CNN News Group topper Walter Isaacson has downplayed ongoing reports that the network is in the throes of an ageist purge of its on-air lineup.
“I was somewhat baffled by all the stories,” Isaacson said of the turnover coverage. He spoke by satellite from Atlanta during the Television Critics Assn. press tour to the crowd assembled in Hollywood. Isaacson was joined by newsgathering prexy Eason Jordan and CNN U.S. general manager-exec VP Teya Ryan.
The CNN brass said that the recent churn — including the departure of at least six correspondents in recent weeks — does not rep a youth movement aimed at being more competitive.
Isaacson pointed out that the news org just hired investigative-justice reporter Mike Brooks — who is more veteran than spring chicken. CNN has hired a handful of people to fill slots for some vacancies created when contracts were not renewed and some staffers chose to leave.
CNN is bringing aboard at least four new correspondents, including Whitney Casey and Jamie Colby in New York, Brooks in Atlanta and Dana Bash at the White House.
“We’re looking for the most credible, serious journalists,” Isaacson told the critics.
Garrick Utley has decided against remaining with the network.
Bruce Morton also is considering a departure, although the news cabler has not asked him to leave. Jordan was very firm about the fact that CNN has not let go of Morton, whose contract ends later this month.
“We’re talking,” Morton told the Associated Press. “To say how it’s going to come out is a little early.”
Similarly, reports over the weekend had “Pinnacle” anchor Willow Bay possibly leaving the network after her two weekend shows were canceled.
It’s unclear what Bay’s future role will be at the net.
A CNN spokeswoman said Bay remains with the network but is on vacation and unavailable for comment.
CNN’s Ryan said the weekend is, in fact, one area of the network’s schedule that is due for change.
When asked whether Bay would participate, Ryan hedged, saying execs are still looking at the various personalities who will be involved.
The weekend will likely include more live coverage very soon.
“To use Teya’s phrase, we should be open for business more on the weekend,” Isaacson said.
The contracts of five others were not renewed at the end of 2002. They are Brooks Jackson, Allan Dodds Frank, Mark Potter, Bruce Francis and James Hattori (Daily Variety, Dec. 26).
CNN found itself in the uncharacteristic No. 2 spot when it fell behind Fox in the ratings last year. For 2002, Fox averaged 1.2 million viewers in primetime while CNN averaged 898,000.
Vote against VNS
Among other topics CNN brass addressed in their session at the Renaissance Hotel, Isaacson said he’s not a fan of network polling consortium Voter News Service.
If he had his druthers, the exec would use exit poll info solely to find out why people voted the way they did — not for projections. The networks are meeting this week about whether to scrap the collective news org project.
Isaacson also said he doesn’t know whether CNN and ABC — or any other news org, such as CBS News — ultimately will merge. It is a decision to be made by a “higher pay grade.”
If a deal does materialize, he said he hopes it is not run by one corporation or the other, but rather as a separate entity with “the best editorial integrity.”
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)