CNN’s Centrist Gambit
What does objectivity mean in the Trump era?
WaPo’s Jeremy Barr muses, “‘Is there a purge?’: John Harwood’s CNN exit viewed as strategy shift.”
CNN parted ways with veteran White House correspondent John Harwood on Friday in what network insiders viewed as the latest evidence of a shift to a less politically charged tone under new leader Chris Licht.
His exit follows the abrupt departure of CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, host of the weekly media news show “Reliable Sources,” which had aired for three decades until it was canceled last month. Like Harwood, Stelter had time remaining on his contract. Another longtime CNN commentator, legal-affairs pundit Jeffrey Toobin, announced his departure on Aug. 12.
Several current and former CNN employees who spoke with The Washington Post — most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly — are interpreting the sudden exodus as evidence that Licht, who joined the network as chairman and CEO in May, is starting his tenure by casting out voices that had often been critical of former president Donald Trump and his allies, in an effort to present a new, more ideologically neutral CNN. That aligns with a vision repeatedly expressed by David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery.
Zaslav hired Licht to replace Jeff Zucker, the network’s ousted longtime leader, who had encouraged an earlier tonal shift at CNN by allowing the network’s stars to express more emotion and opinion.
“People are freaked out,” said one CNN journalist. “It almost feels like there’s a pattern. Is there a purge going on? They seem to be sending a message: ‘Watch what you say. Watch what you do.'”
Licht has provided little guidance publicly about a new mission for CNN, leaving some employees feeling unmoored. “Longtime CNN personalities are disappearing, and the viewers don’t know why,” another CNN insider said, noting that Licht has not hired many new voices to replace them.
Harwood’s vocal commentary set him apart from many of his CNN peers. In his final reporting appearance Friday morning, Harwood called Trump a “dishonest demagogue” when discussing President Biden’s address from Philadelphia the previous night. Harwood added that the “core point” of Biden’s speech, which asserted that Trump and his supporters present a threat to democracy, “is true.”
Harwood acknowledged on-air that his own statement veered from the conventions of traditional journalism. “We are brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them,” he said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements.”
Harwood’s comment came across as an intentional “last salvo,” said Wajahat Ali, a political commentator who served as a CNN contributor in 2019 and 2020. “I don’t think it was an accident,” Ali said.
The rise of Trump and the MAGA takeover of the Republican Party have forced a reexamination of longstanding journalistic norms. In the modern era, there was supposed to be a firewall between news reporting and opinion, analysis, and editorial. News should be “Just the facts, Ma’am” and opinions should be clearly labeled such.
Trump and company took advantage of this norm, as they did so many others, disregarding it while knowing others were constrained. After his shocking victory in 2016, many news outlets, including CNN and WaPo, decided, not unreasonably, this his governance constituted an existential crisis and removed the firewall, slowly at first and eventually almost entirely. News reports would flatly declare that what Trump was saying wasn’t true, rather than simply quoting experts saying that and letting readers decide.
Harwood’s view—that there is only truth and Republican Party propaganda—has become the predominant one in American political journalism. And, if not exactly right, it’s pretty close. But, quite naturally, it reads as Democratic partisanship.
CNN has been somewhat left-leaning since its founding by Ted Turner. But its brand has long been a relatively centrist, mainstream alternative to the partisan spin offered by Fox and MSNBC. I understand both why Licht wants to resurrect and reinforce that brand and why the network’s talent is fearful of what it means. And it certainly seems that Licht is doing a piss poor job of telling them.
Licht has told CNN staff that he hopes to see more Republican politicians making guest appearances. He visited Capitol Hill in July and held meetings with key Democrats and Republicans.
But the network has pushed back on suggestions that Licht was specifically trying to curry favor with Republicans, saying that he just wants to make CNN “a place for fair and respectful dialogue, analysis and debate.”
Licht’s early actions in the job are being closely watched in light of comments by John Malone, a major shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery, who said on CNBC last fall that he “would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists.”
In an interview last month with the New York Times, Malone denied that he was involved in the decision to push out Stelter. He said he wants “the news portion of CNN to be more centrist” but that he is “not in control or directly involved.”
In a memo to staff in May, Licht said he wants CNN to help regain the trust that many people have lost in media, by “fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘group-think,’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints.”
But one of the CNN journalists who spoke with The Post said that colleagues are still trying to figure out where, exactly, the new lines are being drawn. “I think they’re hoping people will just guess what to do.”
A veteran producer at the network, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment, expressed concerns about how the recent departures — and the message they have sent internally — will affect coverage of the upcoming midterm and presidential elections, which could include Trump as a candidate.
“It’s a really confusing and unsettling time from top to bottom at CNN,” the producer said. “I don’t know anyone who is happy right now.”
I honestly don’t know what the answer to all of this is. The traditional “balanced” approach, with roughly equal emphasis on quotes from both sides, simply doesn’t work in the Trump era. It was disastrous in 2016, treating Hillary Clinton’s misdemeanors as no different from Trump’s felonies. At the same time, outlets that simply treat Republican candidates as threats to the Republic will simply be tuned out by everyone who doesn’t already believe that.