On a summer evening in his futuristic CNN studio reminiscent of a Frank Gehry-designed cafeteria, I saw Lou Dobbs at full power, readying himself for his six o'clock show while the unused New York set of colleague Larry King was stashed in the back of the room like a giant, unplugged Lite-Brite. Few of us have had the chance to completely remake ourselves, but in the past four years, from this very perch, the still-cherubic-looking Dobbs, who hosts Lou Dobbs Tonight, has done just that: morphing from spokesman for the country's wealthy and powerful — the CEOs' golfing buddy — to Middle America's valiant crusader, waging, according to him, an unending battle against the "corporate imperialists," whom he blames for an untenable increase in illegal immigration, a destabilization of the middle class, and an erosion of national sovereignty.
To watch Dobbs work, to trust him, as many do, the way we once trusted Walter Cronkite, is to see America as a nation under siege. We are, if we're to believe Dobbs, suffering from policies that have encouraged undocumented workers to cross the Mexican border only to depress wages, overwhelm public schools, and blaze the way for infiltrating terrorists. At the same time, we are under attack from within, he says, from multinational corporations: the same grand companies that once provided the middle class with decent jobs and pensions but now find it easier and cheaper to ship out jobs to India and China.
It's clear that Dobbs' sentiments don't originate with a corporate directive from CNN or even its parent company, Time Warner. I visited him on "World Refugee Day," and for hours CNN had been highlighting the plight of the planet's most poor, culminating with a two-hour interview by Anderson Cooper with U.N. goodwill ambassador Angelina
Jolie. Dobbs' staff had ignored the heart-tugging stories buffering their program as they put together the night's hour-long show. It would include: a report on the House leadership's desire to have a tougher immigration bill than the White House and Senate had floated; a story on "the rising importance of illegal immigration and the border security crisis in the upcoming midterm elections"; and a piece from Los Angeles on "a significant new blow against the criminal empire that supplies many of the forged documents to illegal aliens."
Such a show fits comfortably within the cable television news landscape that changed so irrevocably when Fox News muscled its way onto basic cable, burrowing into homes with robust personalities like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Shepard Smith. What drove viewers to the Murdochian outfit was its ability to harness the collective anger of large swaths of the country that felt ignored. And, in igniting populist wrath, Fox changed our expectations of news "talent" forever. We expect, no, in fact demand, that Anderson Cooper, floating in what was once New Orleans, lash out at FEMA officials, just as we expect Dobbs night after night after night to attack whomever he damn well pleases.
Perhaps more than his peers, Dobbs has used cable's niche messaging and agitated viewers to refigure the role of news anchor. While Brian Williams may, in gross numbers, have more viewers, Dobbs' daily interpretation of the news flickers more brightly both on the 13-inchers sitting next to microwaves as supper's being readied, and on the flat-screens tucked into offices on the Hill.
"One of our goals at CNN is to reassert our primacy in political coverage," says Jon Klein, the network's president. "If you think of political coverage, you typically think of Washington-based political reporting. But here's Lou, in New York, primarily doing stories on the heartland, on the impact of policies on ordinary Americans, and that's filtering back to Washington."
"That's profound," Klein adds. "It shows you something about the power media can have away from the centers of power. That's one of Lou's strengths. He speaks to the people and he also speaks to the influencers."
By design, Dobbs' show offers little in the way of token rebuttal. He has no use, he says, for "he said, she said" journalism, the kind that has reporters scrambling for an opposing quote five minutes before a story goes to the copydesk. His journalism is a driven, singularly focused, advocacy sort that doesn't have the time or the patience to toss in a throwaway statement from an opposing think tank.
Needless to say, such fervor is not necessarily shared by his peers. Men like Reese Schonfeld, the former CNN executive who hired Dobbs, call his focus, or overfocus, on illegal immigration a "one-trick pony." Likewise, Mike Wallace, who likes Dobbs and his program, told me, "He has a fixed and predictable and occasionally excessive preoccupation with broken borders and immigration."
Yet to call Dobbs a traditional conservative, or even a know-nothing populist, is an ill-fitting label. Yes, the lifelong Republican (though no fan of the current president and since 2006 a registered independent) shares certain sentiments with professional howler Pat Buchanan, who also lashes out at border policy. But it is in his anti-corporate stances that Dobbs distances himself from the bulk of the mainline right, even as he refuses to align himself with the left. Indeed, Dobbs shares no contemporary comparison, but a historical one, to "The Great Commoner" William Jennings Bryan, who, along with his anti-Darwinism rants, railed against the influence of the robber barons, monopolies, and trusts.