CNN Chief Quits After 18 Months

NEW YORK -- Walter Isaacson, the head of CNN, stepped down Monday just 18 months after taking the job to restore the pioneering all-news network's ratings dominance that it had lost to upstart Fox News.

The news chief's resignation added to the turmoil at media powerhouse AOL Time Warner, which only 24 hours earlier had seen its chairman, Steve Case, quit.

Isaacson, 50, a veteran Time magazine journalist and biographer of Henry Kissinger, said his resignation was not linked in any way to Case's departure, but he admitted he was never fully comfortable as the head of a TV network.

He will become the head of the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank that counts former AOL Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin among its trustees.

CNN lost its top ratings slot to Fox News last year and Isaacson had spearheaded a revamp of the network's schedule in a bid to stay competitive that placed new emphasis on celebrity anchors such as Connie Chung and Paula Zahn.

But those moves in the middle of a cost-cutting drive upset some veteran CNN correspondents who had helped make the network founded by media maverick Ted Turner a household name.

Isaacson will be replaced in the spring by his deputy Jim Walton, a CNN veteran, who Thompson said could lead a return to old-school style hard news coverage -- if he lasted.

"The pessimistic interpretation is that they'll get rid of him. He's a place holder," Thompson said.

Isaacson's resignation comes the day after Case said he was leaving, after months of criticism of his leading role in the mega-merger of America Online and Time Warner that many investors now view as a failure.

Case, who headed America Online before the merger, was the last of the deal's architects remaining at the top of the company, and his resignation prompted talk that the merger could be unwound.

"I admire Steve Case's decision to put our company and its employees first and am delighted that he will remain on the board and be active, because frankly, we really need his experience and vision," Turner, who ranks as AOL Time Warner's largest individual shareholder, said in a statement.

The company's share price, which has fallen 70 percent since the merger closed in January 2001, rose 15 cents to close at $15.03 on Monday, before Isaacson's resignation was announced.

Jamie Kellner, chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, which operates CNN and other channels such as TBS and TNN, said Isaacson's departure was timed to ensure he would be there to steer CNN into the coverage of a possible war in Iraq.

The resignation also comes at a time when CNN has been in on-and-off talks to merge its news operation with Walt Disney Co.'s ABC News. Most recently, at year-end, AOL Time Warner executives said talks had been on hold.