Walter Isaacson

From Journalism to “Informed Dialogue”, Part I

VTR Date: March 12, 2003

Guest: Isaacson, Walter


The Open Mind
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Isaacson
Title: From Journalism to “Informed Dialogue,” Part I
VTR: 3/12/03

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And when today’s guest first began to join me on the air fairly regularly on a series called “From The Editor’s Desk”, a sort of poor man’s Meet the Press, it was the Fall of 1981, Ronald Reagan was our new President and my guest was a snappy young Associate Editor at Time magazine, out of New Orleans, a Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard College and Oxford University.

Later, Water Isaacson attained the eminent journalistic positions of Managing Editor of Time magazine and then Editorial Director of Time, Incorporated, and eventually was named Chairman and CEO of CNN.

Now he takes up new responsibilities as President and CEO of the distinguished Aspen Institute where he will preside over the Institute’s mission of seeking answers to society’s most vexing problems through informed dialogue and inquiry.

That he’ll be very much at home in such an intellectually satisfying setting of course is warranted by Walter Isaacson’s other life, as an accomplished historian and biographer. Indeed he’s joined me here on The Open Mind to discuss first his brilliant The Wise Men, Six Friends and The World They Made about America’s political and intellectual aristocracy at the time of the Second World War and afterwards.

And then his provocative book on Kissinger, about which Robert Caro said, “If there weren’t such a word as ‘riveting’, it would have to be invented.”

Well, now, indeed, I’m going to extort a promise also that Walter Isaacson return to The Open Mind when his new book on Benjamin Franklin appears. For I’ve just read his wonderful introductory chapter and all I can say is, “More, more.”

However, first, let’s talk about the world of journalism, of Time and CNN and then about the Aspen Institute.

First about the world of journalism. In a sort of reverse way, Walter, do you expect the standards that you will bring to Aspen will be somewhat different from the standards, the expectations, the way of life that you learned about in journalism?

Isaacson: Well the good thing about Aspen is you get to step back for a second, reflect. You know, try, try to look at things in a longer term, more thoughtful manner. You, yourself, were for a long time a Moderator of the Aspen Executive Seminars. We keep doing those, but we’re also going to look at conflict resolution in the Middle East and many other problems. And for me, instead of having an hourly deadline, or a weekly deadline, it’s going to be good to be able to think, think ahead a little bit.

Heffner: What about the way then that you…MmmHmmm…and I’ll take you as a reporter in your earlier years, then as Editor …

Isaacson: MmmHmmm.

Heffner: And then as Times Editor … didn’t you bring perspective and time enough and wisdom enough to your journalistic endeavors.

Isaacson: [Laughter] None of us ever bring enough wisdom or enough time to journalistic endeavors. We try and, you know, one of the things Time magazine did, and I hope CNN did, as well, and which I’d like to do is try to put things into a context … say “Here’s a historical context”, even now is where our dealing with the situations in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf to, to understand that this is part of a larger context of America’s role in the world.

We, as journalists don’t do that as well as we should. It’s one reason I got interested in history, I started writing about history when I was, I guess young as a journalist … because I felt that should be part of what journalism’s all about.

Heffner: And it’s not.

Isaacson: You know it’s not often enough part of what journalism’s about. I … you know, everything’s of the moment and we jump around too much and we’re covering almost as a pack journalist covering the latest hot thing and forgetting what happened a month or two months, much less a decade or two decades ago. But, you know, I think we can always try to keep some of that in journalism and I know I tried to when I was a journalist.

Heffner: How successful at CNN?

Isaacson: You know, I did not, to be candid, have a perfect fingertip feel the way you may for television. Television was a medium where, you know, I was a little bit more comfortable with the written word. And I enjoyed the journalism at CNN. I enjoyed the people I knew at CNN, but I think I may have left CNN in better hands now that its serious journalism, but also people who know a lot about television.

Heffner: What’s the difference? I mean you’ve learned now …

Isaacson: MmmmHmmm.

Heffner: … what is the difference between television journalism and print journalism?

Isaacson: Well, first of all, I think that television journalism; especially cable TV often thrives on the quick sound bites and the quick back and forth. One of the things that CNN has done well, however, is…is… it’s stuck to regular hard news reporting … telling narrative stories with good reporting. As opposed to the sort of quick talking head, shouting head, opinionated host type format that you see on other cable channels. I, I think that there are many differences between TV and print. The main one being TV is much more of the moment, whereas print, I think, can step back and be a little bit more reflective and a little bit less timely, which is its strength and its weakness of print.

Heffner: Being more of the moment, is it more of America?

Isaacson: Yeah. Well, I think … when news is happening, it’s very important … and CNN does it the best, of taking you there … of saying “come on, see it live, be there”. And CNN, when I was there, and now that I’m not there emphasizes “Live from …”, whether it’s “Live from Baghdad …” or “Live from” … anywhere in the world. That’s the strength of television, is you get to see it with your own eyes, you get CNN to take you there and you get to see it for yourself. Print is more of an intermediary. It’s somebody else has seen it and is then writing about it.

Heffner: Now you know I’m not confrontational … you know that from the programs we’ve, we’ve done with each other, even back at the old “From The Editor’s Desk”. What about the criticisms that have been leveled against CNN in terms of its competing now with Murdoch and the efforts to get, to hold on to ratings no matter what?

Isaacson: I think that’s a difficult problem and I think that CNN has decided, and decided about a year or two ago not to go the opinionated talk show route, which is sort of what the Fox News Channel and now MSNBC is and to stick, primarily to reported journalism. Now there are few talk shows on CNN and there’s some opinion. One show in particular … “Cross Fire” … but even as I was leaving CNN, we off “Talk Back Live”, which is more of a talk/opinion show, and replaced it with “Live From …”, so I think that the main direction of CNN has been and will always be, to be more journalistic, more reported and less opinionated than the other cable networks.

Heffner: Why?

Isaacson: Because I think that that’s the core mission. It’s what CNN does best; it’s got 40 bureaus around the world, that more than all cable and broadcast TV networks combined. And so the comparative strength of CNN is it’s had a Bureau in Baghdad for 12 years. It’s had Bureaus in, you know, four places in Africa and six places in Europe and 40 places around the world. So I think that the world needs good, solid reported journalism. And that’s CNN’s specialty. And it’s important that CNN not move away from that specialty and try to do what the opinionated talk show route is.

Heffner: What do you think they’re thinking over at Fox … that their mission is opinion?

Isaacson: I think that at Fox …

Heffner: And dispute?

Isaacson: You know I don’t want to speak for Fox … I think they have a very good formula … I think it’s a smart formula. I think the formula is a little bit more con…controversial, a little bit more dispute oriented, a little bit more opinion oriented … they certainly don’t have Bureaus around the world in the same way that CNN does, but they are livelier and more entertaining in terms of having very provocative, controversial, opinionated hosts on the air.

Heffner: Does that get them the ratings?

Isaacson: Oh, yeah. You get good ratings that way … talk radio gets good ratings. I think not all rating points are equal. I mean …I don’t you know … with all due respect to Fox or anybody else, the best things on cable in terms of ratings are championship wrestling. But that’s doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the most profitable, or the best shows. And one of the things we had to do at CNN … and Jim Walton and Eason Jordan and Teya Ryan who took over CNN after I left are very good at that, cause they were real purists about their journalism, is to realize that all ratings points aren’t equal, that, that you … if you can draw a high quality, well-informed audience who want informational, journalistic type programming, you know, that will get you better advertisers, and will get you a better image and will help you in the long run. So I think it’s fine what Fox, MSNBC, and for that matter, all of the other broadcasts that other networks do. But I think it’s particularly good that CNN has stuck to what its core competence and core mission is, which is to mainly be people out there without opinions trying to report what’s happening in the world.

Heffner: What do you mean “without opinions”?

Isaacson: I mean that a Bill O’Reilly is there, and you tune in a Bill O’Reilly and he’s smart, and he’s pretty good. But you tune into Bill O’Reilly to hear what Bill O’Reilly has to think about the French, about Baghdad, about capital punishment, about abortion, school prayer … whatever. When you tune in a Nick Robertson, who’s in Baghdad or a John King at the White House. They may have their own opinion. But I tell you, having worked with Nick Robertson and having worked with John King and having worked with a lot of the great correspondents at CNN, I have no idea what their political leanings are. I have no idea whether they vote or whether they vote Democrat or Republican.

You don’t tune in to hear John King’s opinion. You tune in because John King is very good at reporting what’s happening at the White House that day.

Heffner: But CNN was criticized, has been criticized, for being too liberal. And then you’ve been criticized for trying to make amends for that by going to Conservatives and saying, “Hey …

Isaacson: I think we should be balanced. I think CNN should listen to both sides. I certainly listened to Republicans as well as Democrats when I went to Capitol Hill or anywhere else. I think that it is the mission of CNN … and everybody’s got some political thoughts or whatever. But it’s the mission of CNN to try as hard as possible to always be balanced, to always…be non-opinionated, to the extent that our reporting is just straight down the middle. That’s not always possible, but I think whenever somebody at CNN sees bias, they try to stop it.

Which is different from shows, whether it be, you know, MSNBC’s Michael Savage Show, or… the Bill O’Reilly Show or others, where you actually tune in because you want to hear the opinion of the host.

Heffner: And the person who tunes in, and the person who watches, looks for this kind of controversy, their number must be legion and growing in this country.

Isaacson: Oh, I think that there is a real appetite for talk radio. It’s been that way for 20 years and growing. There’s a real appetite for opinionated television on cable, and certainly Fox’s audience as been growing. And I think that’s a great formula. I think the good thing about CNN is that it decided that even though that might be a, a good way to get more ratings, it probably wasn’t the best journalistic model. And not even the best business model for a CNN, that CNN ought to stick with its journalistic mission.

Heffner: Can it be competitive?

Isaacson: It’s very competitive. CNN is by far the most profitable of all the networks. It had, it continues to grow its audience. Its audience is 40% higher than when I started there two years ago. It continues to get most of the advertising revenues. So it’s a very profitable way to do things. As you know the highest rated shows aren’t necessarily the most profitable shows. And I think it will always be a good business … CNN … especially if it sticks as Jim Walton and Eason Jordan and Teya Ryan planned to do to its core journalistic mission.

Heffner: You think that was true, switching a bit, of CBS News, that it stuck to its core mission? That news on network television, it shifted from the old Edward R. Murrow days … did they do the right thing …

Isaacson: Well, I hate to say it …

Heffner: … wrong thing?

Isaacson: … having worked for two or s…two or three years at CNN and there are about 17 networks I watch all the time, all of which are CNN, be it “Headline News” or Airport, or CNN/FN or CNN/International, or CNN/US … and I didn’t sound that much time watching CBS, ABC and NBC … I’d flick around and see them. So I can’t make strong judgments. I think CBS has good, core journalistic values. I think that’s true of ABC and NBC, all have good core journalistic values. I think they have cut back so they’re trying to cover the world with two or three correspondents instead of the a hundred or so correspondents that CNN has covering the world. And that’s inevitable because they need to save money. I think CNN is able to do what it does cause it’s got international networks, it’s got networks in Asia, in Europe …so you can have people based all around the world and we’ve been trying to protect that news gathering from around the world.

So what distinguishes CNN not only from the other cable channels, but also the other broadcast networks, is it’s the one that’s still out there with real journalists covering the world.

Heffner: But when you talk about the networks cutting back, you say “it’s inevitable”. When I was at CBS news was a loss leader, there didn’t seem to be anything inevitable … in fact, more and more and more money was being spent because the mission of broadcasting seemed to be, to some considerable extent, journalism. And that journalism required that investment.

Isaacson: Yeah, those were perhaps the good old days. Obviously most news outlets are now owned by corporations that…owe a responsibility to the shareholders, whether it’s Viacom or Disney or AOL Time/Warner or NewsCorp or any of them. I guess it would be great to have a system where news could continue to lose money. But I’m not sure, and this is a complicated question … but as Henry Luce taught those who founded Time, Inc. it is very good to have a market discipline. It is very good to be beholden to your viewers, or to your readers and not beholden to rich patrons or…owners. Or for that matter, to the government.

And I remember when I was at Time Magazine and when I was at CNN, you had to balance a lot because Henry Luce said that we were supposed to operate with two goals in mind. The public interest and the shareholder interest. So that made it a little bit more complicated. But it was nice to balance that. To say, “you know we’ve got to try to make a buck and we have to try serve the public interest”, because if you’re not disciplined by what does the viewer want, you can get pretty darn self-indulgent and that’s not good either.

Heffner: As you look at American journalism, news…today … do you see that same kind of balance?

Isaacson: Yes.

Heffner: We do?

Isaacson: Yes, I see it. I see that CNN has kept very much to a public mission. And for that matter I think the people at most of the TV networks have. I look at some of the newspapers … the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe … these are glorious newspapers that really do have a sense of public purpose and they probably could make more money by being more tabloidy, by being more opinionated, by being mi…more controversial, and by spending less covering stuff overseas.

I know that when I was at CNN, it would cost a lot of money to have Christian Amanpour spend a week in Saudi Arabia, with an in-depth series. And you could get higher ratings if there was a car chase happening somewhere in California, and it was on one of the satellite dishes and it was free. You could just pull it down from one of the affiliates, who was covering a car chase.

And you know the ratings would spike cause people would just sit there, glued to the set for a car chase. Or they’d sit there glued to the chase…to the set if you had some very opinionated person shouting his opinions. It’s sort of riveting. And it was certainly more costly to have an in-depth series from Saudi Arabia. But you do that balance and you’d keep the in-depth series from Saudi Arabia.

Just like the newspapers … as I said, the Times, the Post, the Journal and many of the other great newspapers of this country … USA Today … they do good reporting and they balance the public interest and the shareholder dollar.

Heffner: You talk about “balance”, on balance are those newspapers, that you mentioned, representative of American journalism?

Isaacson: Well, I think they do well because they do good, to use a Ben Franklin phrase …

Heffner: Ahaaaa …

Isaacson: … in other words, they’re profitable in the marketplace cause they have high quality. I think quality sells. I think people buy the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, or papers like that because they like high quality journalism. And that’s why CNN’s audience continues to grow, cause people want journalism they can trust.

Heffner: But Walter, my question has to do with whether these vehicles are representative of American journalism today. Or whether journalism has changed, whether they stand out and you pick them out because they reflect your standards and the standards you want to see.

Isaacson: Well, you know, in any given period you’ve had great journalism…

Heffner: You can be honest with me …

Isaacson: … in any given period you have great journalism, you have tabloidy journalism, you have bad journalism. You and I studied the period of the Revolutionary period … you wrote about the great documents. As you know, back then there were really horrible tabloidy, vicious papers that were written and there were some good newspapers in the 1770’s and 1780’s and 1790’s. They engaged in all sorts of libels, they also did some good reporting.

Back in the thirties and forties and when the Hearst papers were out there, there were some good papers and some bad papers. I actually do not think that there have ever been better papers than some of the best papers in America are now. That I don’t think there have been better papers than the Journal, the Times, the Globe, Washington Post … I think those are as good of newspapers as have ever existed.

Heffner: And you can conversely say, there certainly were in the past many papers that were as bad as the worst papers …

Isaacson: Right. And you look at the tabloids today … the tabloids today are actually no worse than the tabloids of the thirties or the twenties or for that matter of the 1810’s. And by the way I think CNN is doing the best journalism and the best reporting and the best coverage of this world internationally and domestically with the best trained, sharpest, smartest reporters than any news network has ever done.

Heffner: Question still is … what is the generality of American journalism like and has it changed. And you’re not going to say.

Isaacson: I think it’s actually gotten slightly better on balance from the days when there were really scurrilous yellow journalism and tabloid presses that had their own agendas. You know corporate journalism is bad in some ways cause it tries to squeeze the profits maybe more than a benign owner would. But sometimes those owners had their own political agendas. They were very, very … whether it be Colonel McCormick or William Randolph Hearst, or whoever it was … had strong political agendas and would slant and distort the news in ways that a corporation, whether it be, you know, Time, Inc. or NewsCorp, I mean, or will Time, Inc. or, or…or General Electric, whatever, would not necessarily slant the news as viciously or as openly as some of the old corporate owners would.

Heffner: After your experience in the electronic media, do you believe in the notion of the Fairness Doctrine?

Isaacson: You mean the, to have a government mandated broadcast networks must show both sides of any political campaign?

Heffner: Well, put it anyway you want. Cause as soon as you get into the “government mandated …” But, I’ll, I’ll …

Isaacson: You know …I have wondered, the Fairness Doctrine with the capital F …

Heffner: Yeah, I’ll, I’ll go along with … even with that …

Isaacson: I don’t think, I don’t think the government should mandate balance or fairness. I think that the marketplace should do it.

Heffner: Does it?

Isaacson: Well, the government used to have a…

Heffner: No, no, no. Does the market place …

Isaacson: Yeah. I think that’s why Fox popped up, because people thought the other networks were too liberal. Or the other papers were too liberal. That’s why at any given moment, if there’s magazines on the left and somebody wants a more conservative magazine, you’ll find a more conservative magazine pop up and vice versa. I think it’s really good to have that work instead of the government to say, “if you say this opinion, you must also give a chance to have that opinion.

Heffner: Yeah, but Walter, the fair…the concept of fairness isn’t designed to feather the nest of the speaker. It’s to help the listener, the viewer. It’s to…

Isaacson: Right. But do you want the government to say that everybody has to be fair on TV?

Heffner: Let’s leave out the question of “do you want the government …”

Isaacson: All right. Well shall … okay, so we say no, the government shouldn’t do it. Right?

Heffner: No, I, I did …

Isaacson: I would say no the government shouldn’t interfere with a newspaper. If I were running Time Magazine, they shouldn’t come in and tell me to be fair and to change things. And likewise, when I was running CNN, I don’t want the government coming in. So when you say, “A Fairness Doctrine”, who should do it? I think … what I said is the viewers and the readers should do it.

The great thing about America, especially in the digital age …is everybody’s got a remote control and got a mouse and got the chance to go to a newsstand and if you don’t like CNN you can click and you can get to MSNBC or Fox or ABC or NBC or anything else. And if you don’t like Time Magazine, you can go to The Economist, or People magazine or Newsweek, or US News or National Review or the Weekly Standard and the more choices people have, that’s the best way, I think, to have fairness in the media.

Heffner: Do you think it’s worked out that way?

Isaacson: And I think … yes … and I think it’s getting more that way because with the Internet more and more people have the chance to get their opinions out and it you don’t believe what you’re reading in the mainstream media, if you don’t like what you see in The New York Times, you can go right on the Net and pick out any point of view you want, or go to read the British papers or go read the Saudi papers … you can get “Al Jazeera” . If you don’t like any of the way the American networks are carrying, covering the Middle East … watch “Al Jazeera” or read it. So I think in this digital age when people have more and more choices, they go from the old days that we used to love, when there were only three networks and they would say, “that’s the way it is”, and they’d give you one half hour of news and that’s all you’d get and Cronkite would say, “That’s the way it is”, and then you’d be sent off to “I Love Lucy”.

Now you can get news all you want, whenever you want it, 24 hours a day and you’ve got a hundred choices easily enough for your news each day.

Heffner: I presume that that leads you to belief that we are better educated, more news…journalism … what’s going on in the world today literate than we were …

Isaacson: I think we certainly have more opportunities.

Heffner: … when CBS …

Isaacson: … now let me think through that whether people use those opportunities . For a long time people didn’t pay much attention to international news. I think now you certainly have more of a chance to get the news and information from around the world and I would guess that…the average person … not the intellectual elite or the people, you know, might normally talk to in our professions … the average person in America is better educated now about the world than at any other time in the past.

Heffner: Because, you feel, of the, the opposition of these… the oppositional nature of the presentation of this information?

Isaacson: No. I think because people have more and more choices, more and more opportunities to see things and to the extent that something piques their interest, they, they are able to pursue it. It’s a tough call, I don’t really know …

Heffner: How do you, if this were true, how would you explain what has been called, and you may not accept this, the “dumbing down” of America?

Isaacson: I do think that the discourse has gotten coarsened in America. I think cable TV sometimes coarsens the discourse. I felt, you know, struggling against it. And sometimes you make a compromise, I make a compromise and I’d feel a little bit bad about … that we coarsened the discourse a bit.

And I think television in particular, with all due respect to the medium, and this show is not part of the coarsening of America … just the opposite … but in general there has been… a little bit of a coarsening or, or “dumbing down” of American sensibilities. You know, with reality TV shows and everything else. So, I’m not a big fan of, of the way the popular culture was gone. That’s why I love writing books or being on shows like this. [Laughter]

Heffner: [Laughter] You say popular culture has gone and is going?

Isaacson: Yeah, I think so. I mean every now and then I’ll flip around the TV set and I’ll go, “Whoa, it’s gotten even worse.”

Heffner: So in the minute we have left in this program, cause I’m going to make you stay for another one, Walter, where does this optimism come from?

Isaacson: I do think that I believe that … I believe in democracy, I believe in people having choice, and I believe that the more choices you give them the more you can open things up, on cable … as I flip around and I get sort of appalled at “Joe Millionaire” or something and flip right past it, at least as I’m flipping around I realize, “Okay, there’s the History Channel and Arts and Entertainment and CNN and CNN/International and shows like this one”. There’s more and more opportunities to see, you know, biography and science, or whatever, or cultural arts on TV.

The fact that people have a hundred choices is better than when they had three choices. And in the end, I think it’s going to be good.

Heffner: And yet you still say things are coarsened. Walter, thank you for joining me today. Stay where you are and we’ll do another program. Okay?

Isaacson: Anything you say, Richard.

Heffner: Thanks, Walter Isaacson. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.