“CNN Leaves it There” is Now Officially a Problem at CNN

Jul.
3
You can’t have a “he said, she said” brand and yet stand out as the only real news network. There are signs that the new boss at CNN understands this.

Shocking developments in a story I have been following for a long time. It’s the CNN Leaves it There problem, which is illustrated to comic perfection in this Jon Stewart clip.

Watch it:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
CNN Leaves It There
www.thedailyshow.com
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The problem is this: CNN thinks of itself as the “straight down the middle” network, the non-partisan alternative, the one that isn’t Left and isn’t Right. But defining itself as “not MSNBC” and “not Fox” begs the question of what CNN actually is. To the people who run it, the answer is obvious: real journalism! That’s what CNN is. Or as they used to say, “the news is the star.”

Right. But too often, on-air hosts for the network will let someone from one side of a dispute describe the world their way, then let the other side describe the world their way, and when the two worlds, so described, turn out to be incommensurate or even polar opposites, what happens?… CNN leaves it there. Viewers are left stranded and helpless. The network appears to inform them that there is no truth, only partisan bull. Is that real journalism? No. But it is tantalizingly close to the opposite of real journalism. Repeat it enough, and this pattern threatens to become the network’s brand, which is exactly what Stewart was pointing out.

That’s bad, but there’s more. CNN loses in the prime-time ratings race to Fox, the big winner, and MSNBC, which is a distant second. Ratings mean numbers and numbers are easy to understand, plus they fluctuate a lot, which means that media beat reporters focus frequent attention on CNN’s troubles in prime time. Asked to comment for these stories, CNN’s leadership can continue to drone on about their commitment to “straight news” and “quality journalism” without ever facing the fact that a real commitment to serious journalism would require a confrontation with its own laziness and political timidity.

Meaning: You can’t keep “leaving it there” and claim to be the one dedicated to real journalism. You can’t have a “he said, she said” brand and yet stand out as the quality network. That doesn’t work. But it’s easy to delude yourself into thinking that it kinda sorta works because journalists in the U.S. are trained to believe that “not ideological” means…. good! Superior, in fact. As long as you hold out against the ideological turn, you’re standing up for quality and protecting the brand, right?

Thus: CNN doubles down on straight news. “Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, told the AP this week that the network’s influence extends beyond the United States, and a hyper-partisan line-up could tarnish the news brand around the world.”

Thus: “People hear what’s being said and it’s branded CNN and (they say), ‘OK, that’s news. That’s nonpartisan, that’s factual, it’s timely,” Walton said. “That’s what we want to deliver around the world. We compete against a lot more than Fox and MSNBC.”

Thus: “We’re the one cable news channel that doesn’t advocate for one political party or the other.” (Sam Feist, CNN’s political director, talking.) “We cover both sides but don’t favor either side. That’s our mission; it’s part of our DNA. And it makes us different than the other guys.”

Thus: “John King, host of Sunday’s ‘State of the Union,’ said that there doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario in prime-time programming: CNN can offer compelling programs with news and analysis, while leaving the partisan fights to the guests.”

Leave the partisan fights to the guests: sounds great. Until you think about it for a minute. And really, that’s all it takes: about a minute. In a hyper-polarized environment like the one we increasingly have in the U.S. these fights have long since broken the borders of opinion. They now routinely break out over matters of fact. (Example: does cutting Federal tax rates increase revenues to the government?) Leaving partisan fights—over matters of fact—to the guests is a disaster, journalistically. But intervening in those fights takes skill, knowledge… and balls. Because one side could be a lot righter than the other, factually speaking.

In other words, you could have a situation where in order to do your duty journalistically, you have to take sides and say, “I’m sorry, Senator, but that simply doesn’t square with what we know.” Soon as you do that, your mantra, “We cover both sides but don’t favor either side” starts working against you. Cognitive dissonance rises. You’re not doing “straight news” any longer. You’re calling foul on the deceiver, raising the question: why did you invite this guy, anyway? You’re taking to heart what Daniel Patrick Moynihan was supposed to have said: You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.

See the problem? CNN Leaves it There threatens to undermine the brand. But doing something about it also threatens to undermine the brand. The result is paralysis. We’re not Fox! We’re not MSNBC! We leave the partisan fights to the guests! Watch this ad to see what I mean.

Now I said there were shocking developments in this story. They come via David Folkenflik, NPR’s media beat reporter. He recently interviewed Mark Whitaker, CNN’s managing editor and executive vice president, its top news official….

When Whitaker looks at the cable news landscape and the glut of political talk, he argues CNN need not be largely defined by the ideology of its hosts or by its treatment of politics. He says a non-ideological approach need not require a passivity by the channel’s journalists.

“I think perhaps there have been times in the past when CNN would have people who represented extreme views — let them go at it in a food fight, and then sit neutrally in the middle — and then toss to commercial,” Whitaker says, rapping the table with his hand. “Well, we’re not going to do that anymore.”

There! Did you see that? I hope so. Because it’s never happened before, at least to my knowledge. The new boss at CNN acknowledges the pattern and says: we’re not going to do that any more. Will this change anything? I have no idea. We could find in a year’s time that CNN is leaving it there just as much as it ever did. Or we might discover that the small beachhead Anderson Cooper established has widened and started to become part of the CNN style.

There’s a long way to go. I’m not optimistic. But I am impressed that Whitaker took even this step, acknowledging the CNN Leaves it There problem, which I’ve been recommending for more than a year, in part by relentlessly linking to the Stewart clip. In all that time, I had never found a single person in a position of responsibility at CNN who demonstrated even the slightest awareness (in public) that Stewart might be on to something.

Sixteen months of silence, denial and high horsemanship about non-partisan news. Then boom: it’s the new boss declaring: we’re not going to do that anymore. This counts as news in the world I monitor.

21 Comments

  1. jayackroyd says:

    The can’t do this. Simply can’t. The depths to which we’ve sunken are far too deep. The entire Republican domestic agenda is based on falsehoods. The entire US war efforts are based on falsehoods.

    At a holiday weekend gathering, for instance, I was told about the medical malpractice crisis–and when I said there is no crisis, I was told that I obviously didn’t read news reports.

    Likewise, the US is now at war, in six countries, ostensibly to prevent the few dozen, leader-less al Qaeda members from following through on an existential threat to the US.

    Arrant nonsense has been repeated so often, by so many talking heads on so many CNN shows that they can’t reverse it.

  2. Alz says:

    Thomas Sowell has been talking about this issue for a long time. Here is one article where he talks about being “objective” vs being “neutral.” http://townhall.com/columnists/thomassowell/2001/11/09/the_media_and_the_terrorists/print

    The problem is journalism today is filled with the notion that all viewpoints are “equal”. We’re supposed to tolerate everything so we end up tolerating what isn’t true – in journalism and in other parts of society.

    The answer is to seek the truth, find the better – just like science is supposed to do and how we used to do things.

    I suspect CNN will be unable to get around their problems because the core of the beliefs of many of the people there seem to be based on this “equal” notion rather than “better.”

  3. Triplanetary says:

    The clip of CNN fact-checking the SNL skit is honestly kind of awe-inspiring in its stupidity. They can’t be bothered to fact-check statements made on the House or Senate floor, or statements made by pundits and politicians on their own network. So they maintain their pretense of being journalists by shooting fish in a barrel? Pathetic.

  4. dipconsult says:

    This is not an easy problem. Once again – and not only in America – we are faced with extremism, maybe better called dogmatism, regardless of facts. We had it with Hitler – at first his extremist views were reported correctly and so were the opposing views of his home and international opponents. So many people thought he had a case for his ideology. Only later, when he became an obviously violent existential threat to civilisation, did regular commentators weigh in against him abandoning their “carefully balanced” middle posture.

    The even-handed approach works quite well when dealing with rational leaders and rational parties who accept the same facts. But when one side takes up illogical emotional populist extremism regardless of facts so moving the goal posts their way, the even handed approach – always trying to report the arguments fairly – breaks down. Moving the goal posts towards the illogical means the reporter too has also had to shift his “middle position” towards that of the extremists and so is implying acceptance, at least part, of increasingly dangerous anti-rationality.

    There is no “half way posiiton” between straight genuine fact-based reporting and Murdoch’s Fox News. (We must forget Murdoch’s former ownership of the neo-conservative’s Weekly Standard – Dick Cheney’s coordinator of neo-con doctrine which led to the disaster of the Iraq war.

    (I experienced this the hard way, twice reporting the Vietnam War)

  5. Jay Rosen says:

    P. Bump also thinks it will be hard for CNN to do this.

    http://p-bu.mp/ciq

    He cites these practical difficulties:

    1.) The schedule, which requires that segments wrap-up, which in turn forces the hosts to lean on the exit line, “We’ll have to leave it there.”

    2.) “The anchors would need to know a lot about the issues.”

    3.) The pols would get pissed at being called out and threaten never to return.

    4.) “Hyper-partisan talking heads will never agree on an issue. It will always be impossible to get Carville and Fleischer (the examples in the Stewart clip) to reach consensus.”

    • 2.) “The anchors would need to know a lot about the issues.”

      You mean they might have to actually, you know, think for themselves and start to become involved in the news, instead of acting as teleprompter-driven stenographers?
      What a shame…

      3.) The pols would get pissed at being called out and threaten never to return.

      The politicos and their minders can threaten all they want. The bottom line is that all politicians are attention whores. They need visibility and publicity like the rest of us need oxygen. If CNN retains any sort of market share, politicians will still want to get on the network. All CNN has to do is to cross out their list of pre-conditions and send it back to them with a footnote “you will answer the questions”, then hold ALL politicians and commentators to the same standard. If the leaders at CNN want an example, let them watch a couple of Jeremy Paxman interviews from the BBC (including the one where he sank Michael Howard without trace after Howard refused to answer a question 14 times).

  6. Terry Heaton says:

    Jay,

    Fresh posts at Pressthink are lifeblood to me. Thanks for this.

    As you know, I’m very cynical about this whole thing, having been onboard the television news ship when it changed course during the profit-center discovery process. Television is a monster with a voracious appetite. It takes immense resources to adequately fill all the time that a 24-hour news channel has at its disposal, and this is exacerbated in a troubled economy. Production schedules and 60-minute “wheels” of programming strategy drive everything. This is being effectively destroyed by the growth of real-time news afforded by the Web. A 60-minute, repetitive “wheel” doesn’t, actually can’t cut it anymore. CNN must rework its entire process of newsgathering to come up with something that matches the real-time pace during the hours of 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The rest of their programming needs to advance stories.

    As to your specific issue, Steve Friedman created the live newsmaker interview for The Today Show in 1976. His logic was brilliant, to say nothing of how it cut programming costs. Unfortunately, the logic has been lost in the name of cost control. Friedman reasoned that live interviews with newsmakers “worked,” because they allowed the audience to “participate in history.” This is a heady responsibility that has been completely lost in contemporary news television, and I think if we actually went back to that view, we’d treat it with a very different kind of respect.

    The purest answer to the question of “why did they invite that guy anyway” has exactly zero to do with journalism. It’s all about cheap production, and it puts a tremendous strain on interviewers in addition to allowing for manipulation by every element of the tapestry that is America today. The melting pot disappeared long ago. We always tend to forget that PR is the flip side of the same coin as professional journalism.

    I think the real decision about he said/she said — and the way to prevent it on-the-air — is to limit who you put on-the-air in the first place. This is called judgment, and as you point out, it begins with the belief that not all opinions are equal.

    In the world of today’s star anchors, there is also a very real sense of competition between host and guest for the upper hand. This is a combination of control, hubris, disrespect, promotion, and one’s position in the culture. News anchors feel they’re justifiably on the same level as anybody else, and that as much as anything produces meaningless babble.

    Great piece and thanks again for publishing here.

    Terry

  7. Jay Rosen says:

    Part of the reason I wrote this piece is so that the media beat reporters–Brian Stelter, Jeremy Peters and David Carr of the New York Times, Howard Kurtz of Newsbeast, Michael Calderone of Huff Post, Keach Hagey of Politico, David Folkenflik of NPR, the people at TV Newser–now know they have a pledge, a promise from the boss, to hold CNN to.

    Jay Ackroyd: One possible way CNN could react to Whitaker’s pledge was provided by Al Jazeera during the Egyptian revolution. A number of American viewers, tuning into the AJ for the first time or flipping back and forth between it and CNN, noticed something: Hey, no talking heads! More reporting! And when they have an official on the air and he bullshits, they go in for the kill… Wow.

    I’m not saying it’s likely, but the example of Al Jazeera shows what’s possible. Dump most of the talking heads. The audience won’t miss them. Find participants in events who have no motive to make shit up and twist the facts– witnesses, in other words. And grill those participants who do have a motive to twist the truth.

    Again, not easy, not likely, would require a lot of change in routines but let’s not help them off the hook by declaring such a change impossible.

    Thanks, Terry Heaton. That’s useful history. And of course whenever we ask why something is that way in TV news, one answer always come down to cost. “It’s cheaper that way: they have 24 hours to fill” explains a lot. Maybe even most.

    But not everything. At this blog, I try to hone in on a factor that a lot of critics miss. Ideas count for something, too. The way common practices are legitimated (meaning: explained, justified, connected to larger values like truthtelling) is actually a key part of those practices. When you look at it that way, there’s a place where the divide between theory and practice dissolves, and this site was created to occupy that place… with criticism, description, creative thinking. There’s a line about this in the introduction to PressThink, circa 2003. “Ideas saying what a press is for created the one we have today. Ideas about what journalism essentially is keep it the way it is.”

    If the way that common practices are legitimated is actually part of those practices, helping to keep them in place, there can be “events” that disturb that structure. What I wrote about in this post in one such event. Prior to Whitaker’s statement, CNN used 1.) denial and 2.) a dodge (the superior legitimacy of non-partisan news over the ideologically inflected kind) to shore up CNN Leaves it There. But he destroyed both. By talking about it he ended the denial. And what he said was: “Being non-partisan has nothing to do with Leaving it There. We have stop that.” The dodge got dumped on from the top.

    This will not end the practice. But it weakens the practice, even though all the other reasons that made the practice a common practice are still in place. PressThink tries to carve out its own niche by being highly attentive to neglected “events” like this. Thus when I saw Whitaker’s statement I had to write about it.

    Of course, part of the price I pay (and I’m not complaining!) for this M.O. is that it invites people to lecture me on the way the world really works. I am happy to receive these instructions. Often I learn from them, and even when I don’t I enjoy them. Every hard-headed or self-styled realist (“good piece, Jay, but it’s not practical…”) who ignores the way legitimating ideas also count increases the value of PressThink’s niche.

    • Journowatch says:

      As always, you make excellent and pertinent observations. But I think you’re overlooking one important factor that is almost totally unacknowledged in the media – advertiser influence. No matter how hard CNN (or any other commercial outlet, for that matter) may WANT to stop “leaving it there,” start holding leaders accountable and doing more real reporting, the people who pay their bills are the same people who finance politicians in America.

      Commercial media and elected officials have the same paymasters and those paymasters don’t need any one outlet or any single politician to maintain their power and riches. So the threat of a publicity-seeking pol may be empty but the threats of a group of business tycoons, coordinated through the US Chamber of Commerce or whatever stalking horse they’re riding at the moment, are very real and bring serious consequences for those who disobey.

      I hope Mark Whitaker is sincere and has the guts to challenge the powers that be. But all history to this point suggests that if any threat is empty right now, it’s probably Whitaker’s.

  8. alimas says:

    cool i saw it for the first time and loved it the points he raised in such a manner that’s cool

  9. The Whitaker statement inspires hope, thanks for writing about it, Jay. Many of these comments are very enlightening too.

    Since I’m obsessed with how the 2012 election will be covered, I am hoping that CNN is reassessing its position on truth-free coverage in light of the fast-approaching election tsunami of spin, lies and half-truths. That said, it may be too late as well as too little, given the effects that the Citizens United decision will have on news coverage during the 2012 election.

    I find myself wondering what PressThink has to say about that…so I will go now to read up!

  10. jayackroyd says:

    Jay Rosen

    Yes, indeed AJ served as a dash of cold water into the face of any CNN executive who fancied the network as a news source, rather than, well, something else.

    This goes back to Jon Stewart remarking that CNN is designed to cover 9/1l, and, in the absence of a event of that magnitude, tries to gin up some current event as of that magnitude.

    But, yet, here in Egypt (and not just in Egype) there was real news, happening in real time, with real implications for the future of Egypt, the Middle East, the US, and the world, and CNN……..

    kinda sucked.

    This is worse than Stewart’s criticism that CNN tries to create a 9/11 in every news cycle. They had a 9/11 story in that news cycle. And they chose not to cover it, at least, not to cover it as well as a 24 hour news network should have covered it, not as well as AJ covered it.

    Did we see a response from CNN? Stepping up their game? I think not.

    The good news is that AJ and other more news oriented entities will benefit from this. The bad news is that the US cable news networks won’t see that they’ve lost their key, internet stream reading, rising demographic until it is way too late.

  11. Emerson Schwartzkopf says:

    CNN America exists today as a home base for some celebrijournalists and a large collection of clueless anchors who’d have a hard time differentiating Nepal from Afghanistan on a map, let alone Wyoming from Colorado. And, yes, news coverage often encompasses a general, dull-as-dirty-dishwater story and a couple of paid political gunslingers barking out talking points.

    Perhaps it should stop most of the time-filling crap pouring out of Atlanta and New York that makes up the U.S. component, and broadcast more of what it sends to the rest of the world as CNN, (It’s available on upper-tier U.S. cable channels as CNN International). It’s more-informative; CNN America could then saw out some of the boutique shows like “Mainsail” on the international feed and concentrate their U.S. operations to deliver concise coverage in one- or two-hour blocks tops.

    And no talking heads unless you get real newsmakers, such as elected officials or high-ranking government officials. Send the operatives home to smell up another corner of the world.

  12. fausto412 says:

    All CNN has to do is copy NPR. Don’t do it live, do it well researched and to the point.

  13. Rich says:

    CNN has always been threadbare with few bureaus or other resources. They’ve always excelled at dropping someone in a war zone and feeding them lines from stringers and wire services. Or following white Broncos. Many of their “stars” are Atlanta-based non-entities who had come cheap (Nancy Grace, Sanjay Gupta). A better comparison than NPR would be USAToday which tends toward a similarly superficial level of reporting, except USAToday has Gannett resources (second rate as they are) and actually has been trying to do some serious reporting. Absent real reporting and fact checking, CNN could improve itself by broadening the news makers it brings onto the screen, terminating the hopelessly conflicted (by interest) like Howard Kurtz, and actually having its newsbots conduct competent interviews.

    Because CNN has never really gotten beyond “Wolf in a war zone” and “white Broncos”, in its best days, I think we should hope that BBC finally makes the World Service available on all major US cable systems. That would elevate television news in a minute.

  14. David Westphal says:

    Jay,

    I like your framing of the “Leave It There” problem. I, too, want TV interviewers to challenge politicians on the spot when their assertions stray from fact. It seems to me a bit more of this is happening, though impossible to know. In any case, it should, and I hope that it will.

    CNN could do this, couldn’t it, without taking the “ideological turn” you say it’s now resisting? It may be that an ideological turn would draw a bigger audience, a la MSNBC, and so perhaps CNN will find this irresistible. But couldn’t CNN and others entirely solve the “Leave It There” problem, calling BS where they see it, and still avoid an over-arching side-taking position?

    I ask this hopefully because as a news consumer I don’t want a news-generating landscape made up entirely of journalists who’ve chosen sides. Also, in the world of political rhetoric, my experience is that there are fewer “truths” than all of us would wish. We’ve seen this in the ways that fact-checkers are routinely challenged these days with their findings of facts.

    Journalists must deliver stronger acid tests to politicians making assertions. (I think, by the way, that this can happen and does happen in news organizations without the onset of cognitive dissonance.) But, again my observation, on the most central questions — What is the likely effect of a given government action? What will happen to the economy if the government raises taxes on the rich? — settled truths are hard to find. I don’t want TV journalists asserting fact where it doesn’t exist.

    I’d like CNN to go more aggressively at politicians’ assertions. It might be a plus for ratings. I’d also like them to follow your good suggestion of revealing more about their journalists’ inclinations and leanings. But I’d prefer they didn’t choose up sides.

    • Jay Rosen says:

      “Couldn’t CNN and others entirely solve the ‘Leave It There’ problem, calling BS where they see it, and still avoid an over-arching side-taking position?”

      Yes, they could. Full stop.

      But they have to call it where they see it and not decide to artificially balance the BS calling in the same way that they formally balanced the debates they left there.

      I agree that on the biggest political questions settled truths are hard to find. And like you, David, I don’t want journalists asserting fact where it doesn’t exist. That is, I don’t want them taking what is a political question, a matter of judgment and falsely framing it as a factual question. We don’t want what has to be settled by a vote to be framed as something that can be settled by a “check.”

      But in the same way, I don’t want them finding balance and equivalence where none exists.

      What I was trying to point out in this post is that the issue of taking sides has been used by CNN to dodge the problem of “leaving it there.” But Mark Whitaker ended that last week. That’s much more important than anything a press critic has to say.

  15. Jay Rosen says:

    So far I have had one communique from a person at CNN about this post.

    On Twitter, Jeff Simon, a producer at State of the Union with Candy Crowley, informed me that John King is the host of a weekly show, not the Sunday am program State of the Union. He also told me that the link to King’s quote wasn’t working.

    http://twitter.com/#!/jjsimonCNN/status/88322172157833216

    I in turn informed Mr. Simon that at the time of the quote John King was the host of Sunday morning’s State of the Union and that the link (to a Politico piece) worked just fine.

    http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0509/23118.html

    He said he understood.

  16. [...] PressThink Jay Rosen says you can’t have a “he said, she said” brand and yet stand out as the only real news network. “There are signs that the new boss at CNN understands this.” He’s referring to CNN managing editor… Read more Share this: Tweet this! [...]

  17. abad man says:

    I’d like to echo David Westpahl’s comment. Full stop. Calling it how they see it is always where the problem lies. Case in point, man made global warming, scientific consensus vs. Scientifically proven. How often are the two conflated. I have no wish to argue the relative merits of either position other than to point out that one is not the other. Calling it as you see it.

    Imperial Presidency Bush vs. Obama Calling it as you see it.

    media treatment/marginalization Bush vs Obama
    boy there must have been at least 10 post here vs. what 0 about Obama? Calling it as you see it.

    I would suggest you hold everyone’s feet to the fire including your own, otherwise are you any better than CNN?

    There is more than one way of “leaving It there”