Jon Kleins contract at CNN had recently been extended by several years. (Mark Lennihan / Associated…)
Jon Klein, president of CNN's U.S. operations, was fired just weeks after putting the finishing touches on a new nighttime lineup for the cable news channel that was aimed at reversing years of declining ratings and bolstering its position against upstart MSNBC and industry leader Fox News.
Klein's departure comes just weeks after ABC News President David Westin announced his resignation and is the latest shake-up in a television news business struggling to adapt to a rapidly changing media landscape that increasingly values advocacy and partisanship over news and analysis. Although CNN's ratings rose during times of crisis, it was challenged to compete on a day-to-day basis with other cable channels that relied primarily on lively opinion-driven talk shows.
Tapped to once again try to reinvent CNN is Ken Jautz, who most recently oversaw the revamping of HLN, CNN's sister channel formerly known as Headline News. Under Jautz's watch, HLN has seen its ratings grow, but its reputation as a traditional news channel suffered because of some of its tabloid-style shows such as " Nancy Grace." It was Jautz who first put Glenn Beck on television on HLN, before the controversial personality left for Fox News.
Although Jautz has become known as the man who made HLN into the New York Post of cable news, he is a veteran journalist and former foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. In an interview, Jautz said CNN will "stick to its nonpartisan programming philosophy," but was quick to add that the network needed a shot of adrenaline.
"We have to be more exciting…. In order to engage the prime-time audience, you need to provide them something more," Jautz said. That means, he explained, CNN will start to have more opinion seeping into its content but will do it in an "inclusive manner."
Jautz will inherit a new slate of nighttime programming largely engineered by his predecessor. Piers Morgan, a British television personality best known as host of NBC's "America's Got Talent," will replace Larry King and take over CNN's 9 p.m. slot in January. And former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned amid a sex scandal, will co-host a political chat show with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker.
Former CNN anchor Aaron Brown said he didn't believe that putting Jautz in the top role at CNN would necessarily mean the network would lean toward tabloid-style coverage.
"Ken's a solid guy; he was given a charge when he took over Headline News and he executed it," Brown said.
Although his future at CNN had been the subject of speculation inside media circles for years, Klein had recently been given a vote of confidence by CNN Worldwide President Jim Walton, who extended Klein's contract by several years.
In a conference call Friday morning, Walton said, "We're not satisfied with the low ratings." That comment contrasted sharply with Walton's remarks about declining ratings and Klein's future in April.
"It's not as dire as some people say," Walton said at that time in an interview.
There seemed to be little gloating at Fox News over Klein's ouster.
"Jon is a respected journalist…. We've enjoyed competing with CNN during his tenure," Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes said.
Klein's exit led to speculation that Phil Kent, president of CNN parent Turner Broadcasting — a unit of Time Warner Inc. — supplied the push that finally ousted Klein. But a Turner spokeswoman denied that Kent played a part in the decision and issued a statement from Kent saying he was "in full support of his newly announced organizational structure and leadership team."
Klein was caught off guard by his dismissal. "I don't really understand the timing," he said in an interview, adding that letting him go before the network's new shows premiere is like being a baseball manager who is "fired right before the playoffs."
Founded by flamboyant media mogul Ted Turner in 1980, CNN initially was designed to be a television version of all-news radio. The story, not the person reading on camera, was supposed to be the star. For years, it was a successful recipe. CNN rose into national prominence with its groundbreaking coverage of the first Gulf War, which featured Peter Arnett's breathtaking reporting of the bombing of Iraq. It put the cable news channel on the map much the same way Edward R. Murrow's coverage of the bombing of London did for CBS during World War II.
That all changed in the mid-1990s, when the Internet exploded as a viable platform for news and commentary, coinciding with the emergence of cable news rivals Fox News Channel and MSNBC. Fox's unabashedly politically conservative nighttime lineup found a huge audience and shook up the ratings. Although MSNBC has gained some momentum catering to political liberals, both it and CNN are far behind Fox News in terms of ratings.
"People don't need the news wheel anymore, they've got that at the touch of a mouse," said Frank Sesno, a former senior CNN executive who now is a professor at George Washington University. "CNN has been trying to find itself for a decade."
Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.