08.05.09

What Happened to the Real Lou?

Just how did a respected financial-news guru turn into an immigrant-hating, birther-supporting zealot? The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove reports. Plus CNN's former CEO on "good Lou," "bad Lou" and why Ted Turner would never let Dobbs do what he is doing today.

Polarizing CNN anchor Lou Dobbs is leaving the network. Just how did a respected financial-news guru turn into an immigrant-hating, birther-supporting zealot? In August, The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove investigated. Plus CNN's former CEO on "good Lou," "bad Lou," and why Ted Turner would never let Dobbs do what he is doing today. 

Lou Dobbs stepped away from the ledge this week, having spent the past month staring longingly into the abyss as he auditioned for a starring role in The Birther Conspiracy.

On Tuesday’s installment of CNN’s Lou Dobbs Tonight—where he has been stoking the phony controversy over whether President Barack Obama meets the constitutional requirement of being a natural-born U.S. citizen—Dobbs finally backed off.

“Oh, God! Don’t say ‘birthers,’ whatever you do—not on this broadcast!” Dobbs warned CNN political correspondent Candy Crowley after she’d described a White House strategy to brand health-care reform opponents as “birthers,” “crazy people,” and “wackos.”

“What’s the deal? What is the deal here?’ Dobbs asked last month. “I’m starting to think we have a document issue! You suppose [Obama’s] un—? No, I wouldn’t even use the word ‘undocumented.’ It wouldn’t be right.”

Dobbs giggled nervously, baring his teeth. He apparently has had his fill of near-universal opprobrium from the MSM, not to mention an official caution from CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein, who declared the birther story “dead” July 23 in a widely circulated internal memo.

“And by the way, you can say ‘birther’ whenever you want. It’s OK. It’s what you say after that that’s critically imp—” Dobbs added, interrupting himself mid-word with another sustained giggle.

Thus ended—on the night of Obama’s 48th birthday—what many saw as Dobbs’ campaign to cast doubt on the validity of the Obama presidency.

What a difference three decades make. In 1980, Dobbs launched his brilliant career as a whip-smart Harvard grad who practically invented television business news at the fledgling cable network CNN, founding CNNfn while winning friends and influencing people among the corporate elite. But these days Dobbs is rounding the home stretch, at age 63, as a tribune of economic nationalism and the scourge of greedy CEOs; as a crusader against illegal immigrants who (he has claimed) steal our jobs, commit crimes, and spread leprosy; and, most recently, as a tacit ally of conspiracy theorists who are trying to delegitimize a duly elected president.

Some of Dobbs’ old buddies ask: What the hell happened to him?

“Lou’s a longtime friend and I admire him as a great pioneer for business and economic news, making it vital and meaningful for a new audience of television viewers,” said Paul Steiger, chief of the investigative journalism organization ProPublica and former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “But as he’s gone beyond business news, he’s become enamored of causes, particularly fear of foreigners and immigrants, that I don’t find to be in keeping with the high intelligence that I know he possesses.”

It has been, for Dobbs, a Kafka-like metamorphosis from WASPy establishmentarian to angry-populist cockroach. No less a wingnut than the bottle-blond Orly Taitz, a Soviet-born Israeli dentist who sounds like a Gabor sister and is known as “Queen of the Birthers,” has called Dobbs one of her “biggest supporters” (in a recent interview with The Daily Beast’s Max Blumenthal).

Dobbs, who wouldn’t speak to me for this story, has argued that there’s nothing wrong with asking a simple question. What’s more, he has said repeatedly that he “believes” Obama to be a natural-born citizen. But belief doesn’t require proof and, in this case, Dobbs’ “belief” is apparently subject to change should contrary “facts” emerge. He has been plumbing the supposed mystery of the president’s nativity at least since mid-July, both on his nightly television show and, in somewhat less circumspect fashion, on his daily syndicated radio show.

“What’s the deal? What is the deal here?’ he demanded last month on the radio. “I’m starting to think we have a document issue! You suppose he’s un—? No, I wouldn’t even use the word ‘undocumented.’ It wouldn’t be right.” This—with its jokey implication that the president is an illegal alien worthy of deportation—was uttered in a tone of puckish delight.

Why, Dobbs has asked repeatedly, doesn’t Obama just shut the birthers up (as if!) by releasing his original paper birth certificate from August 1961, instead of relying on the official “certificate of live birth,” a document that has been publicly available for more than a year, and was just endorsed as legally binding by the Republican governor of Hawaii? According to Jon Klein’s internal memo, the answer is that in 2001, Hawaii’s department of health converted its paper birth records from 1908 onward into computerized files. “It seems,” Klein wrote, “to definitively answer the questions.”

Yet Klein artfully defended Dobbs’ birther adventures at a recent television critics' convention in Pasadena, California, claiming that “what Lou and everybody else at CNN has done is very clearly report and run down the facts. There is no doubt, according to the state of Hawaii, that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. And Lou Dobbs himself has repeated that over, and over, and over again.” Not quite.

Klein deserves credit for his ability to effectively tame the famously cranky, egomaniacal Dobbs, employing management skills that compare favorably with the tiger-handling techniques of Siegfried and Roy.

One of Klein’s predecessors, Rick Kaplan, was not so successful. Kaplan and Dobbs—both big and tall Alpha males given to butting heads—cordially despised each other and let each other know it. After two decades at the network, Dobbs left CNN in 2000, partly because he couldn’t abide Kaplan, to launch Space.com, a Web site devoted to astronomical phenomena, just as the dot-com bubble was fixing to burst. Emerging from his crucible of trying to run a flagging business, Dobbs returned to CNN in 2003.

“I never talk about Lou Dobbs,” said Kaplan, now executive producer of The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. But Tom Johnson, CEO of CNN between 1990 and 2001, was more forthcoming in a revealing email he sent to me this week:

There always have been the “Good Lou” and the “Bad Lou.”

I experienced both Lou’s during the 11 years I was CEO of CNN.

The good Lou is and always has been a favorite of Ted Turner.

They pioneered CNN together.

Lou’s shows have been major revenue producers. Big advertisers wanted to be in Lou’s shows.

Ted often protected Lou when I and other CNN executives were ready to fire him. Ted saw Lou’s immense talent, and they were (and still are) good friends.

[...]

It almost is impossible NOT to really like the Good Lou. He’s warm, funny, well informed on issues, and a charming bear of a guy. I like that Lou very much.

The Bad Lou is stubborn, wants his way or the highway, shows signs of being an only child—as I am. Spoiled rotten.

Lou is both very loyal to his people and can intimidate the hell out of them. He can be overpowering. He wants the very best production values in every show.

Having Lou Dobbs and Rick Kaplan reporting to me at the same time was like holding a canister of nitroglycerin in each hand.

I never knew which was going to explode first. Each has explosive personalities.

[...]

Ted and I never permitted anchors or correspondents to air their personal opinions. Our rule was reporters report. Anchors present the news.

We never would permit Lou to do what he is doing today.

So much of it is very divisive.

In my personal opinion, all this angry opinion on all three news networks—CNN, MSNBC, and Fox—is damaging among viewers who really want the news, not personal opinions.

[...]

By now, CNN’s highly capable PR staff, which refused to comment for this story, is accustomed to coping with the embarrassing flaps Dobbs occasionally creates. Aside from the current controversy—which has provoked an anti-Dobbs commercial from the liberal watchdog group Media Matters and a call for his dismissal from the Southern Poverty Law Center—the most notable fracas was a damaging 2007 controversy in which Dobbs kept insisting (until he was publicly shamed by New York Times columnist David Leonhardt) that cases of leprosy in the U.S. had spiked by 7,000 in a recent three-year period, largely spread by illegal immigrants. In fact, Leonhardt wrote, there were 7,000 total cases over a 30-year period, and in recent years the incidence of leprosy had actually declined; meanwhile, there was no evidence at all that leprosy was connected to foreigners.

“The problem with Mr. Dobbs,” Leonhardt wrote, “is that he mixes opinion and untruths. He is the heir to the nativist tradition that has long used fiction and conspiracy theories as a weapon against the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Jews and, now, the Mexicans.”

Leonhardt added: “Mr. Dobbs has a somewhat flexible relationship with reality.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.