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.
|The Daily Show With Jon Stewart||Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c|
|CNN Leaves It There|
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.