BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. After a tumultuous 18 month reign distinguished by layoffs, celebrity hires and sky-rocketing ratings of his cable news competitor, CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson announced this week he will leave the network in the spring to head the Washington-based Aspen Institute. He joins me now. Walter, welcome back to OTM!
WALTER ISAACSON: Thank you so much. It's good to be back!
BOB GARFIELD: When we spoke to you last, about a year and a half ago, shortly after you had joined CNN, you were talking about finding a way to present real news and real policy issues in a way that was engaging to the viewers, and you pointed -- this was in the thick of the wall-to-wall Chandra Levy coverage, which you were in my recollection a little defensive about, but you went on to talk about for example, the Aaron Brown program and the Jeff Greenfield program as a way to be engaging and smart on fairly complex issues. Well-- Aaron Brown is not getting a huge audience, and Jeff Greenfield's show is gone.
WALTER ISAACSON: The Aaron Brown show is the most serious, quirky, smart newscast around today. It's successful. It doesn't beat Bill O'Reilly in the ratings, but it gets very good advertising and does very well. I'm sorry we did not succeed with the Jeff Greenfield show. It's hard to do a half hour 11 p.m. show and make it successful on cable. I just wanted to avoid having that-- you know - the, the type of anchors that are there to shout at you in the CNN mix.
BOB GARFIELD:This is not quite an exit interview, because you still have a-- in all probability, a war to keep track of over the next few months but-- as you leave CNN or as you prepare to leave CNN, what went right during the Isaacson regime?
WALTER ISAACSON: There were two main things we tried to do in the past couple of years. The first was to keep CNN based more on reporting - real reporting and journalism - rather than the somewhat noisy opinion-type shows that you also find on cable. Secondly we wanted to take CNN from being a rolling news network to something that had real programs.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, that's what you did right. What did you screw up to a fair thee well?
WALTER ISAACSON:Well, you know, it's always hard to square the circle for me between the best possible ratings, which generally could be putting on a car chase, versus what I consider the best journalism, and you try to square that circle and sometimes you don't do it all that well, you don't get the mix exactly right. And we let everybody else define the terms of the battle, which is who got the best ratings last night. And I think that's not exactly the terms of the battle you want to have in journalism. We win if we're the most responsible, respected name in journalism and keep having a nice growing audience that attracts good advertisers, but we don't scramble and do everything possible for ratings.
BOB GARFIELD: The sniper case, which was a classic example of cable news overkill -- was that in effect a car chase?
WALTER ISAACSON:Those of you who sort of report on the media or immerse yourself in it may watch hours on end of a news channel, but we have to remember most of our viewers are coming in and out, so it doesn't -- you can't be off of a main topic cause people coming in to see, see what's really happening. I, I, I guess I'm getting a little defensive like I was a long time ago when we first talked. You know, on balance we probably should have had fewer talking heads speculating, but in terms of the reporting and the news, I think it was a very valid story to report about.
BOB GARFIELD:If all car chases all the time is the sure path to a big audience, can you guarantee that CNN of the future won't be all car chases all the time?
WALTER ISAACSON: You're right. If we wanted to get really good ratings, you wouldn't put Sheila McVicker in the Middle East doing investigative reports like she's doing -- you'd do all car chases all the time. But I think you can destroy the soul of a news organization if you're doing car chases instead of having people reporting from around the world. So we're going to continue to do that, and I think it works, because I think quality journalism, even if it doesn't get the best possible ratings, it does present that information environment that I think a lot of viewers and a lot of advertisers want.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Walter Isaacson, thank you very much, and best of luck to you.
WALTER ISAACSON: Well thank you so much. It was good talking to you.
BOB GARFIELD:For the next few months anyway, Walter Isaacson is the chairman of CNN, and he will be moving on to head the Aspen Institute in the spring. [MUSIC]