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11.12.09

What Happened With Lou Dobbs

The controversial CNN anchor’s abrupt exit took even his staff by surprise. Lloyd Grove and Rebecca Dana on the relief, sadness and job scramble at the studio.

The abrupt resignation of CNN’s resident nativist firebrand, Lou Dobbs, was greeted with surprise and relief today by his colleagues at the cable network—and with triumphant celebration by Dobbs’ many liberal detractors, who took credit for forcing the anchorman’s departure.

The sudden end of Lou Dobbs Tonight after six years—which Dobbs quietly negotiated in recent weeks with CNN/U.S. President Jonathan Klein—releases him from the last two years of his CNN contract, said to be valued at around $2.5 million a year. It also leaves around 30 of Dobbs’ staffers unemployed and desperately scrambling to reapply for jobs at CNN.

“I can’t talk to you right now because I’m trying to help find places for people,” Dobbs’ longtime executive producer, Jim McGinnis, said this morning in a brief phone conversation. According to a source at the network, CNN security guards were on hand Wednesday night to assure that there were no incidents after the final show, and Dobbs and Klein’s termination agreement had been kept so secret that Lou Dobbs Tonight segment producers were still booking guests for future shows mere hours before the final curtain. Another source said that the network would cover Dobbs staffers’ salaries through February.

“This is something that almost everybody has wanted to have happen for quite some time,” a highly placed CNN employee said. “Lou Dobbs made no sense on CNN.”

CNN staffers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the 63-year-old Dobbs—who announced his swan song on the air with a typically dramatic flourish—had increasingly become an irritant in CNN’s prime-time schedule, an embarrassing anomaly on a network that purports to offer straight, down-the-middle journalism, unlike the opinion-dominated Fox News Channel and MSNBC.

“This is something that almost everybody has wanted to have happen for quite some time,” a highly placed CNN employee said. “Lou Dobbs made no sense on CNN. We were trying to make a case for journalism and you people in the media were calling us hypocrites because there was Lou at 7 p.m.—and rightly so. From a business perspective, it made sense to keep Lou when his ratings were high, but they aren’t anymore, and they haven’t been for awhile. It was hard to justify why he would fit into the CNN brand.”

An internal CNN email sent by a staffer to the booking producers painted a different picture. “It’s a big thing when the last remaining anchor moves on. The outcome was a lot more dramatic than the process was. It is a big headline, but I will tell you that throughout the convos, he was classy and analytical about the whole thing. As you know, he tried to fit into the overall positioning of our network (non-partisan, non-opinionated) and changed his show tremendously recently for doing that. He finally decided that the advocacy journalism is what he wanted to do. It was all very amicable. Throughout he showed the love he has for CNN and the respect he has for everyone here.” The email was read over the phone to The Daily Beast by a source who received it.

The announcement that Dobbs will be replaced in the time slot by journeyman journalist John King, the anchor of CNN’s Sunday show State of the Union, should solve the hypocrisy problem, this CNNer said. “John may not be the most riveting television in the world, but it makes sense now. Finally, it is the CNN journalistic brand from Wolf Blitzer, to John King, to Campbell Brown, to Anderson Cooper.”

In recent months, Dobbs, who tightly controlled the content of his program as managing editor, has championed such trademark causes as economic nationalism and restricting foreign immigration, and generously gave a platform to such fringe political movements such as “birther” conspiracy theorists who erroneously claim that Barack Obama is an illegitimate president because he wasn’t born in the United States.

Today, Media Matters, the liberal watchdog group and a Dobbs antagonist, staged a conference call of anti-Dobbs activists to crow about his demise. “I think this is a powerful affirmation of what can be accomplished when progressive voices come together,” said Media Matters official Eric Burns, who also called Dobbs’ departure a “major victory for America’s growing Latino community” and “a victory for journalism.”

Participating in today’s victory lap were members of the two-month-old “Drop Dobbs Coalition,” including several Latino groups, which pressured CNN to fire the anchorman after he gave a prominent forum to the Minutemen, a self-styled vigilante “civilian defense corps” to police U.S. borders, and made erroneous on-air claims about an alleged connection between Latino immigrants, violent crime, and leprosy.

“While it is a good day that CNN has made this decision, CNN has on no occasion corrected any of the errors, falsehoods and defamations that Dobbs has regularly issued from their air,” said another Dobbs adversary, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Mark Potok.

Dobbs’ admirers also weighed in. William Gheen, head of the North Carolina-based Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, told The Daily Beast: “I certainly hope this doesn’t set a precedent of these pro-illegal immigration groups declaring some kind of victory… I think the biggest problem for CNN is that large portions of the people around the country are not watching it because they are notoriously politically in the bag for the globalists. There is also a free-speech issue here.”

Gheen said he hopes Dobbs runs for president, and that nearly 3,000 supporters have already pledged nearly $600,000 for a prospective campaign on his group’s Web site, loudobbsforpresident.org. “We stand ready to support him in whatever he does,” Gheen said.

Beyond Wednesday’s high-minded on-air statement that he intends to “engage in constructive problem-solving and contribute positively to a better understanding of the great issues of our day,” Dobbs’ next move remains a mystery.

On his syndicated radio show this afternoon, Dobbs laughed off listeners’ suggestions that he run for president.

“I’m going to look at the options and see what happens,” he said to one fan. “It’s going to take a while. My wife and I are going to take a few weeks and sort through things. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do, partner… This audience will be the first to know what I decide.”

Despite pro forma denials from Fox, speculation continued that he will eventually end up at the Fox Business Network, working for his old friend Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive of Fox News.

In the early 1990s, when Ailes was developing CNBC as the premier business channel, he tried to hire Dobbs away from CNN, where he was one of the cable network’s original anchors when it launched in 1980. Dobbs leveraged Ailes’ job offer into persuading Ted Turner to let him head up a brand new financial network, CNNfn, which recently was shuttered. Dobbs and Ailes had a cozy dinner in September.

“I can’t believe that Lou and Roger aren’t talking,” said a source close to Dobbs.

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.

Rebecca Dana is a culture correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former editor and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, she has also written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Rolling Stone and Slate, among other publications.

The Daily Beast's Jaimie Etkin contributed to this story.