CNN Shift: Jon Klein on his dismissal: ‘It came out of left field’

By Gail Shister Comment

Getting shot as a way of being fired isn’t always a bad thing, says Jonathan Klein.

“It’s like a sudden ’Sopranos’ ending to your job,” says Klein, who earlier today had compared his sudden departure as CNN/U.S. president to getting shot.

“There’s something to be said for quick and painless. It was surprising, but certainly quick. There was no rancor associated it.”

During his six-year run, Klein was unable to stop the prime-time bleeding with non-partisan programming. Conversely, his replacement, HLN’s Ken Jautz, found great success by wrangling big-buzz opinion-makers Nancy Grace and Glenn Beck.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Klein says it is still possible for a cable news network to succeed in prime time without having a political spin a la Fox (right) or MSNBC (left.) The key is in finding the right talent.

“Other networks might be amusing or entertaining, but how many are truly essential viewing,” Klein says. “The challenge is to be interesting when you follow that non-partisan path and you really nail it. Then you become essential, like ’60 Minutes.’

“You need the right people in the right format. When CNN was at its best, we were essential viewing.”

Like other industry experts, Klein says the timing of his forced exit was unexpected, given that his new shows are about to launch – “Parker Spitzer” at 8 p.m. early next month and Piers Morgan at 9 in early ’11.

“It came out of left field,” says Klein, who has more than two years remaining in his contract. “I thought my reckoning would come a few months after the launches. I thought the judgment would be made on the quality of the shows and the ratings and the profits of the operation.

“I’m sure they had their reasons for doing what they did. If they decided to do it sooner, that’s completely legitimate.”

CNN remains committed to non-partisan programming, Klein says. Otherwise, management would have made its move earlier, before the new schedule was locked in, he explains.

Andrew Heyward, former president of CBS News and a long-time friend of Klein’s, characterizes CNN’s timing as “odd, with two big moves about to happen. On the other hand, I’ve learned that the only thing I’d be surprised about in television is no surprises.”

Now a news consultant, Heyward was at one time Klein’s immediate superior. Heyward has never consulted for CNN, he confirms.

While Heyward concedes that “colorful, interesting personalities are essential in prime time” in cable news, there is still a place for TV journalism “that takes on all comers and plays a watchdog role in keeping the public informed.”

“Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, for example, “keeps everyone honest, but he does it with humor and with superb research. I’m not suggesting he be a host at CNN, but he’s an honest, no-nonsense broker of news”

According to Tom Rosenstiel, director of The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, cable news hosts have gone from promoting an “argument culture” to what he labels an “answer culture.”

“They’re not moderating debate. They’re reassuring their audience that the way they view the world is still the way they believe. It’s a political affinity with the audience.”

That said, Rosenstiel says he can see a time when a raucous ‘Crossfire”-type show, hosted by “two titans,” could be a hit.

“There is social science research that suggests that people like a dogfight as a way to present information,” says Rosenstiel. “It may be depressing, but it’s true.”

It’s been a tough few weeks for network executives.

Just minutes after CNN’s announcement today, NBC/Universal said that top gun Jeff Zucker would leave when the Comcast deal is finalized. And ABC News president David Westin announced his exit Sept. 6.