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I Was Lou Dobbs’s Last Guest: Witness To a Star Reborn

CNN ratings slide, brand damaged: Creators versus managers in PC media battle.

By 11.16.09

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"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.

What happened?

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.

The atmosphere in the Green Room was suddenly electric. His staff had apparently learned of his decision two hours earlier. I looked around the room at them, people I had met barely a half hour ago were clearly struggling with their emotions. No wonder the applause in the studio.

Then I realized my own situation. I was shortly to go on air to discuss -- live on CNN -- the issue of what I felt was an attempt to silence talk radio, conservative media -- and Lou Dobbs. A discussion to be had with Lou Dobbs himself. Moments after he announced that, in effect, an effort to silence him at CNN had succeeded. This show would be his last -- and in the choreography of that show I would be his last solo live in-studio guest.

I looked at the folder that contained my notes. They were still relevant -- but suddenly I wondered how to present them. The very first reaction I was having was a human one. Lou and his staff and his camera crew had been targeted here because Lou was exercising his free speech rights. They were, literally, the walking wounded of a free speech battle -- standing mere feet away. Jen, the wonderful and supremely competent booker, had just returned from maternity leave. The mother of a new baby -- her job with Lou Dobbs had just been vaporized. In part, presumably, as a result of pressure by churches -- my church included. Then there was Lou's stricken assistant Arlene, two years from retirement and soon out of a job as the Christmas holidays approached. Now what? Shaken, she had no idea. There was Emily, Claire with the great scarf, the young women who had done makeup for the guests ...every single life now disrupted because of the actions of what I felt strongly to be not simply a few misguided actions by people in my own church, but by a relentless drive to suppress free speech in America on the part of left-wing zealots. Or, if you prefer the New York Times description -- "progressives." Zealots who celebrated their ability to protest, speak and write -- while trying to bully others into silence.

Tonight they had, to my utter astonishment, apparently succeeded in bullying CNN. And within seconds, I was being called to sit down across a table on live television with the man who was one of their prime targets.

I walked into the studio. The veterans segment was over, A.J., Megan, and a wonderful group of Navaho code talkers filing out. Lou rose from the big table in front of that waving onscreen flag and joined me as I was seated at a smaller table. An assistant clipped on my mike. I looked at Lou, utterly dumbfounded. "Lou, I don't know what to say," I began. There was a smile. A big one. Relaxed, confident, secure in the world. "Don't worry," he laughed. "We'll think of something."

Behind me I could hear the countdown of seconds. I looked to my left. Occasionally when one does these shows you are instructed to look into camera X. Not this time. My job was to look directly at Lou -- and talk.

We were on. You can see it in my eyes. Momentarily my eyes go wide. I was thinking… they got this guy. This is real, this has just happened right in front of me -- and this man, and all those people I have just met -- have been successfully demonized, a threat to personally damage their lives successfully carried out. Diversity of thought as expressed through freedom of speech and a free press has just taken a hit right here in this CNN television studio. CNN!!

All sorts of things raced through my mind, including that famous scene from one of my favorite movies, Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In the film's climactic scene, Jimmy Stewart as fledgling Senator Jefferson Smith -- battling ferociously against the forces of darkness and corruption epitomized by boss James Taylor -- stands defiantly on the floor of the Senate and fights back, saying:

 "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."

The long and powerful arm of political correctness, spouting the modern Taylorism called "hate speech," had reached into the television studios of CNN and grabbed Lou Dobbs by the scruff of the neck.

I could hear myself off and running. Speechlessness was not a problem. I forgot a few things -- the very important George Soros tie-in, for one. But the consummate professional, Dobbs was utterly unruffled.

Here was a man sitting across from me who had given thirty years of his professional life to CNN. One of the originals hired by Ted Turner himself. Tonight, it was ending. And in a very bad moment Lou Dobbs was going out with a smile.

"Who's next?" I heard myself blurting now to Lou, waving the petition to the FCC that cited Rush Limbaugh for hate speech. My former Reagan colleague Mark Levin was written in my notes. Mark, the president of the Landmark Legal Foundation, was now a highly successful talk radio host himself. In fact, while chatting in the Green Room with A.J., the young Iraq War veteran, without prompting A.J. began saying how much he loved listening to Mark Levin, quoting Levin-the-talk radio-host chapter and verse, laughing as he did so. Mark is also the author of the New York Times bestseller titled -- ironically, I was thinking -- Liberty and Tyranny. Wasn't this tyranny unfolding right in front of me?

But in truth, other than once that I remember -- when citing something said to me by my own minister, a liberal who believes fervently in free speech ("everyone has a place at the table") -- I was free associating like crazy. At one point trying to recall people I had met in talk radio. There was Mark Levin. Laura Ingraham came out. Then I heard myself trying to remember the names of shows around the country on which I had appeared over the years, a list I knew was around 100. Just a week earlier I had twice been on Dom Giordano's CBS talk radio show in Philadelphia, and so too on with Quinn and Rose in Pittsburgh. What was that show from a couple years ago, up in Maine…Maine…Portland, Maine…Richardson, Ray Richardson! WLOB! The Ray and Ted show! Did that one several times. Hilarious! Smart guys! Out came Ray's name. Sean! Don't forget Sean Hannity! He's asked you on his show twice, invited you on TV… for God's sake how could you possibly forget Sean.…

Too late.

Lou could see me struggle. Enough with the names! Sorry Sean. Time is running out. This is Lou's last show! Hurry up! Get on with it! Lou and I had the same thought. "These are good people" I summarized as Lou joined in. And so it went. Speaking up for my church -- good people, made a mistake. Ft. Hood. A Hollywood movie with a PC director (Roland Emmerich of 2012) terrified of a fatwa if he blew up Mecca in his disaster movie. The PC virus. The importance of talk radio, why Lou Dobbs and shows like his were important.

Lou took particular time to touch on his views on immigration, expressing understandable frustration at their deliberate distortion, something of which So We Might See is not alone in doing. With class, he didn't cite the obvious =- his marriage to a Mexican-American wife. Anti-Hispanic? Oh, please.

Another irony not mentioned? This is the same Lou Dobbs who opposed conservatives in the Bush White House on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That's right. It is important to note here that Lou Dobbs is known as "Mr. Independent...not "Mr. Conservative." Which is to say, in the words of New York Post columnist Cindy Adams, Lou is a: "Supporter of gay rights and women's right to choose, he's left on social issues." Which means the United Church of Christ, whose liberal leadership has famously staked a claim on gay rights and same-sex marriage issues -- the latter a position not all members including myself agree with -- just helped drive a supporter of gay rights off television. If you doubt Lou's views on the subject, check this CNN story from 2006, when he was busy blistering the Bush administration on gay rights.

But the issue that had had apparently become identified with him was illegal immigration, and because his views were not those of various progressive special interest groups around the country, they wanted to shut him down. Tonight, they had, for the moment at least, apparently succeeded. After this night one group, Presente.org, would proudly proclaim on its website that "We Did It!" There appeared to be zero sense of irony on the group's part that over this headline was a photograph of a Latino leader speaking with a microphone in hand -- raising the inevitable image of "free speech for me but not for thee" -- or, in this case, Lou Dobbs.

Hence Lou's question, the question in the form of a statement that startled: "You're speaking as though you believe America is a free country."

A pause. "I'd like to think it is," I replied. "And you know, it's our responsibility..." I began, wrapping up. I remembered to mention the column and The American Spectator, ending by promising to try and make sure things got heard. And then it was over.

Lou rose, smile in place. We shook hands. He invited me back on the radio. He was utterly unruffled.

Deroy gave me a pat on the back as he went in with the political panel. I stayed in the Green Room long enough to watch Deroy's segment as he and Lou took on New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis and Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. Why doesn't Deroy have his own show?

With a pre-taped segment left to go, I wondered if I should stay, and decided not. Lingering to thank Lou again felt vaguely like a pity party for someone who clearly had no use for them. I was cheered to hear later that when the show ended, according to the Times, "he crossed 58th Street in Midtown Manhattan, walked into an Irish pub frequented by colleagues and was greeted with a round of applause."

Instead, feeling a bit of an intruder on a private moment (such as a moment like this for a CNN anchor can be!) for me it was goodbye hugs with the still emotional Dobbs staff. And out.

Outside in the cold air again, out from the CNN walls where the pictures of Lou and Wolf and Fareed and Sanjay and others in the CNN gang decorated the place. A look back at the glittering towers in the bustling city, with TIME-WARNER writ large over the entrance. A subway ride to the tip of Manhattan, the subway map still saying "World Trade Center" on the red line for the Downtown 1. And the ferry ride across New York Harbor -- gliding silently by the Statue of Liberty, bathed in light, the torch held high.

What had I just witnessed here?

Later, I would tell a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who had requested an interview -- Atlanta is the home of CNN and the Dobbs story is a big one -- that I thought Lou Dobbs had been "borked." The latest of a growing crowd finding themselves on the receiving end of the famous treatment named after Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. To be borked is a telltale sign that someone, a conservative or someone who has an inappropriately conservative view on issue X in the eyes of liberal media and "progressive" interest groups, is feared by the opposition. Borking is the moment when opponents move beyond argument and intellectual engagement to seek the personal destruction of the subject. Threatening phone calls, a shot at the house, effectively forced off CNN -- Lou Dobbs has been borked and more. Much more.

But I saw something else that night as Lou Dobbs last solo guest.

Years ago, when CNN was riding high, before Fox News was anything but a gleam in Rupert Murdoch's eye, a friend of mine who worked for CNN said he was worried about the future of CNN. Why? Because the world is divided between creators and managers, and all successful enterprises come out of someone's creativity. Creativity, he observed, is a force of nature. It is messy, chaotic, requiring vision, boldness, imagination, energy, sheer guts. What Jonathan Swift once observed as "the art of seeing things invisible" and finding a way -- against all odds -- to manifest that vision. To make, as it were, a dream come true. But once that's done, once the vision is here, once success is in hand -- the creator dominates for a time and then slowly fades away, inevitably tugged by the even more powerful force of mortality.

Which leaves the creation in the hands, more often then not, of managers. There's nothing wrong with being a manager. You can't get arrested for it. It's not exactly a crime. No heads must hang in shame. But being a manager is not the same as being a creator. You are, inevitably, running someone else's dream. And that dream, unless and until it finds a manager who is also a creator, is not only never the same again, over time it finds itself fighting off the inevitable forces that affect every living thing -- particularly manifested dreams. That, of course, would be decay. The slow motion disintegration of what once was nothing but a vision in someone's imagination, returning to the nothingness from whence it came. The only way this can ever be overcome is with the energized, determined presence of a new creator -- or the rebirth of one.

As I left Lou Dobbs the other night, I realized I was lingering outside the building a bit to take in some particular sights. What was I seeing? Really? And what did it have to do with Lou Dobbs? What, after all, was really there as I looked at those spectacular buildings housing CNN and Time-Warner?

On Columbus Circle in the middle of New York City resides a glass temple housing the dreams of a handful of dreamers: Henry Luce and Britton Hadden, the first the son of American missionaries, the second a Baltimore reporter, the two longtime school pals combining to be the co-founders -- the creators -- of Time Magazine. Jack Warner, the son of poor Jewish immigrants from Poland and the driving force among the siblings we now call Warner Brothers that included Harry, Sam and Albert. Ted Turner, the one-time billboard salesman from Savannah, Georgia. Not to be forgotten is Steve Ross, he the one-time funeral home guy turned empire builder, the man who wound up in charge -- managing -- the movie empire created by Jack Warner and his brothers. It was Steve Ross who created Time-Warner, combining Henry Luce and Britton Hadden's dream with that of Jack Warner and his brothers, setting the stage for the later arrival of Ted Turner's CNN. The CNN where Ted Turner's friend Lou Dobbs was already spinning out his own dream of business news as a building block of cable news. The place where Lou Dobbs effectively became the father of cable television business news, creating out of whole cloth the vision that is now pursued by the Fox Business Channel, Bloomberg and CSNBC.

Taken together, this one small piece of Manhattan geography represented the merging of three distinct and considerable empires all devoted to free speech, whether on the printed page, silver screens or television and computer screens. It should not go unnoticed that one of the guests at the gala bash for the opening of the Time-Warner Center in 2004 was novelist Salman Rushdie, he whose freedom to speak and write freely was famously threatened by a fatwa from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.

Most of the dreamers except Turner are gone now, and Ted Turner long ago gave up control of CNN for retired billionaire status. Which left CNN -- and Lou Dobbs's creativity -- in the hands of -- yes -- managers. As if to confirm this, CNN manager...ah, president.... Jonathan Klein issued a wonderfully managerial statement on Dobbs' departure by saying: "Lou has now decided to carry the banner of advocacy journalism elsewhere. All of us will miss his appetite for big ideas, the megawatt smile and larger than life presence he brought to our newsroom." Spoken in the best managerialese that can be had.

Managers have taken hold of CNN. Not creators. And politically correct managers at that. Bit by bit, Ted Turner's vision, the dream he built with the imagination, guts, boldness, and energy that are the requisites of a creative force, is beginning to decay, the Dobbs episode but one small sign of this, CNN's losing ratings up against Fox yet another. The Times reported just days ago that CNN had dropped into last place in its ratings, losing to Fox "resoundingly."

Meanwhile, across the dial Fox News and the Fox Business Channel, the dreams of creators Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, creators in control of their creation, are in fact entering what will someday be looked upon as a golden era. A golden era that will start to disintegrate as well if the managers who assume control of the dream left behind when the end of the Murdoch-Ailes era arrives just --manage.

In fact, as with Fox News, all of talk radio itself is in the midst of a golden era of creativity, from founding father Rush Limbaugh to Hannity and Levin and Dobbs and Beck all the way down the chain to your local morning drive team. Who could possibly have imagined the O'Reilly Factor except for -- Bill O'Reilly? Who could have created the Rush Limbaugh show except -- Rush Limbaugh? Who could dream up the Beck shows -- except Beck? These are just a few of limitless examples of what creative people -- in any field they call their own -- can do when they have the freedom to create, to use their talents and skills to make their Swiftian visions come true. Ironically, it might even be said that liberalism itself -- and at the moment Barack Obama -- are the necessary irritating grains of sand in the communications oyster that is creating all these conservative media pearls.

Listen again to Lou Dobbs as he took his leave of CNN -- and three decades worth of creating. "I'm the last of the original anchors here on CNN and I'm proud to have had the privilege of helping to build the world's first news network." Original. Helping to build. This is the language of a creator, a builder. A dreamer. A man who can see what is invisible to others, and make the dream live.

Is Lou Dobbs, in the battle to maintain free speech for all, a casualty of war? In this one battle, yes. He wins the Purple Heart -- Communications Division. People with good motives -- and bad -- people who should know better but don't, people who are appearing to others as timid, small and, perhaps worst of all -- narrow -- have momentarily accomplished a victory. A victory that, if left unchallenged, can eventually affect the free speech rights of every American, beginning with those who sought to end Lou Dobbs' career.

But what I think I really saw in Lou Dobbs last Wednesday night in the glass palace built by the dreams of Ted Turner, Henry Luce, Britton Hadden, Jack Warner, the Warner brothers and Steve Ross is a likeminded soul. Only a man who dreams and builds -- himself -- could help Ted Turner create what has now become the world of business news. Only a man who is unafraid, bold and willing to face the inevitable storms that must come to all who dream and build can smile as he ends thirty years with Ted Turner's dream -- and his own.

Without doubt, there will be other dreams for Lou Dobbs.

Why do I say this? Because what I was really watching the other night, up close and personal in that studio, was not a light snuffed out. In seeking to destroy Lou Dobbs, his opponents did something else entirely. They touched off the explosion necessary for the rebirth of a star. Or, if you will, what I witnessed was the rise of a Phoenix, like Dumbledore's Fawkes in the Harry Potter tales -- bursting into flame only to rise from the ashes.

The political columns speak of Senator Dobbs from New Jersey. Doubtless there's all kind of media people chasing him. But whatever he does, it was clear to me as I sat across that table from him on his last night as a CNN anchor, Lou Dobbs is ready to build again, to create -- to dream.

The Statue of Liberty radiated light in the darkness that was New York Harbor, a beacon, it's torch held high as the ferry glided by, returning me home. It too was once a dream, but it is a dream-made-reality Americans will not allow to disintegrate. It remains after 123 years the well-tended ultimate American symbol of the freedom that allowed dreamers like Luce, Hadden, the Warner brothers, Ross, Turner -- and Lou Dobbs -- to build empires of free speech.

Lou Dobbs, I realized, will be just fine. He will dream a new dream. And as long as this is a free country, he will make it happen. And keeping this a free country is a task not just for Lou Dobbs, but all of us.

But do I think he's mad as hell. He should be. More to the point, so should the rest of us be mad.

Because if they can silence Lou Dobbs -- they will eventually try to silence you.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.