Former CNNer Claims Network's Liberal Bias Caused Dobbs' Exit

November 15th, 2009 7:06 PM

A seventeen year veteran of CNN claimed Sunday that Lou Dobbs' surprising exit from the network was because "his opinions are out of lockstep with the rest of the mainstream news media."

Discussing the issue with Howard Kurtz on CNN's "Reliable Sources," Chris Plante, a former CNN correspondent and current talk radio host, said Dobbs, as "the last conservative voice on the channel," no longer fit in.

"They had Glenn Beck, he's gone. They had [Dobbs], now he's gone," claimed Plante.

When Plante said CNN hosts Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper, and Larry King weren't "completely neutral," Kurtz asked, "Are you suggesting that those hosts lean to the left?"

Plante marvelously responded, "Yes, I am" (oftentimes contentious video embedded below the fold with full transcript, file photo): 

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: His name has been synonymous with CNN for nearly three decades, but Lou Dobbs has become an increasingly opinionated and divisive figure in recent years. And the more he has crusaded on such issues as illegal immigration, the more he has seemed at odds with a network that tries to define itself, indeed, tries to market itself as a straight news operation that doesn't lean to the left or the right.

Those starkly different approaches cause rising tensions at CNN, even as some liberal and Latino groups were mounting a campaign to force the veteran anchor off the air. On Wednesday, Lou abruptly told viewers that this was his final broadcast.


LOU DOBBS, FORMER CNN ANCHOR: Over the past six months, it's become increasingly clear that strong winds of change have begun buffeting this country and affecting all of us. And some leaders and media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at role at CNN and to engage in constructive problem solving.


KURTZ: Dobbs could get riled up on the air as he did three years ago during a clash with a Hispanic anchor and days later in an interview with me on this program.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are sick and tired of being treated as criminals, being treated as racists.

DOBBS: As criminals? Maria Elena they are -- wait a minute, wait a minute. That is precisely what they are, they have broken the law.

KURTZ: You told "The New York Times" this week, "There is nothing fair and balanced about me because there's nothing fair and balanced about the truth, but shouldn't a cable news anchor be fair?"

DOBBS: A cable news network should be fair always. On "Lou Dobbs Tonight," I broadcast, my viewers, my audience, expect to come at them with the unvarnished reality and the truth irrespective of how the chips fall in the political spectrum.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: So was this television divorce inevitable and what does it mean for Dobbs and for CNN? Joining us now in Tampa, Eric Deggans, television and media critic for the "St. Petersburg Times." Here in Washington, David Zurawik, television critic for "The Baltimore Sun" who writes the blog "Z on TV." And Chris Plante, host of "The Chris Plante Radio Show" on WMAL. Chris Plante, many liberals cheering Dobbs' sudden exit. A "New York Times" editorial called him close to a right wing ranter who distorts the facts. Is the media being fair to Lou Dobbs?

PLANTE: Well, of course not. Well the reason Lou Dobbs was in trouble is not because he has opinions, it's because of what his opinions were and his opinions are out of lockstep with the rest of the mainstream news media. "The New York Times" in their -- pretty much every report also say that he's a crusader against immigrants, or immigration and that's false. It's a misrepresentation and it speaks to their point of view. And maybe "The New York Times" should be taking a look at itself rather than Lou Dobbs.

KURTZ: Eric Deggans, Dobbs for years was a conventional business anchor, but do you believe in recent years that he became more of a crusader than a journalist?

DEGGANS: I think it's obvious and I could not disagree more with your previous panelist's assertions. It became obvious that Lou was pressing this world view about illegal immigration being at the root of a ton of evils in America, and I think a lot of his conclusions were debatable.

"60 Minutes" exposed that he had said things about illegal immigrants causing a rise in leprosy in the United States that just could not be backed up. And he's also made assertions of the criminality of illegal immigrants that statistics just don't bear out. So opinions are one thing, but to be unfair and to make assertions that are not true or to exaggerate using selective data, that is just not something that's very ethical and very fair or anything that helps anyone.

KURTZ: David Zurawik, whether Dobbs was opinionated on the left or the right, he was a very opinionated guy in recent years. CNN doesn't style itself as that kind of operation. Could they have continued this sort of uneasy co-existence?

ZURAWIK: No, it's impossible. You know, by July I think I was writing he's a liability, you have to get rid of them. And even, Howie, forget the larger sense. Just in a business sense, in terms of the CNN brand, Dobbs was a disaster with the birther controversy this summer, first of all, cut against it.

And secondly, you know, CNN has "Latinos in America" coming out, really fine series that they had with Soledad O'Brien. At the same time, they're being protested by Latino groups because of Dobbs' positions. How can you function that way? Listen, I think Jonathan Klein has made a really important stand with this culture with the kind of news he's trying to do.

KURTZ: Just to clarify, CNN president Jon Klein said that he had asked Dobbs several months ago to take the opinion off his program and Dobbs had largely complied. But Lou ultimately was unhappy and decided to cut the cord.

PLANTE: That's why he's gone. Let's boil it down to the facts here. It's not that Campbell Brown is completely neutral. Anderson Cooper is completely neutral. Larry King is completely neutral.

KURTZ: Wait, let me finish the question. Are you suggesting that those hosts lean to the left?

PLANTE: Yes, I am.

KURTZ: In anything like the degree that Lou Dobbs?

PLANTE: So it's a matter of degrees? It's also a matter of bounty. It's also a matter of what the reality -- of course, you're not.

ZURAWIK: Of course I don't because it's a fact, that's why I don't agree with you! I couldn't --

PLANTE: And the news media -- I'm supposed to be the radio talk show host and you're the newspaper guy here. In Washington, we've got a chief White House correspondent for CBS News Chip Reid who was a former employee on Capitol Hill of Joe Biden. We've got a senior White House correspondent of NBC News who was a former staffer for Tom Harkin.

KURTZ: Let's stick to CNN.

PLANTE: We have a senior Washington correspondent for ABC News who is a Clinton administration official. David Axelrod is a former "Chicago Tribute" reporter. We've got Jay Carney leaving his job at "Time" magazine to go to work for this administration. Look, the pattern is clear, everybody knows it except you guys, you know?

KURTZ: What does it is say about CNN? None of those people work at CNN.

PLANTE: It's the news media as an industry and as a company, the last conservative voice on the channel is gone. They had Glenn Beck, he's gone. They had him, now he's gone. Lou Dobbs is gone.

DEGGANS: Is it possible for someone else to break here?

KURTZ: I'm going to let you break in, but I want to play some sound for you, and then tee it up for you. Zurawik mentioned the birther controversy that really erupted over the summer, was President Obama really born in this country? Lou had some things to say on that, too. Let's roll the tape.


DOBBS: We've been reporting on the accusations widespread on the Internet that President Obama wasn't actually born in the United States and therefore some believe he's not eligible to be president. It's out there. There are those who claim that he was born, Dom, in a different country. The president, obviously, all he has to do is just produce the original birth certificate in Hawaii and be done with it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: And unlike illegal immigration, Eric Deggans, where a lot of people in this country feel passionately against that, this birth thing is pretty fringe stuff.

DEGGANS: Yes, and it's surprising, if you actually look at the ratings for his show, they really took a hit when he started talking about the birther controversy. I think it's obvious that he started to go further and further out on a limb with some of these conspiracy theories and he left some of his viewers behind.

I would also note that the problem with opinionated anchors isn't the opinion, it's when they are not accurate. It's when they say things that are false. It's when they say things that are not fair. That's when there's the biggest problem and we've seen this over and over again with certain news outlets and I think that was Dobbs' biggest problem and what drew the biggest protest. And I'll also say Diane Sawyer is about to become the top anchor on ABC News and she once worked for the Nixon administration.

PLANTE: It's been 30 years.

DEGGANS: It's obvious that there are lots of people in journalism who used to work in politics on both sides of the aisle and what you have to do is look at their work and not look at where they came from.

PLANTE: Right, OK, well, I've got to say, this is an essentially an attack on Lou Dobbs. Let's call it what Lou Dobbs said. Lou Dobbs raised a question. I saw him raise questions that a lot of people are asking out there. Do you know who Chiyome Fukimo is, either one of you?

ZURAWIK: Chris, if a lot of people are asking the question, they weren't watching him. This is not some ratings juggernaut. Lou Dobbs was finishing third in his time period. This was not some great populous groundswell of support for what he was doing.

PLANTE: Based on that standard, there are a lot of other anchors who would be gone, too, aren't they, but they're not gone, are they?

Exactly. After all, CNN's prime time shows are often in third place behind Fox and MSNBC.

A look at Tuesday's numbers makes Deggans and Zurawik's point about Dobbs' ratings rather absurd:

7PM - P2+ (25-54) (35-64)
The Fox Report w/ Shep -2,444,000 viewers (605,000) (1,151,000)
Lou Dobbs Tonight-879,000 viewers (208,000) (356,000)
Hardball w/ C. Matthews-711,000 viewers (198,000) (358,000)
Kudlow Report - 132,000 viewers (60,000) (81,000)
Issues- 679,000 viewers (263,000) (389,000)

8PM - P2+ (25-54) (35-64)
The O'Reilly Factor- 3,938,000 viewers (1,078,000) (1,903,000)
Campbell Brown - 786,000 viewers (190,000) (315,000)
Countdown w/ K. Olbermann - 1,207,000 viewers (374,000) (538,000)
Big Mac: Inside McDonalds - 200,000 viewers (94,000) (106,000)
Nancy Grace - 970,000 viewers (393,000) (520,000)

9 PM - P2+ (25-54) (35-64)
Hannity -2,534,000 viewers (739,000) (1,279,000)
Larry King Live -1,690,000 viewers (668,000) (768,000)
Rachel Maddow Show -995,000 viewers (267,000) (404,000)
Executive Vision 2 - a scratch w/70,000 viewers (a scratch w/47,000) (a scratch w/44,000)
Joy Behar- 551,000 viewers (184,000) (258,000)

So, on the night before he resigned, Dobbs was actually second in his time slot.

By contrast, Campbell Brown was third in hers, with less viewers than him!

So, as Plante said, this certainly wasn't about ratings.  

ZURAWIK: Chris, this is also about trying to run a news organization. Jonathan Klein fired a nice shot across his bow back in July. If an editor did that to me, I would stop being a hot dog gas based stop off guy like Lou Dobbs and I might think about reining it in. You can't run a news organization with somebody --

PLANTE: You represent -- you're a media writer for a newspaper, for a Baltimore newspaper and you represent the mainstream news media point of view.

ZURAWIK: Which is what? PLANTE: And this goes right to my point. Howard, you know that every survey --

ZURAWIK: I think that is the mainstream point of view. PLANTE: You know that every survey that's ever been taken involving the politics of the news media finds it between 85 and 95 percent of the news media votes Democratic, goes along with the liberal agenda and newsrooms are stocked with this point of view. Now --

KURTZ: I want to come back to your point, do you contend that Campbell Brown and Larry King and Anderson Cooper, that their programs are built around their personal opinions to the extent that "Lou Dobbs Tonight" was?

PLANTE: Now you're going by a different standard.

KURTZ: It's what you do on the air.

PLANTE: Let me tell you something. I was having a conversation with a friend of mine in Washington, a longtime Washington journalist type and we were talking about a reporter that we both know who is very liberal. And my friend said, yes but I think that he does a great job of hiding it. The idea is not to have a room full of people who are hiding their political beliefs and failing, by the way. Lou Dobbs wore it on his sleeve and he at least put it out there. You knew where he stood unlike others.

KURTZ: Eric, I'm sorry that we have slighted you. Let's move the conversation to you can say whatever you want about Dobbs, but by naming John King, my colleague at "State of the Union" to take over the 7 p.m. slot that Dobbs has now vacated, is CNN doubling down on straight news and is that a good strategy?

DEGGANS: Well, of course it seems obvious that by replacing Dobbs with someone who doesn't present the opinions the way that he did, that there may be a return to more standard reporting and more objective analysis. But one of the things I wanted to talk about is I'm concerned that we're losing the forest for the trees here.

DEGGANS: One of the things that we've seen increasingly in modern -- in present years is the presentation of news that fits the world view of the audience that wants to watch it.

And when the news gets distorted to fit someone's world view, regardless of what that world view is, there's a problem. The problem with Dobbs wasn't necessarily that he was expressing conservative views; it was that he was distorting facts and distorting the situation to fit the world view that he wanted to present to his viewers.

And that's also a problem. You know, David and I have written about this as it relates to Fox News or as it relates to MSNBC, at times. When -- when the news is distorted to fit a world view to draw viewers, that's when we have a problem.

KURTZ: In fairness, Dobbs did correct some of those mistakes. And here is my two cents. I've been on Dobbs's program. He's been on this program. It's not about his opinions. He has a lot of them. He's a smart guy. He can say what he wants. It's about CNN wanted to be. And there increasingly was just a divergent path between Lou's opinionated approach to the world and CNN saying it was going to be -- it was going to market itself as the straight news network.

Now, I think a divorce was inevitable. Now Lou can run around the country, raise money, speak to groups, say whatever he wants on the face of the earth and CNN can get back to journalism.

I think CNN tries to be fair. Chris Plante may disagree -- former CNN correspondent, here -- but we're going to leave it there. David Zurawik, Chris Plante, Eric Deggans, thanks very much for joining us.

Video courtesy Story Balloon.