He’s become a publicity nightmare for CNN, embarrassed his boss and hosted a show that seemed to contradict the network’s "no bias" brand. And on top of all that, his ratings are slipping.
How does Lou Dobbs keep his job?
It’s not a simple answer. CNN insists it is standing behind Dobbs, despite calls for his head from critics of his reporting on "birthers" — those who believe President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States despite convincing evidence to the contrary. The "birthers" believe Obama was born in Kenya, and thus not eligible to be president.
Dobbs’ work has been so unpopular that even Ann Coulter has criticized him.
Dobbs has acknowledged that he believes Obama was born in Hawaii. But he gives airtime to disbelievers, and has said the president should try to put questions fully to rest by releasing a long version of his birth certificate. He’s twice done stories on his show after the public leak of a memo from CNN U.S. President Jon Klein saying that "it seems this story is dead."
Klein said those stories were OK because they were about the controversy and weren’t actually questioning the facts. But critics suggest Klein is parsing words, that even raising the issue lends it credence.
Joked The Washington Post’s Lisa de Moraes: it "explains their upcoming documentary: `The World: Flat. We Report — You Decide.’"
Dobbs hasn’t made it any easier by using his radio show to fight back at critics, who he called "limp-minded, lily-livered lefty lemmings." He considered going on CNN tormentor Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show to thank him (O’Reilly says the birthers are wrong, but he defended Dobbs’ right to talk about it).
"He’s embarrassed himself and he’s embarrassed CNN," said Brooks Jackson, a former CNN correspondent. "And that’s not a good thing for any network that wants to be seen as a reputable, nonpartisan news organization."
So who needs the headache?
Klein said Dobbs does a smart newscast that explores issues that get little in-depth attention elsewhere, such as trade with China, health care funding and the stimulus plan. He suggested Dobbs’ CNN work is unfairly lumped in with his unrelated radio show, and that he’s judged on the show he did a couple of years ago, when Dobbs became a political target for his campaigning against illegal immigration.
The two men sat down after last year’s election to make changes, aware that the anti-immigrant Dobbs’ image ran counter to the brand CNN was trying to create. CNN calls itself the network of unbiased reporting compared to conservative commentators on Fox and liberal ones at MSNBC.
Since then, Dobbs has been doing a relatively straight newscast, Klein said.
"He brings more than three decades of experience reporting and broadcasting the news," Klein said, "and that’s very valuable to a news network."
Through a spokeswoman, Dobbs said he would not comment for this story. But he is a CNN original. Except for a two-year break a decade ago, he’s been with CNN virtually from the network’s beginning. Much of that time was spent anchoring a business newscast that made him hugely influential in the business community and immensely valuable to CNN. Old-timers say the desire of advertisers to be connected with Dobbs and Larry King essentially funded the network for years.
Dobbs is considered among the smartest people at CNN, and also the most personally intimidating. For whatever reason — the rise of CNBC as a competitor or a sense that opinionated hosts were the future for cable news — Dobbs morphed from a business anchor to a polarizing populist.
That version of Dobbs seemed better suited for HLN, formerly CNN Headline News, which has an opinionated prime-time lineup led by Nancy Grace. But reruns of Dobbs’ show didn’t do well on HLN, which is more female oriented. Klein said he and Dobbs determined Dobbs was more valuable as a reporter than as a commentator.
The 861,000 people who tune into his 7 p.m. ET newscast on a typical night are down 20 percent from last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. He’s still ahead of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews in that hour.
"It’s very cutthroat," said Janet Keefer, a Drake University journalism professor and former CNN producer. "As long as he isn’t doing anything that’s driving viewers away, they’ll keep him."
Fear could be another factor keeping Dobbs and CNN together.
Dobbs has never been shy about fighting for his point of view. His feud with former CNN chief Rick Kaplan spilled out on the air in 1999 when he objected to having his "Moneyline" show pre-empted for a speech by President Clinton about the Columbine school shootings. "CNN President Rick Kaplan wants us to return to Littleton," he said. Dobbs soon left CNN and returned after Kaplan left.
With Dobbs hosting his own weekday radio show, the thought of him launching anti-CNN missiles every day has to be disconcerting.
It’s also not hard to imagine Fox News chief Roger Ailes coveting Dobbs as a prize for his struggling business news network, offering reports to the main news channel as well.
Organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and Media Matters for America have called for CNN to take Dobbs off the air; he’s proven a galvanizing and attention-getting force for his critics. At CNN, they’re hoping the controversy dies down with the heat of August.
For that, they’ll need Lou Dobbs’ help.
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David Bauder can be reached at dbauder(at)ap.org