To some in the TV industry, CNN's exchange of opinionated "advocacy journalist" Lou Dobbs for even-handed anchor John King represents a significant shift — the triumph of down-the-middle delivery at cable TV's first 24-hour news channel.
Talking up his new job, King rejected the notion that CNN may be positioning itself for failure by turning away from opinionated, partisan anchoring.
"You can have provocative, feisty, fun, compelling conversation with an anchor who is steering, not advocating," said the anchor, a former Associated Press reporter known for his old school journalism values. He'll host a politically oriented show at 7 p.m. beginning early next year.
Still, some experts wonder if King isn't fooling himself. Armed with ratings showing CNN in fourth place last month behind Fox, MSNBC and sister channel Headline News, they say viewers have accepted the more partisan tone of some cable TV news outlets and may even prefer it.
"The audience is saying it wants its political opinions validated by (news coverage) they see on television," said Rich Hanely, an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "CNN wants to play it down the middle, but there is no down the middle in cable TV news, anymore. The down the middle is entertainment programming or sports."
Indeed, as pundits such as Glenn Beck are hailed as the voice of the GOP and rumors persist Dobbs might launch a new career as a candidate, it seems politics and big media have grown closer than ever.
Dobbs resigned abruptly on the air Wednesday after more than 25 years there. And despite growing protests over Dobbs' pointed views about illegal immigration and other issues, fans have suggested the anchor consider a run for office, which seems more possible now than ever.
Once upon a time, former political operatives such as George Stephanopoulos and Chris Matthews spent long years burnishing their journalism credentials before hosting big shows.
But former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee jumped from running for president to hosting a weekend opinion show on Fox News. And rumors continue that Sarah Palin may land a talk show of her own. The revolving door between news and politics is moving at full speed, aided by the rise of opinion on cable news.
When Frank Sesno began working as a reporter at CNN in 1984, he remembered managers insisting the channel had no stars; the news was their star. But now consumers find news in lots of places, pushing cable news anchors to draw a crowd with opinion and political activism, said Sesno, who now directs the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
"(CNN) has got to find a way to put the passion into news and information the same way Fox and MSNBC have put the passion into opinions and punditry," he said. "They must find a unifying voice."
For a time, it looked as if Dobbs might be the answer. Once the channel's top business news anchor, he focused his show more on middle class populism and immigration issues after 2003, increasing the ratings at 7 p.m.
But critics complained some of his guests had ties to white supremacist organizations. He also blamed immigrants for a rise in U.S. leprosy cases, a report that CBS' 60 Minutes debunked.
His friendliness toward "birther" activists who contend President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. also clashed with CNN's emphasis on neutral reporting.
Now Dobbs is free to expand his talk radio show and consider options that might not have existed years ago.
"The rule used to be, you only got one move through the turnstile — going from news to politics or the other way," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "Now, you've got people going back and forth almost simultaneously. I think (viewers) assume the Mike Huckabee Show is just preparation for the Mike Huckabee presidential campaign in 2012."