The insertion of John King to replace veteran anchor Lou Dobbs cements a long-term CNN strategy to toe the center line.
King, a CNN newscaster and reporter for 12 years, will take over for Dobbs early next year with a 7 p.m. weekday show focused on politics.
“John embodies what we are striving for at CNN — he is steadfast in his objective and nonpartisan political reporting and has the passion for chasing down stories that really matter to Americans,” CNN President Jon Klein wrote in an e-mail message to colleagues, obtained by The New York Times.
King, in a phone interview Thursday, said he was told a few days ago he might replace Dobbs.
“I won’t take sides,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of fun. I’ll steer the conversation, not dictate it. We want it to be fair, objective, interesting.”
“There’s room for everybody,” he said. “If people don’t have a pre-formed opinion on something and want to learn about it, they should come to us.”
Dobbs, originally a business reporter and analyst for CNN, increasingly incorporated opinion into his show, spouting thoughts that polarized audiences on topics ranging from illegal immigration to outsourcing.
In the spring, Dobbs would usually finish second among the four cable news stations, well behind perennial leader Fox News. In recent months, he’d also fallen behind MSNBC’s Chris Matthews.
“If you can pull in big enough numbers while drawing fire, you can survive,” said Michael Castengera, a senior lecturer at University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism.
But Dobbs wasn’t creating an appreciable ratings bump. During the week of Oct. 26, a relatively quiet news week, Dobbs at 7 p.m. grabbed an average audience of 586,000 viewers; lagging behind Chris Matthews on MSNBC, with an average of 666,000 viewers, and Fox News’ Shepard Smith, with 1.9 million viewers.
Bob Furnad, a former CNN executive who retired in 2001, doubts King will make much difference in terms of CNN’s ability to grow ratings or revenue.
“I don’t believe John’s got star power,” Furnad said. “He’s not memorable.”
In fact, Furnad is critical of CNN’s entire prime time lineup, which finished behind the three other major cable news networks among 25- to 54-year-olds in October for the first time.
He thinks CNN needs to come up with a slogan as powerful as Fox’s “fair and balanced” and bring back “Crossfire” with equally compelling personalities on the right and the left.
Bobbie Battista, a former CNN anchor, said her old employer is “between a rock and a hard place.”
“The journalist in me absolutely believes in what they’re doing, that it’s the best strategy to be the most trusted network,” she said. “The programmer in me is saying, ‘Wow! That’s going to be tough to win.’ ”