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CNN Chairman Makes News With Resignation

Walter Isaacson's decision to join a think tank comes at a crucial time for the AOL unit.

January 14, 2003|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Walter Isaacson abruptly resigned Monday as chairman and chief executive of CNN News Group after just 18 months, a period during which he oversaw an overhaul of the cable news network, but was unable to stop rival Fox News Channel from surpassing it in the ratings.

Isaacson, 50, had contemplated leaving CNN last year, sources said. But recently, according to associates, he seemed to be settling into his new role as a television executive. Isaacson is a former managing editor of Time magazine, which like CNN is part of AOL Time Warner Inc.

During a conference call with reporters, Isaacson said he "loved the journalism," but was less comfortable with the management responsibilities that accompanied his post. He said he was not pressured to leave.

Isaacson's resignation comes one day after AOL Time Warner Chairman Steve Case said he would step aside in May.

Isaacson will become president and chief executive of the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank focusing on environmental and economic issues. His deputy, Jim Walton, a 22-year CNN veteran, will succeed Isaacson at CNN News Groups, overseeing CNN/U.S., CNN Headline News and international operations.

Company executives said that by turning to an insider, the transition would be "seamless." Eason Jordan, also a 22-year CNN veteran, will remain in charge of news gathering.

Some AOL Time Warner executives said Isaacson and CNN were not a good match. "They did not appreciate him and he did not appreciate them," said one company executive in Atlanta, where the news operation is based. What's more, Isaacson reportedly chafed at having to manage high-profile on-air stars.

And although Isaacson had solid journalistic credentials, not all CNN staffers took to his New York swagger.

Isaacson's family never moved to Atlanta from the New York suburbs. During the week, sources said, he frequently would express unhappiness at being away from them.

In a letter to the CNN staff, Isaacson said the timing of his departure was "not perfect," but said he agreed to stay on until late spring because of the threat of war with Iraq.

"Had it not been for the war I might have gone sooner," Isaacson added in an interview. He said the potential merger of CNN and Walt Disney Co.'s ABC News and the inevitable questions of management control were "completely irrelevant" to his decision. Some sources said he had been assured of a top job at any combined entity.

Still, Isaacson's departure could lead to more stress at the news organization, at least temporarily. CNN is feeling the pressure of competing with Fox as it gears up for costly coverage of a possible war between the U.S. and Iraq. And employees are worried about potential job cuts if CNN merges with ABC News.

Jamie Kellner, who oversees CNN as chairman of AOL Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting, said CNN won't make major strategic changes and would continue to build on its successes of the last year. He cited ratings increases despite the competition and touted an improved on-air look and journalism.

Among the changes Isaacson brought to the network were the launch of "American Morning with Paula Zahn," as well as new evening interview shows anchored by Connie Chung and Aaron Brown, both of whom left ABC News for CNN. In his farewell letter to employees, he said CNN programming "is in a different league than it was a few years ago."

In fact, despite being eclipsed by Fox, CNN's ratings have stayed substantially higher than they were before Isaacson arrived, partly because of increased interest in the news after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

CNN's new leader, Walton, who ran the short-lived CNN/Sports Illustrated network and later oversaw CNN's domestic networks, said he doesn't see "any major changes" coming. He said he will continue to overhaul CNN's weekend programming and look at what the news operation can provide for AOL's broadband offerings.

Times staff writer Sallie Hofmeister in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Veteran Time Man Moves On

Walter Isaacson

Position: Resigning as president and chief executive of AOL Time Warner's CNN News Group

Age: 50

Education: B.A., Harvard University, 1974; M.A., Oxford University, 1976

Career highlights:

Reporter for Sunday Times of London, 1976-1977

Joined Time magazine as reporter, 1978

Time associate editor, 1981-1984

Time, other top editor positions, 1985-1993

Editor of New Media, 1993-1995

Time managing editor, 1995-2000

Time editorial director, January 2001 to July 2001

CNN News Group head, July 2001-present

New position:

President and chief executive of the Aspen Institute

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