- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

CNN is facing a battlefield, but it's not in the Middle East.

After 18 months on the job, CNN chief Walter Isaacson announced yesterday he would leave the network in May to become president of the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank specializing in global environmental and economic issues.

He will be replaced by Jim Walton, current chief operating officer of CNN News Group.

In a phone interview yesterday, Mr. Isaacson said CNN was still at the top of its game, despite lower ratings and recent accusations that his ideology had been too liberal during his 18-month tenure. He also said he had made no last-minute efforts to woo conservatives on Capitol Hill in recent weeks.

"CNN has been scrupulous about being honest, fair, open," he said. "I have no qualms that the people in this country think CNN is the most believable source of news."

Ratings might indicate otherwise, though.

Overall ratings fell at CNN by 8 percent last year, according to Nielsen. At the end of 2002, the Fox News Channel emerged as the news network of choice among Americans, outdistancing both CNN and MSNBC.

Fox News Channel saw its audience grow by 36 percent last year, averaging 1.2 million viewers per night. CNN attracted 898,000 and MSNBC 382,000.

The numbers were a shock to many at CNN, which originated the 24-hour news channel format in 1980 and came into its own with live broadcasts from Baghdad during the Gulf war.

Mr. Isaacson took the high road yesterday, however, crediting Fox with inspiring CNN "to do better."

Formerly managing editor of Time magazine, he arrived at CNN in July 2001, bringing what many hoped would be a print journalist's sensibility to the erratic and competitive world of cable news.

"Print guy or TV guy, a good journalist is a good journalist," said Eason Jordan, CNN's director of news gathering.

Some beg to differ.

"People didn't like Isaacson from the start," said one broadcast insider. "He was considered a New York elitist. He came from a magazine. He didn't understand TV. He hired his friends, he didn't look out for CNN's best interests. It all made people in the newsroom crazy."

But is Mr. Isaacson leaving at an opportune moment?

"Is he jumping off a sinking ship? Well, yeah," said the broadcast source.

Mr. Isaacson says he is simply reinventing himself, and will be there to shepherd the network through a war in Iraq, at least if it erupts in the next four months.

In a memo to CNN employees, Mr. Isaacson said his new position with the Aspen Institute "is exactly the type of job I have long wanted, so I did not feel I could let it pass."

He relished the idea of "writing, exploring ideas, engaging in policy issues, and seeking solutions to social and international problems."

During a broadcast yesterday, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer told Mr. Isaacson during a live interview that employees were "stunned" over news of the executive's departure. Mr. Isaacson, 50, reassured the newsman that he had studied the life of Benjamin Franklin, who had also taken a new career path in middle age.

"He was a reporter," Mr. Isaacson said. "And then, at a certain time in his life, about the age I am now, he decided to move. Maybe by studying Benjamin Franklin I realized we all need to do that with our lives."

His departure had nothing to do with a rumored merger of ABC and CNN, Mr. Isaacson said.

He leaves some old stomping grounds, however. Mr. Isaacson has worked at Time, then Time Warner, and finally AOL Time Warner, following the conglomerate through several identities over the course of 24 years.

Mr. Isaacson's announcement is one of several recent media shake-ups.

On Sunday, AOL Time Warner Chairman Steve Case revealed he was leaving his position in May as well. Last Friday, NBC President Andrew Lack also turned in his resignation, and will head Sony Music.

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