, for that, they’ll need Mr. Dobbs’ help.

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