Weighing In: An Anchor Tacks Toward Commentary
By JACQUES STEINBERG
Campbell Brown said she was sitting in a doctor’s waiting room on Sept. 23, scrolling through BlackBerry messages about Gov. Sarah Palin’s having been cordoned off from reporters at the United Nations, when the thought of drafting an impassioned, on-air commentary seized her.
“I didn’t even have a scrap of paper,” Ms. Brown, the CNN anchor, said on a recent afternoon. “I ripped something out of a magazine.”
Video of the self-described “rant” that she delivered later that night on her show, “Election Center” — the gist was that Ms. Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee, should be freed from overcautious and sexist handlers — became an Internet sensation.
And just as her earlier, on-camera grilling of Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for Senator John McCain, prompted Mr. McCain to cancel an appearance on “Larry King Live,” Ms. Brown’s plea to “Free Sarah Palin” has appeared to have had journalistic repercussions for CNN.
Unlike ABC, CBS and Fox News, CNN has yet to be granted an interview with Ms. Palin, a distinction the network shares with MSNBC and NBC News, which have also run afoul of the McCain campaign.
Yet, after often laboring in relative obscurity since she began hosting “Election Center” in March, Ms. Brown said she was less concerned by any blowback than she was elated at finding a voice and identity for her program — and a means to be heard over the cacophony of prime-time cable news.
While her program has benefited from heightened interest in the presidential race, the theme she has fashioned for “Election Center” — she calls her mission to hold politicians and others accountable “No bias, no bull” — seems to have found more resonance with viewers than previous CNN efforts at 8 p.m.
From March 10 through Sept. 28, Ms. Brown’s program drew an average of 826,000 viewers a night. That was not nearly as many as “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” on MSNBC (about 1.1 million viewers) or “The O’Reilly Factor” on Fox News (2.7 million), according to Nielsen Media Research.
But Ms. Brown’s viewership is more than a third larger than those for “Paula Zahn Now” and an interim replacement, “Out in the Open,” on CNN during the same period a year earlier. On a few nights in September, according to a CNN analysis of Nielsen data, Ms. Brown even managed to surpass Mr. Olbermann, at least among viewers aged 25 to 54, whom advertisers most wish to reach.
The challenge Ms. Brown faces in her newfound outspokenness, though, is in distinguishing it from the loud advocacy of Mr. Olbermann (who often argues from the left in “special comments”) and Bill O’Reilly (who is typically more comfortable leaning right in his opening “talking points”). CNN, after all, has sought to build a brand for its journalism by positioning itself as objective, which would seem hard to reconcile with Ms. Brown’s increasingly expressing opinions of her own.
In an interview in her CNN office, wearing jeans, her laceless Converse All-Stars tucked beneath a desk as seemingly cluttered as the cable landscape, Ms. Brown went to some pains to try to separate her approach from that of her cable competitors.
“They’re partisans,” she said of Mr. O’Reilly and Mr. Olbermann in particular. “You’re not going to see me ever be partisan. I’ll never take a position on a candidate or an issue.”
(Also among those she counts as partisan, she said, is her husband, Dan Senor, a Republican analyst. He is an occasional Fox News analyst and a former military spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq.)
As evidence that her program is more down the middle than might at times be apparent, she argued that rather than attacking Mr. Bounds, she had persisted only in trying to get him to answer her questions. This included her insistence that he name any decision Ms. Palin had made as Alaska governor concerning the state’s National Guard unit.
David Doss, senior executive producer of “Election Center,” said that Ms. Brown can be as relentless with colleagues as she is with a reluctant guest.
“ ‘Come on, Candy, come on, John, come on, Roland,’ ” he said, stringing together Ms. Brown’s recent on-air proddings to Candy Crowley, John King and Roland Martin, all of CNN. “She is horrible to work with,” Mr. Doss added, laughing. “She challenges everyone.”
In response to the many viewers who posted messages at cnn.com complaining that her “Free Sarah Palin” monologue was unfair to the McCain campaign, Ms. Brown cited an array of other reports on “Election Center” — many of them by Tom Foreman and Joe Johns under the heading of a “No bias, No bull report card” — that had been skeptical of Senator Barack Obama, Mr. McCain’s Democratic rival.
For example, after showing a clip on Sept. 22 in which Mr. Obama asserted that “if my opponent had his way, the millions of Floridians who rely on it would have had their Social Security tied up in the stock market,” Mr. Foreman made the following observation: “Well, Campbell, if retirees are afraid John McCain wants to take away their checks as Obama suggested, they need to know that it’s just not true.”
Ms. Brown, 40, does concede that the kind of journalism she is now doing at CNN is less traditional than that taught at journalism schools — or, for that matter, practiced by her previous employer, NBC, which assigned her to cover the Bush White House and, later, to be a host of “Weekend Today.” (She had been regarded as a candidate to succeed Katie Couric as a host of “Today,” and left the network several months after the job went to Meredith Vieira.
“As journalists, and certainly for me over the last few years, we’ve gotten overly obsessed with parity, especially when we’re covering politics,” Ms. Brown said. “We kept making sure each candidate got equal time — to the point that it got ridiculous in a way.”
“So when you have Candidate A saying the sky is blue, and Candidate B saying it’s a cloudy day, I look outside and I see, well, it’s a cloudy day,” she said. “I should be able to tell my viewers, ‘Candidate A is wrong, Candidate B is right.’ And not have to say, ‘Well, you decide.’ Then it would be like I’m an idiot. And I’d be treating the audience like idiots.”
So what happens to “Election Center” after the election?
Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN domestic networks, said Ms. Brown had laid claim to the 8 p.m. weeknight slot on CNN, and would be expected to apply the same magnifying glass to the new administration and Congress.
Also, having worked so far at CNN without her name on any marquee, Ms. Brown also stands to get something of a promotion. Acknowledging that “New Administration Center” might not cut it as a title, Ms. Brown said, “It’ll probably be called ‘Campbell Brown something.’ ”