With Jonathan Klein Dismissal, CNN Finally Pushes the Panic Button

Despite the fact that his network's ratings have been languishing vs. Fox News and MSNBC for years, the timing of the firing of CNN U.S. president Jonathan Klein couldn't have been more peculiar. His dismissal comes only weeks before the beginning of his high-profile revamping of CNN's primetime -- the new 8 p.m. show featuring former New York governor Eliot Spitzer and conservative columnist Kathleen Parker is set to launch on Oct. 4; America's Got Talent judge Piers Morgan will start his new 9 p.m. show in the slot long held by Larry King after King leaves in December. Why entrust your new primetime to someone you were about to deep-six?

It seems even more peculiar when one considers that the replacement had been sitting in CNN's offices all along. The new leader of CNN U.S. -- although he will only have the title of executive vp -- is Ken Jautz, who had been heading up CNN's crime-and-celebrities sister network, HLN. Whatever you think of Nancy Grace (and Glenn Beck, who had an HLN show before he went to Fox News), they, and a few other prominent hires, have given HLN a personality -- and ratings that occasionally beat CNN. As one knock on CNN is that its non-partisan stance makes it bland, Jautz would seem an obvious choice to spice the place up. It's no mean feat to have taken what used to be called CNN Headline News -- which simply regurgitated the day's headlines every 20 minutes -- and turn it into something. That, essentially, is the challenge he'll face at CNN.

So what does it all mean? First, for Spitzer, Parker and Morgan, it means they should look at their jobs as temporary -- with only the potential of full-time employment.

More importantly, it also suggests a network that doesn't know where to turn. My suspicion is that the timing of Klein's firing -- on its surface -- has to do with nervousness over how the network would perform as the midterm election's draw near. But those, along with CNN's ratings failure and the need to revamp what CNN stands for, have been on the radar screen for a long time. Moving out Klein, weeks before the new schedule with his imprimatur starts to roll out, suggests something more dramatic. It suggests panic.

(BTW, if you want to see great corporate obfuscation at work, read the official memo about Klein's departure part way down in this story in The New York Times story. Its author, CNN worldwide president Jim Walton, finally gets around to mentioning that Klein is leaving in the fifth out of six paragraphs.)