The cold war between CNN and Fox News Channel boiled over last week. The flash point: Paula Zahn.
Fox had her. CNN wanted her. Fox fired her and posted the news on its Web site, which was stripped of all other references to her, and laid out its grievances in a round of interviews. CNN showed off Ms. Zahn at a “press availability.” Fox sued her agent and threatened to sue CNN and Ms. Zahn herself.
All in less than 24 hours.
The suit, filed last Thursday in New York Supreme Court, accuses N.S. Bienstock, the agency that represents Ms. Zahn and such news stars as Dan Rather, Mike Wallace and Diane Sawyer, of “illegally brokering a deal” for Ms. Zahn to anchor a planned morning show on CNN and “inducing” Ms. Zahn to breach her contract by accepting the CNN offer. Fox asks unspecified damages.
Fox said Ms. Zahn, who became host of “The Edge” in March 1999, had signed away the right to accept another job offer until February 2002, at the end of the contract, after which Fox had time to match any competing offer.
“Last week, Fox News learned that Bienstock was responsible for brokering a deal on behalf of CNN … to prematurely secure an employment arrangement with Zahn during the remaining six months of her contract with Fox News,” the suit states.
A spokesman for N.S. Bienstock said the agency “believes that this lawsuit it totally without merit. None of our actions as agent for Paula Zahn were in violation of her contract with Fox News. We are fully confident that this will be quickly resolved in our favor.”
“I was prepared to stay at Fox through the end of my contract,” said a statement read Thursday by Ms. Zahn, “and everything that I have done has been totally consistent with my contractual obligations. I have had legal counsel guiding me throughout, and they have consistently confirmed the appropriateness of my actions and those of my representatives.”
She was fielding questions from reporters who had gathered in hopes of hearing juicy details of Ms. Zahn and CNN’s side of the story. The New York Times quoted Roger Ailes, the tough-talking Fox news chairman, as saying, “I could have put a dead raccoon on the air” and gotten better ratings than Ms. Zahn’s show, “The Edge,” had earned.
Fox News dispatched a man who identified himself as Jonathan Wachtel, the name of a Fox News producer who had surreptitiously taped Timothy McVeigh’s father to get a story for “The Edge” earlier this year. Mr. Wachtel had a tape recorder running, not quite hidden in his casually cupped right hand, as he talked his way into the press conference even though he had not RSVP’d.
“Is she like unveiling her foreign policy or something,” joked one young man bemused by the activity.
Nothing was unveiled by Ms. Zahn, CNN News Group Chairman and CEO Walter Isaacson or CNN Executive VP Sid Bedingfield.
Nobody addressed the numbers that had been tossed about the day before: $2 million for Ms. Zahn at CNN vs. a raise from $600,000 to $850,000 had she re-signed at Fox.
Given a chance to make a raccoon joke, Mr. Isaacson grinned and said, “Next!”
Mr. Bedingfield included Ms. Zahn among the personalities, from Larry King to recently hired Aaron Brown, who are CNN’s tentpoles.
Given a chance to talk about how it felt to be fired for the first time, Ms. Zahn expressed deep “disappointment” at Fox’s reaction but great excitement at returning to the dawn patrol. She had anchored a CBS News morning show during the ’90s and is looking forward to “helping millions of Americans start their day with the best in news and discussion” on a show not bound by the format restraints of “Today” and “Good Morning America.” “I know from personal experience that from time to time shows become imprisoned by research,” she said.
Cable-news audiences in the morning do not measure in the millions. But CNN is building a new street-level studio in Midtown Manhattan-just two floors below Thursday’s press conference and three blocks north of the Fox News headquarters-as part of an aggressive new plan to upgrade its lineup and image, which had wilted in the last five years under competition from Fox and MSNBC.
“This is not between Fox and CNN,” Mr. Isaacson said.
Tell that to the reporters who swapped stories Thursday about having been told the day before by the Fox News publicity department that if they didn’t use the word “fired” in the first paragraph of their Zahn story, they would be persona non grata or worse.