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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    This is all Zaslav. He’s bought into the, ‘go woke, go broke’ thing. He’s dragging Warner Brothers and HBO into the right-wing Discovery universe.

    Unfortunately, ‘go woke, go broke’ is not entirely wrong, thanks to ham-fisted Hollywood. But more wrong is the notion of blending HBO and Discovery. It’s like opening a Gucci store in Lubbock. He’ll end up crippling CNN and HBO, then he’ll start dismembering his company to pay down debt and the whole thing will be a fiasco.

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  2. gVOR08 says:

    Where is the center? If Dems stay more or less where they were and GOPs move a mile to the right, does the center stay where it is or move half a mile right? What’s the proper midpoint between sane and crazy? When one Party’s actions show a clear policy (oligarchy) but their words another (faux populism) toward which does one go half way? When one party shows clearly fascist views is the center semi-fascist? Perhaps it would be simpler for journalists tether themselves to objective reality and let the chips fall where they may.

    Much lying and evasion flows from hidden agendas. Licht and Zaslav seem to be evading. If CNN settles into just reporting the news, that’ll be fine. Colbert was right about reality. But media no longer do that. The money is in entertainment and “just the facts, ma’am” isn’t all that entertaining. I fear they intend a GOP friendly pale imitation of FOX. Then, when that doesn’t prove profitable, they’ll go full FOX.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Because we don’t have enough “both sides” already.

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  4. charon says:

    It’s “centrist” in a form over substance way. Unchallenged lies favor the liars de facto.

    @gVOR08:

    Then, when that doesn’t prove profitable, they’ll go full FOX.

    Good luck with that.

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  5. Scott F. says:

    The profit-making drivers for journalism have been there since the town crier. I think what may be different now is a unique confluence of ever rampant commercialism and an apex of zero-sum thinking in a divided country.

    There is a spectrum of media journalism commercialism. It’s not just honest non-viability and snake-oil profiteering with nothing in between. And I’m confident there’s a market for truth-telling. It isn’t nearly as big as the one for telling people what they want to hear, but the truth market is certainly large enough that a media group could sell to that crowd and make enough to pay their employees a good salary yet still turn a reasonable profit. But, #1 in News is a title fervently sought as a lure to the mighty advertising dollar and we live in an era wired to follow the billionaire’s game of Whoever Dies with the Most Money Wins like it was gladiatorial combat. Let’s spend more time recognizing the courage of an Allahpundit enduring scorn for not joining the cult and less time giving a damn about the latest stupid thing said by Elon Musk.

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  6. Mister Bluster says:

    CNN is currently reporting about the pilot of a small plane in Mississippi threatening to crash his plane into a Tupelo Walmart.

  7. Andy says:

    I think this comes too late to save a dying industry. Cable news is the domain of aging boomers looking to have their biases confirmed. The viewership demographics show paltry number for anyone under the age of 40, and most of those are likely the hard-core ideologues looking to get their talking points or get outraged.

    As far as journalism goes, either you believe in first principles, or you don’t. The prevarication to toward partisan opposition is toxic to the profession, but don’t take my word for it.

    Journalism shares a lot of features with my former profession, but I believe it’s gone off the rails in the last decade, not because of Trump, but because the old business models died. It’s moved from a working class to an elite profession. It’s been decimated by competition thanks to the internet. Like everything else that relies on advertising, the profession has to focus on “engagement” above other considerations which is the path to ideological coverage. There’s a reason why cable news (and other parts of journalism) do not follow the principles that it used to – there’s very little money in it.

    I’ll repeat what I’ve said before – Cable “news” isn’t really news anymore – it’s thinly disguised propaganda. Anyone who watches cable news should be cognizant of that. And anyone who watches the ‘opinion’ shows is knowingly drinking deeply from the propaganda kool-aid and has zero moral authority to complain about “misinformation” or “fake news.”

    But I wish CNN luck. They’re not the first to try to return to the old model on which they were founded, and I’m skeptical they will find an audience considering how much ideology is baked in to the cable news business model.

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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    CNN is reporting that the stolen plane has landed and the thief, apparently an airport employee, is in custody.

  9. wr says:

    Oh, yes, they’re going to speak “truth to power,” but anyone who says anything bad about Donald Trump will be fired.

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  10. becca says:

    We got rid of cable years ago. There was a time when msnbc was on in the background constantly. I had to cut the cord. So no cable news for us. We put up an antenna and got our eyes opened. Talk about programming for geriatrics and boomers. Grit TV was made for alpha males. There are old westerns (did you know Henry Fonda did a tv western show well into his movie career?)

    Antenna tv has some truly weird religious stations and lots of ED and hair loss remedy commercials. HGH is a miracle supplement, apparently. Mike Huckabee is a big pitchman now and Chuck Woolery and friends pitch gold. Just one grift commercial after another. Fascinating.

    As for CNN, I got nuthin’.

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  11. Scott says:

    I don’t subscribe to any basic streaming service so what TV news I get is whatever comes off the Firestick. I find myself liking Haymarket News which is basically a video news clip service cycling ABC, CBS, NBC, Bloomberg, Newsy, Cheddar, Euronews, DK, Aljizeera, Yahoo, and several others. There is some customization capability by topic also. CBSnews.com during the day is a straight anchored news program that seems mostly straight reporting.

  12. Andy says:

    Anyone who wants to see what a cesspool cable news has become should watch an hour of programming on one of the US “news” shows and then go watch an hour of France24, Al Jazeera, or even the BBC.

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  13. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Licht has told CNN staff that he hopes to see more Republican politicians making guest appearances.

    My response to that would be “I would hope so to. Bring me a Republican politician who isn’t lying every time his lips move, and I’ll put him on.”

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  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    He’ll end up crippling CNN and HBO, then he’ll start dismembering his company to pay down debt… [that he forces the company to accrue and pay to him?]

    What makes anyone thing this isn’t Plan A? It’s a time-honored way for venture capitalists to make money, after all. It’s not new or anything.

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  15. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “He’ll end up crippling CNN and HBO, then he’ll start dismembering his company to pay down debt and the whole thing will be a fiasco.”

    I remember many years ago when MGM was coming out of one of their first bankruptcies, they paid the then-ludicrous sum of one million dollars for the rights to Gay Talese’s nonfiction “Thy Nieghbor’s Wife,” even though it was clear there wasn’t a movie in there. It was a signal to the creative community — we’re open for business, we’re willing to pay, and we want to make deals.

    Zaslav takes over Warners and his first move is to kill an almost-finished Bagirl film on which the studio spent a reported $90 million because if no one ever saw it they could snag a lucrative tax break. That, too, is a signal to the creative community — fuck off, money matters, you guys don’t.

    There aren’t that many places to take a project these days, but I’m pretty sure WB is going to be last on everyone’s list pretty soon.

    But yeah, Zaslav will sell off pieces of the company to pay down the debt he incurred and destroy its value. But he’ll walk away with a bundle, and what’s more important than that?

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  16. EddieInCA says:

    @wr:

    Having a front row seat to the bloodbath that is currently happening Warner Bros every single week, I can only say that I’m waiting for them to get to the TV side of the cuts. They’ve decimated Marketing, HR, International, Features, Publicity, Marketing, and several other divisions. The cuts to TV are coming, but they’re not here yet. Just a matter of time. Morale at the studio sucks, because it feels like they just don’t give a shit about any of the WB history, IP, or the role creative trust plays in this town. They’ve pushed away most of their biggest hit creators already, and those they haven’t, they’ve pissed off in other ways.

    I’d be okay if they were to not renew my contract. It’s not currently a fun place to be.

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  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Good luck “restoring trust” to journalism when there is a Republican medium ecosystem screaming (unchallenged) that the truth is a lie and that Democrats are out to destroy them and America.

    No media source that doesn’t support the narrative the Republican media ecosystem is painting will be “trusted”.

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  18. Barry says:

    James, I disagree 100%. These people reacted to Trump by honestly reporting on him. That’s not partisan, except in the sense that the Right knows whom truth hurts.

  19. James Miller says:

    Here’s a recent column by Eric Wemple at the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/05/cnn-msnbc-trump-left-turn/

    Key point:

    According to a study published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, both CNN and MSNBC swerved radically to the left between 2016 and 2021.

    A sharp cable-news divergence opened up during prime-time hours, the study found: “Polarization was driven by all three channels, but there was a sharper turn to the left in 2016 among MSNBC and CNN than there was a right turn [at] Fox News,” says one of the study’s co-authors, Yphtach Lelkes, an associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, speaking to the prime-time gap under Trump.

    (Links omitted.)

    I despise Donald Trump, but I recognize that his rise owes something to an increasingly partisan press. As the number of Republicans in newsrooms has declined over the last 20 years, so has the trust of Republicans in our “mainstream” news organizations.

    And now a prediction: This month, unless Congress has changed the law, the State Department will make a report on the PEPFAR program, George W. Bush’s anti-AIDS program. It has saved an estimated 20 million lives, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa — so far.

    I predict that the latest report will receive almost no coverage from our “mainstream” news organizations.

  20. DK says:

    @James Miller:

    I despise Donald Trump, but I recognize that his rise owes something to an increasingly partisan press. As the number of Republicans in newsrooms has declined over the last 20 years, so has the trust of Republicans in our “mainstream” news organizations.

    The anti-Republican “partisan press” that elected Donald Trump’s fascism by destroying Hillary’s approval rating with the sexist, phony Emailghazigatepalooza national bitch hunt while downplaying Trump’s shady Russia collusion until it was too late.

    The anti-Republican-free “partisan press” that gave Trump billions in free advertising — showing his empty podium while ignoring Hillary’s policy speeches.

    The anti-Republican “partisan press” that partnered with Steve Bannon to smear the Clinton Foundation with “Clinton Cash” bullshit.

    The anti-Republican “partisan press” that trashed Biden for ending the endless Afghan war and for student debt relief, because how dare he put the American people over war contractors and fat cat establishmentarians.

    Pfft.

    Whenever my indignant conservative friends challenge me to name one good thing about Trump, my response is, “He’s right that the mainstream media is garbage. Just not for the reasons y’all think.”

    That any Democrat still trusts the Beltway media is one of the great mysteries of our time. I permanently opted out of cable news after their 2016 coverage disaster.

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  21. DK says:

    @James Miller:

    This month, unless Congress has changed the law, the State Department will make a report on the PEPFAR program, George W. Bush’s anti-AIDS program. It has saved an estimated 20 million lives, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa — so far.

    I predict that the latest report will receive almost no coverage from our “mainstream” news organizations.

    Maybe they’re trying to balance how they sold Bush’s Iraq War lies, the cascading effects of which ended and otherwise destroyed millions upon millions of lives.

    Good luck to Bush Republicans on their rehabilitation tour tho. Have they apologized yet for torture-apologetics and making demonization of gays (who knows how many suicides that contributed to) a centerpiece of W.’s re-election campaign?

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  22. DK says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Morale at the studio sucks, because it feels like they just don’t give a shit about any of the WB history, IP, or the role creative trust plays in this town.

    Sad. I left the studio many years ago for this reason. WB paid for my college education. Without giving away the department I worked in as a twentysomething on the Burbank lot and ranch, I found a very talented woman writer. We trained her.

    Only to be told by a series of studio-side TV executives she was too old. Too old to be a writer? Wtf?

    After two days of me screaming at these people about their stupidity, my boss sent me home for the week to cool off. The following week my grandma visited. Brought her to the lot for a VIP tour. I was shocked to find the memorabilia of Bette Davis, her favorite actress and a key figure in studio history, gone from the lot museum.

    In fact, most of the classic era had been scrubbed from the museum and the tour. Replaced with stuff from comic book adaptations and Harry Potter.

    Crystallized for me everything wrong with Warner Bros and modern Hollywood. That same day, I made up my mind to resign go get a grad degree in psychology.

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  23. Gavin says:

    Zaslav contributed large $$ to Trump’s PAC, fires every CNN reporter who says something not sufficiently fawning about Republicans… and wonders why Democrats don’t trust anyone on that network? “Fox Lite” isn’t exactly a big audience.. but it can become an ethos, I guess.

    One of the greatest lies perpetuated in recent decades is the apparently-now-unfalsifiable myth that media is liberal. If anything, media is center-RIGHT.. and always has been. Thus, when Fox asserts media is leftist.. it’s more that they’re staking a claim on being super-double-extreme right.

    Go find John Harwood’s final speech on CNN in which he called Trump a dishonest demagogue.. objective reality is not friendly to Republicans in the same way that sunlight isn’t supportive of vampires.