These are certainly weird times over at CNN, where heads are rolling off the chopping block, sometimes without their owners even knowing the ax is about to fall.
Earlier this year, former California Democratic Party hack Bill Press, who some years ago signed on as the liberal on CNN's "Crossfire," was jettisoned in favor of the two-headed monster of James Carville and Paul Begala. "He had no idea his contract wasn't going to be renewed. In fact, he'd been getting nothing but positive feedback from his bosses," says a current CNN staffer. "Press was stunned when he heard about it."
It appears that Press, who isn't a reporter by training, missed all the scuttlebutt flying around the office. "A lot of people here in the Washington Bureau knew things were going to be shaken up on 'Crossfire' and that he was in trouble, but he seemed oblivious," the staffer says. "People around here were certainly talking about it."
The same cannot be said for what happened last week, when another well-known CNNer, White House correspondent Major Garrett, was unceremoniously dumped. Garrett was given no advance word of his firing, nor was he given any specific reasons why he was being let go. Staff weren't told of Garrett's exit until they'd read the press release announcing his replacement: MSNBC reporter Suzanne Malveaux.
Malveaux's arrival is a bitter pill for longtime CNNers, says a CNN news producer. "She was around the White House for MSNBC during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. We couldn't stand her. Given Garrett or Malveaux, we'd take Garrett any time."
Garrett, who often covered the White House beat as second banana to senior correspondent John King, was a work horse, providing on the ground reporting outside of Washington during presidential trips, even contributing to CNN national radio news broadcasts. "He was a real team player, too bad the owners didn't appreciate him," says the producer.
Another CNN producer says there are rumors inside the building that Garrett was axed because of concerns about his ideology. Before arriving at CNN, Garrett was a reporter for U.S. News & World Report and before that at the conservative Washington Times. "The Times thing didn't bother them when they hired him," says a CNN researcher. "But with Bush in the White House, I think they were concerned he was going to be too chummy with the conservatives. But I never saw any of that, and I don't even know that he was that conservative. If anything, Major had better sources sometimes because of the impression he might be conservative in that conservative White House."
Part of the problem with the sudden exits, say CNN insiders, was the retirement last year of longtime bureau chief Frank Sesno, who targeted print reporters such as John King (former AP reporter) and Garrett and turned them into TV reporters. Sesno is credited with building up an esprit de corps in a bureau that was best known as the D.C. perch for talkmeister Larry King.
"All we were known for was Larry King and the shoutfests on 'Crossfire,'" says the researcher. "Frank really made us into a topflight network news bureau that competed with broadcast networks. He made us legitimate and he defended the bureau from the suits in [corporate headquarters] Atlanta."
And once Sesno walked, the bureau became the plaything of AOL-Time Warner executives like Walter Isaacson, who lately has been spending increasing amounts of time in Washington. "We're all a little nervous now," the researcher says. "Every time he shows up, another head gets lopped off."
With sudden departures from CNN becoming seemingly the norm, additional rumors are beginning to spread, including one that has longtime CNN talent Robert Novak considering an exit. One of the founding hosts of "Crossfire" and the creator of "The Capitol Gang," Novak is said to be disenchanted with the newly formatted "Crossfire" show and at the very least would like out of that show.
"Everyone here thinks it's funny that conservatives won't go on the show because they think Carville and Begala are unfair to them," says the CNN news producer. "When the real reason they shouldn't want to go on is because it's just not very good."