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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - CNN host Lou Dobbs, whose outspoken views on U.S. immigration have made him one of the most controversial figures on television, said on Wednesday he is leaving the 24-hour cable news network immediately because he wants a freer platform to state his opinion.
Dobbs, who announced his departure near the start of his nightly news and commentary show, did not say where he plans to go, after nearly 30 years at CNN.
Dobbs, whose ratings have been on the decline, said he had been released from his contract, effective immediately, and wanted "to contribute positively to the understanding of the great issues of our day ... in the most honest and direct language possible."
A CNN source told Reuters Dobbs will be concentrating on his syndicated radio show, "The Lou Dobbs Show." The source would not confirm a New York Times report that he had met with Roger Ailes, chairman and chief executive of the Fox News channel, the News Corp-owned rival to CNN, a unit of Time Warner Inc.
CNN had been under pressure from civil rights and Latino groups to drop Dobbs from its lineup, accusing the host of aligning himself with anti-immigrant groups that critics say espouse hate messages.
"It's about time. He was doing CNN no good," said Nativo Lopez, head of the California-based Mexican-American Political Association that promotes the interests of Mexican-Americans in the United States and is part of a campaign against Dobbs.
"His is not a debate based on science or reason, it's based on prejudice, it's based on racial overtones, it's based on profiling and an obsessive fixation on immigrants from Mexico," said Lopez.
As a radio host, Dobbs also drew criticism by appearing to stoke the so-called "birther" movement, whose adherents believe that President Barack Obama's Hawaiian birth certificate was faked to hide a Kenyan birthplace, making the first black U.S. president ineligible for office.
Dobbs said he was considering "a number of options and directions." His contract was due to end in 2011.
"For the past six months it has become increasingly clear that strong winds of change have begun buffeting this country and affecting all of us," Dobbs said.
"Some leaders in media, politics and business have been urging me to go beyond the role here at CNN and engage in constructive problem-solving," said Dobbs, referring to himself as one of the last original CNN anchors.
Eric Burns, president of liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America, called Dobbs' departure "a happy day for all those who care about this nation of immigrants and believe in the power of media to elevate the political discourse."
Dobbs, 64, started out at CNN as the network's chief business and financial correspondent and host of its business news program "Moneyline" in 1980. He left the network in 1999 after friction with CNN's then-president Rick Kaplan to start his own dotcom venture.
He returned two years later to become host and managing editor of a new general news broadcast, and for a time renewed his "Moneyline" show.
But Dobbs' role at the network changed dramatically.
"He morphed from being an economic and finance guy to being much more in the style of an opinion commentator," independent television news analyst Andrew Tyndall said. "He turned into specializing on the illegal immigrants story, which was very hot three years ago or four years ago."
But as the national economy slumped, Dobbs found himself preoccupied with a subject that waned as a hot-button issue, Tyndall said.
"His problem has been that he put all his eggs in that basket and he hasn't been able to diversify his brand in opinion journalism," Tyndall said.
As CNN sought in recent years to distinguish itself in the cable news field from the more conservative Fox News, the ratings leader, and the more left-leaning, third-place MSNBC, Dobbs became less of a fit, Tyndall said.
"There's clearly editorial differences between the way CNN wants to go and the direction he wants to go."
Reporting by Gina Keating and Steve Gorman; Editing by Catherine Bremer, David Gregorio, Gary Hill