"The rise of Fox News on the right and MSNBC's follow-up pincer movement on the left have trapped and isolated CNN inside its brand, desperate to find a way forward," says Gabriel Sherman in this week's New York cover story. Sherman talks with Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, recently ousted CNN President Jon Klein, and others, and dishes on how CNN and MSNBC are desperately "chasing Fox" and creating a "loud, cartoonish blood sport" out of the news in the process. Here are seven of Sherman's revelations about the cable news wars:
1. $500 million in profit proves things at CNN are not all bad
Ratings may have plummeted by 40 percent at CNN since last year, but against the odds, the network is still "surprisingly profitable," says Sherman. Thanks to its websites, high advertising rates, and international networks, CNN recorded a $500 million profit in 2009, its best ever.
2. CNN tried to poach Keith Olbermann
In 2006, Jon Klein, then president of CNN, nearly got Olbermann to ditch MSNBC. "One of the premises was we would have put MSNBC out of business," Olbermann tells Sherman. Luckily for MSNBC, Klein's bosses weren't keen on turning CNN "into an opinion network," so Olbermann stayed put.
3. Olbermann has some very eccentric communication habits
Although Sherman says rumors of Olbermann's eccentricities are "fueled by competitive jealousies," the MSNBC host is said to exhibit plenty of quirky behavior. Producers and co-hosts are warned not to mention him on Twitter, says Sherman, and he reportedly once asked producers only to communicate with him via written notes left in a small box outside of his office.
4. Fox and MSNBC had secret "truce" talks
Olbermann's feud with Fox News rival Bill O'Reilly reached such a fever pitch in 2009 that Jeff Zucker, then chief executive of NBC Universal, discussed a "secret truce" with Gary Ginsberg, a Rupert Murdoch adviser. Zucker was reportedly concerned about O'Reilly's attacks on General Electric Chief Executive Jeff Immelt. Olbermann says things have changed since then. "There's some fire that's gone," he tells Sherman. Glenn Beck is the target now.
5. Spitzer got his CNN gig despite "abysmal" testing
In initial tests for Eliot Spitzer's new CNN show, the former New York governor, who resigned in 2008 after a prostitution scandal, rated "abysmally" with viewers. But, it turned out, subsequent surveys showed the public liked his fervent anti–Wall Street views. Despite intense internal opposition, Klein eventually decided Spitzer was a gamble worth taking.
6. Maddow got a heavy-duty makeover in 2005
MSNBC President Phil Griffin didn't initially think Rachel Maddow would make it on network TV because she was gay, had short hair and glasses, and didn't wear makeup off-camera. Griffin ordered her an entire wardrobe of fresh pantsuits and blazers ahead of her 2005 debut.
7. Campbell Brown didn't pick enough fights to make it on cable
When Campbell Brown stepped down from her eponymous CNN show, she diplomatically cited her low ratings as reason for her departure. Behind the scenes, she was upset that Klein wanted her to "convey more emotion" and attack O'Reilly and Olbermann by name. The final straw came when Klein suggested she quiz a different congressperson on spending cuts each show. "I am not sure that picking a fight every night just for the sake of picking a fight is good journalism," she tells Sherman.