CNN ratings slide, brand damaged: Creators versus managers in PC media battle.
“I got up here and I started to open my mouth and the long and powerful arm of Mr. James Taylor reached into this sacred chamber and grabbed me by the scruff of the neck.” —Jimmy Stewart as U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith in the 1939 Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
“Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.”— Jonathan Swift
“You’re speaking as though you believe America is a free country.”
The speaker was longtime CNN journalist and commentator Lou Dobbs. Sitting across the table from him in the CNN studios in New York I was startled at the statement, a statement that was in fact a question. I was even more startled at what had transpired moments before — when Dobbs, seated at another table a few feet away, an electronic American flag waving behind him — looked America in the eye and announced he was leaving CNN after almost three decades. Without doubt I knew the reason for Dobbs’ question.
What was originally scheduled as one more moment in television talk had just turned into something else entirely — a dramatic climax in the escalating war against Dobbs’s CNN show by what the New York Times identified quaintly as “progressive groups.” Which is to say, not-so-quaintly, a war sponsored by politically correct forces opposed to free speech — unless, of course, the speech involved is their own. But there was something else going on that night, something that was inspiring, of which more in a moment.
First the show itself.
I was a guest invited to discuss a series of columns in this space on what I perceived as an assault on conservative media and free speech by an interfaith coalition called So We Might See. (The columns and blog posts can be found here, here, here, here, here and here.)
One of the targets of this effort was Lou Dobbs, and the coalition’s website was featuring a link to a campaign to “Drop Dobbs.” As a member of the United Church of Christ, the church leader of this effort, I had received an e-mail inviting me to, among other things, join the effort to “Drop Dobbs” as well as throw Glenn Beck off the air as well. Church members were being asked to sign on to a petition to the FCC citing Rush Limbaugh for hate speech, while the media package cited Bill O’Reilly, Beck and Dobbs as guilty of hate speech. Beginning with the Woodward-Bernstein mantra of “follow the money,” I discovered the money led directly to a group called the Media Democracy Fund, which was a partial funder of So We Might See and was itself partially funded by the left-wing billionaire George Soros.
The attendant publicity — angry American Spectator readers of different faiths took matters into their own hands and began demanding answers from the leaders of the seven denominations involved — resulted in dropping the “Drop Dobbs” campaign as well as the campaign to get Glenn Beck removed from television and radio. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops huddled and insisted on their own statement specifically rejecting the idea of participating in any attempt “to censor any organization, program or commentator.” Which is to say, they were decidedly not signing on to any efforts to get Dobbs, Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Beck or others. The United Methodists withdrew from the group entirely. The Disciples of Christ said no to the petition to the FCC that cited Rush Limbaugh for hate speech.
The revelations interested Dobbs. An invitation came in to me to appear on his radio show, which I accepted. Following that was an invite to New York to appear on his CNN show. As fate would have it, and certainly unknown to me ahead of time, this wound up making me his last solo guest. The irony, stunning in the moment, is that I was there to discuss columns that had successfully halted one effort to force him off CNN — on the very night he was announcing he was leaving CNN and that the show I was participating in was, in fact, his last.
Arriving early at CNN, located in the glittering glass towers of the Time-Warner complex on New York’s Columbus Circle, I was in the Green Room passing the time with two young veterans of the Iraq War, who would be on before me. They were U.S. Army Sergeant Ariel Luna (A.J., he said with a shy smile) and 1st Lieutenant Megan Gingrich of the Air Force — no relation to Newt, she laughed. It was Veterans Day, and the show was in part a well-deserved tribute to veterans like A.J. and Megan. Dobbs walked in and introductions were made. Smiling, he said, “Well, this is a momentous night.” Momentous night? What was up with that, I wondered. I had chosen to drive to Staten Island, leave the car for the fabled Staten Island ferry and take the subway uptown to CNN. I had been out of touch with the media world for a couple hours — had something happened? Another Ft. Hood-style shooting? Had the North Koreans launched a rocket? The Iranians dropped a bomb? The President made some surprise announcement? In the middle of CNN — no clue.
Dobbs turned and headed into the adjacent studio, populated only by his camera crew and staff. Applause rang out. How charming, I thought. Having been on my share of TV talk shows, I’d never heard a crew and staff burst into applause when the host went on the set. Maybe, I thought, the Dobbs crew had a Broadway-esque ritual where they cheered Lou on as if gathered offstage before the curtain rises.
Into the Green Room came more guests, this time the participants in a political panel who would follow me. One, it turned out, I had met before — syndicated columnist and National Review contributing editor Deroy Murdock. Among his many credits in a blossoming career, he has had the distinct honor of being named runner-up for “Worst Person in the World” by MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann for writing a column called “Three Cheers for Waterboarding.” I liked him already.
After the usual chit-chat, our attention turned to the two television monitors in the room as Lou Dobbs began yet another broadcast with the usual news update. Then it came. “Tonight I want to turn to a personal note, if I may, and address a matter that has raised some curiosity. This will be my last broadcast here on CNN…” Say what??!!! I looked at Deroy, who looked back. “Did you know about this?” he whispered, his face as stunned as I was sure was true of my own. “No!” I whispered back. Suddenly, I knew what Lou had meant when he said it was going to be a momentous night. Here’s the link to Lou’s statement.
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