‘I know the difference between journalism and a slogan. Keeping them honest is a slogan.’

By Gail Shister 

Twenty-seven years after suffering a heart attack he didn’t know was a heart attack, CNN exile Aaron Brown will undergo triple-bypass surgery today in Phoenix.

“Some part of me has known for a long time that at some point, the piper that is heart disease is going to get paid,” says Brown, 62, the Walter Cronkite Professor of Journalism at Arizona State. “This has been 27 years in the making.”

One night in 1984, when he was an anchor at Seattle’s KING, Brown didn’t realize that the pain he was experiencing was a heart attack. He did the late news, anyway, then was rushed to the hospital.

A week ago, after a routine stress test led to an immediate angiogram, Brown’s cardiologist told him he needed a bypass – stat.

While accepting his fate, Brown says he’s angry, too. He is a planner, and heart surgery was not in his plans. The situation is beyond his control. For Brown, that is a frightening place.

“If you’re a control freak, it’s hard to let go,” says Brown, forced out of CNN in 2005. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d be a 12. I’ve never faced anything quite like this. I find myself fighting to get control of it, but I know it’s not healthy for me. I’m trying so hard to let go.

“It sounds crazy, but I don’t recall ever having let go. In my childhood, I had to stay focused and in control, because so many people doubted me. I grew up in a little town [Hopkins,

Minn.], I never went to college. Physically, I’m more of a character actor than a leading man, and I wanted a leading man’s job. … I willed myself to success.”

The likelihood of a long recuperation has Brown equally miffed.

“It screws up a lot of things. I have kids to teach, things to do, golf games to play, friends to hang out with. All of it will be messed up, at one level or another, for months. What I think of as my normal life, which I love, won’t return until September.”

Maybe sooner. Brown told his students he’d be back for the end of the semester, in about a month. (He teaches two television-based courses.) Also, Brown says he’ll be at the graduation of Gabby, his only child, from Barnard in May.

On the subject of television, Brown says the abundance of international breaking news over the last month plays to CNN’s institutional strengths, but at the same time “masks its underlying weaknesses.”

“CNN can’t succeed in a world where people want news to be entertaining,” he says. “Bill O’Reilly is inherently more entertaining than anything CNN does. It’s more fun to see an action movie than read a book.”

What CNN does have, however, “is a world-class brand that would be the envy of any news organization in the world except, perhaps, the New York Times. It doesn’t win [the ratings], but maybe that’s not the most important thing.”

To Brown, journalism is the most important thing. And on that point, he doesn’t hold much respect for Fox News’ O’Reilly, ex-MSNBC star Keith Olbermann and others, labeling them as “skilled entertainers who use journalism as a canvas on which to perform.”

O’Reilly is “the least self-conscious guy in the world. He makes 30 million dollars a year and talks about himself as a populist. The only one better than O’Reilly is [Stephen] Colbert. He’s a better O’Reilly than O’Reilly.”

Fox News colleague Glenn Beck “sits around with a blackboard and says profoundly stupid things, and he gets two million people to watch him.”

At Brown’s alma mater, Elliott Spitzer bullied Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker off their fledging 8 p.m. show, Brown says.

“She’s an adult. He’s a child. He wasn’t interested in sharing the space. The weight of his personality blew her off the screen. He’s a big, bombastic cable person, but he gets his ass kicked by O’Reilly from here to the moon.”

Brown, a Parker fan, says he would have advised her against taking the gig. “It was dumb for her. She’s really smart and talented. She didn’t need it. Someone probably dropped a million dollars on her. I don’t think much of how CNN handled it.”

As for Anderson Cooper, Brown’s successor at CNN, he saves his best brickbat for last.

“I know the difference between journalism and a slogan. ‘Keeping them honest’ [tagline for Cooper’s ‘360’] is a slogan.”