Is CNN Getting Religion?

A few weeks ago the Cable News Network named a new chairman. The choice was Time's Walter Isaacson, a print man sure to be welcomed by high-fiber, less-tabloid-flab TV news idealists. But what did this say about CNN's perception of its struggle with the upstart Fox News Channel, whose brio has not only earned it thunderous cable ratings, but also is making CNN look evermore like an old battleship headed for moth balls?

Isaacson had never seemed to grasp the appeal of Fox and its winning "We Report, You Decide" slogan. After being named Time's Managing Editor, Isaacson went in the opposite direction. He carried on about creating a magazine that can "help set the agenda," that can set "the right tone, a set of core beliefs" for the magazine and no doubt, the national conversation.

Despite proclaiming his strange tendency to avoid deciding who he would vote for, Isaacson and his politics matched the classic media-elite profile. Bill Clinton? He restored the New Deal legacy by "reforming welfare and conquering runaway deficits while still showing how government could help average citizens." Hillary? "I personally was fascinated and impressed by her...her strength, and her almost surreal ability to assert her dignity." Impeachment was national madness, and an event historians won't remember, since "the correlation between being chaste and having character is pretty minimal."

But as the new head of CNN, Isaacson did something unpredictable. He met on Capitol Hill with House and Senate leaders - including Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert, and J.C. Watts - and told reporters from Roll Call that, "I was trying to reach out to a lot of Republicans, and I wanted to hear their concerns." He insisted he wasn't trying to attract a more conservative audience, but other attendees disagreed. They said he was "panicked that he's losing conservative viewers," and he said, "Give us some guidance on how to attract conservatives."

That meeting suggests that CNN could be on the road to a better sense of political fairness and balance, that Isaacson has taken off the blinders and seen how much a little outreach makes good business sense. Look at the amazing reality of how viewers have voted with their remotes. In the first seven months of 2000 and 2001, Nielsen found CNN's average audience increased from 308,000 to 321,000. But Fox's average more than doubled, from 140,000 to 282,000, and their network is in 15 million fewer households to boot.

Viewers who have walked across the cable news street aren't imagining things. Liberal bias at CNN is real. In the early years, CNN's bias came largely from the embarrassing interventions of founder Ted Turner. He pushed his channel into embarrassing pro-communist documentaries, strident pro-abortion specials, and glassy-eyed adorations of United Nations summits indicting capitalism for killing the planet.

Another dynamic affected CNN over the years. As it grew in popularity and prestige, it began accepting refugees from the liberal broadcast networks, liberals who arrived with their partisan arrogance intact. From on-air sermonizers (think Bruce Morton) to off-air Clinton promoters (think Rick Kaplan), CNN welcomed journalists who joyfully brought a big yellow Magic Marker to highlight their new network's liberal inclinations.

In spite of these things there were many conservatives routing for CNN's success. By the very nature of its 24-hour, all-news format, CNN has never matched ABC, CBS, or NBC for everyday in-your-face imbalance. Its greater carrying capacity for political debate has offered more opportunities for the conservative viewpoint. From its first days, "Crossfire" offered what was once rare: a nightly form for a vigorous war of ideas, with Pat Buchanan touting the Reagan line and Tom Braden pushing for Tip O'Neill.

Now Fox has stolen CNN's thunder, and it's Isaacson's job to try and get it back. Sure, Democrats and liberal bias enthusiasts hated that GOP meeting. It symbolized that Fox has forced another media outlet to confront the effect of a left leaning bias that has turned away its audience. Fox boss Roger Ailes couldn't help but enjoy the prospect with a poke: "I think it is a real sign of progress that after [21] years, CNN has found out that there's more than one point of view."

Isaacson has to do more than just meet and greet conservatives. Other network bosses at CNN and elsewhere have been there and done that. If he wants to compete for CNN's lost audience, he has to demonstrate on the tube that he understands the bias problem and will take steps to fix it. CNN will have to offer balance - no more reports of "very moderate" Democratic conventions versus "far right" GOP conventions, for example. And it has to offer something more. Respect. Offer the notion that conservatives aren't three-eyed, slack-jawed aliens with dangerous attitudes who must be demonized before they're heard.

If CNN does that, conservatives are honor-bound to reciprocate.