CNN management wants to change the perception of the network

NEW YORK — It was the kind of story that media reporter Brian Stelter would normally sink his teeth into—if only he wasn’t involved.

CNN said last week it canceled “Reliable Sources,” the 30-year-old media program, and let Stelter go, as part of a burgeoning effort by new management to reclaim a brand identity it feels has been damaged. during the Trump era.

The news network, now under the Warner Discovery corporate banner and led by CNN Worldwide chairman Chris Licht since the spring, is trying to balance its programming and become less radioactive for Republicans. How and whether this is possible remains a mystery.

“CNN needs to figure out what it wants to be,” said Carol Costello, a former anchor there and now a journalism professor at Loyola Marymount University.

Former President Donald Trump portrayed CNN as an enemy, and a Pew Research Center survey illustrated the impact this had on his followers. In 2014, Pew found that a third of people who identify or lean on Republicans said they distrust CNN as a source for political news. By 2019, that number had risen to 58 percent — more distrust than The New York Times, The Washington Post, or MSNBC.

And that was before the overheated 2020 election campaign and the anger at its outcome.

The firing of CNN host Chris Cuomo last year after helping his brother, former New York Democratic governor Andrew Cuomo, go behind the scenes also damaged CNN’s reputation among Republicans, said Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP executive. congressman from Florida.

When Trump attacked the network, CNN returned fire. Under previous leader Jeff Zucker, CNN numbers got more cocky in the air than ever before. Anderson Cooper once likened Trump to “an obese turtle on his back, swaying in the hot sun, realizing his time is up,” a comment he later apologized for.

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“All mainstream media has been dealt a blow with the rise of Donald Trump,” Costello said. “I really think he did a song about journalism in general, not just CNN. For a while we all played in it, and our coverage was quite hysterical.”

CNN’s tone had a lot to do with changes in the network’s reputation, said Mark Whitaker, a veteran journalist and former CNN executive. CNN had higher ratings and more buzz under Zucker, but Whitaker asked, “Was it worth it in terms of the way it changed brand perception?”

Being seen as a liberal alternative to the Fox News Channel is no problem for a news channel that promotes partisanship. But for a company that has sold itself as an unbiased news source for over 40 years – to viewers, to advertisers, to cable or satellite operators – that poses a problem.

Since Light took over, the occasional takedowns of Fox coverage by morning anchor Brianna Keilar have disappeared. While Licht has not publicly commented on Stelter’s departure, the media reporter’s criticism of Fox has been a regular feature of “Reliable Sources.”

It received little attention at the time, but cable news director John Malone, now a Warner Discovery board member, said in a CNBC interview last November, “I’d love to see CNN evolve back into the kind of journalism it started with, and even have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”

Likewise, David Zaslav, president and CEO of Warner Discovery, said in a company town hall in April that CNN should differentiate itself from a cable news industry dominated by “advocacy networks.” CNN should be about reporting, truth and facts, he said.

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“If we get that, we can have a civilized society,” said Zaslav, who appointed Licht. “And without that, if it all becomes advocacy, we won’t have a civilized society.”

Light has given few interviews to outside journalists since the acquisition, and a CNN spokesperson turned down a request for this article.

Light has taken steps toward the goals his bosses have clarified. He wants CNN anchors to be aware of a perspective that they sometimes speak condescendingly to people. He wants panel discussions to be informative, not dominated by extreme views. He wants to oppose ‘outraged porn’. He ordered that the on-air “breaking news” banner be reserved for real breaking news.

Light also went to Washington to meet with Republican leaders, including Senate Leader Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, his counterpart in the House.

Licht would like to see more Republicans appear on CNN for meaningful interviews, not necessarily to be used by them to appear harsh on supporters for standing up to hostility. In recent weeks there have been small signs of success: appearances by Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina and Dan Crenshaw, the US Representative from Texas.

“This goes for all three (cable news) networks: When you can only have members of one party appear, it shows that your news department is not credible with essentially half the country,” said Curbelo, an NBC News contributor . It’s early, but Curbelo said he’s liked what he’s seen with Light so far.

Contact with Republicans has raised some eyebrows, with Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella suggesting in a Los Angeles Times column that CNN is “eager to give in” to politicians detached from reality. And Eric Deggans, NPR’s television critic, said he’s concerned about the risk of normalizing lies, as if the last presidential election was stolen.

“Sometimes journalists have been accused of being partisan when in reality they are pushing for the truth and refusing to go along with a political party that is redefining the truth to serve its own ends,” Deggans said.

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CNN points out that Licht made a similar pitch with White House aides to President Joe Biden, showing viewer demographics to illustrate it would be worth appearing for interviews. The network opposes suggestions that lies shouldn’t be challenged, but said all Americans want to feel like their opinions are being listened to.

“Whatever they do, they will be attacked,” Whitaker said. “Trump and others will continue to shout ‘fake news’ about everything they don’t like about the media.” But, he said, CNN has a cable news network’s best chance of reaching an audience seeking a more balanced journalism.

Other visible movements are likely to follow soon. Light has been watching CNN’s morning hours and recently hired Ryan Kadro, a former CBS News colleague who ran that network’s morning show. CNN also still has a gap in prime time: Chris Cuomo has not been replaced since he was fired last December.

But what’s next remains unclear, which Deggans advised against. He called on CNN’s leaders to make it clear to viewers what is being done. “The attitude of the new management seems to be, ‘Trust us, we have a plan.'”


David Bauder is the media writer for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter

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