Is CNN Planning to Tack Left as a Last Resort?

CNN is flailing, trailing even sister network Headline News this month. With Campbell Brown about to go on maternity leave, are they preparing to quit the "No Bias, No Bull" posturing?

Portfolio reports that CNN has come in last behind Fox News, MSNBC and Headline News in primetime among 25-to-54-year-olds on nine out of 17 days this month, dipping below even CNBC numbers (that means very low!) one night.

The network has deliberately positioned itself as non-partisan while painting Fox News and MSNBC as unreliable ideological mirror-images. But the numbers don't lie. And while CNN is accustomed by now to getting trounced by Fox, the surge by MSNBC threatens to place it in a permanent third place. So has hapless president Jonathan Klein his decided to drop the nonpartisan bit and compete with Olbermann et. al. for the left flank?

A clue can be found in the selection of Roland Martin to fill in when Campbell Brown goes in maternity leave for six weeks next month (or sooner, depending on the baby's inclination). During last year's election, Martin regularly filled the "black liberal" slot on CNN's discussion panels; he has never aspired to be an unbiased observer. Martin has already been given a series of specials on the network, but fill-in anchor gigs often serve as trial runs. If CNN is prepping Martin—who has a degree in "Christian Communications," whatever that is, from and unaccredited Baptist University—for an anchor chair, it could mean Klein has read the writing on the wall and decided to drop the middle-road schtick.

Brown's absence is not good for CNN. Sure, Olbermann doubled her ratings on Tuesday, but she's garnered some hype as a new cable news star. There's no clear evidence that her show, which celebrated its first anniversary last month, has moved the needle for CNN at 8 p.m. But for her to take a second maternity leave since she joined CNN in 2007 won't help maintain what little momentum she's gathered, and Martin isn't the most compelling broadcaster around to keep the audience busy while she's gone.