It was the kind of story that media reporter Brian Stelter would normally sink his teeth into — if only it didn’t involve him.
CNN said last week it was cancelling “Reliable Sources,” its 30-year-old program on the media, and letting Stelter go, part of a nascent effort by new management to reclaim a brand identity that it feels was damaged during the Trump era.
The news network, now under the Warner Discovery corporate banner and led since spring by CNN Worldwide Chairman Chris Licht, is trying to inject more balance into its programming and become less radioactive to Republicans. How and whether that can be accomplished remains a mystery.
“CNN has to figure out what it wants to be,” said Carol Costello, a former anchor there and now a journalism instructor at Loyola Marymount University.
Former President Donald Trump portrayed CNN as an enemy, and a Pew Research Center study illustrated the impact that had with his followers. In 2014, Pew found that one-third of people who identify or lean Republican said they distrusted CNN as a source for political news. By 2019, that number had shot up to 58 percent — higher distrust than The New York Times, The Washington Post or MSNBC.
And that was before the overheated 2020 election campaign and the anger over its outcome.
Last year’s firing of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after he helped his brother, former Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, behind the scenes, also hurt CNN’s reputation among Republicans, said Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP congressman from Florida.
As Trump attacked the network, CNN returned fire. Under previous leader Jeff Zucker, CNN figures became more opinionated on the air than they ever had before. Anderson Cooper once likened Trump to “an obese turtle on its back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over,” a remark he later apologized for.
“All mainstream media took a hit with the ascent of Donald Trump,” Costello said. “I really think he did a number on journalism in general, not just CNN. For a time we all played into it, and our reporting was kind of hysterical.”
CNN’s tone had a lot to do with changes in the network’s reputation, said Mark Whitaker, a veteran newsman 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 the brand perception?”
Being seen as a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel isn’t an issue for a news outlet that plays up partisanship. But for a company that has sold itself as an unbiased news source for more than 40 years — to viewers, to advertisers, to cable or satellite operators — that presents a problem.
Since Licht took over, morning anchor Brianna Keilar’s occasional takedowns of Fox coverage have disappeared. Although Licht hasn’t commented publicly on Stelter’s exit, the media reporter’s criticism of Fox was a regular feature of “Reliable Sources.”
It received little notice at the time, but cable news executive John Malone, now a member of the Warner Discovery board of directors, said in a CNBC interview last November that “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
Similarly, Warner Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav said at a company town hall in April that CNN should set itself apart from a cable news industry that is dominated by “advocacy networks.” CNN needs to be about reporting, truth and facts, he said.
“If we get that, we can have a civilized society,” said Zaslav, who appointed Licht. “And without it, if it all becomes advocacy, we don’t have a civilized society.”
Licht has given few interviews to outside journalists since taking over, and a CNN spokesman turned down a request for this article.
Licht has taken steps toward the goals his bosses have elucidated. He wants CNN anchors to be conscious of a perspective that they sometime talk down to people. He wants panel discussions to be informative, not dominated by extreme points of view. He wants to resist “outrage porn.” He ordered that the on-air “breaking news” banner be reserved for real breaking news.
Licht also went to Washington to meet with Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, his counterpart at the House.
Licht would like to see more Republicans appear on CNN for meaningful interviews, not necessarily to be used by them to appear tough to supporters for standing up to hostility. There have already been small signs of success in recent weeks: appearances by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Texas U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw.
“This is true of all three (cable news) networks: When you can get only members of one party to show up, it shows that your news division is lacking in credibility with essentially half the country,” said Curbelo, an NBC News contributor. It’s early, but Curbelo said he has liked what he’s seen with Licht so far.
The outreach with Republicans has raised some eyebrows, with Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella suggesting in a Los Angeles Times column that CNN was “eager to pander” to politicians detached from reality. And Eric Deggans, NPR’s television critic, said he’s worried about the risk of normalizing lies like the last presidential election was stolen.
“Sometimes journalists have been accused of being partisan when what they’ve really been doing is insisting upon the truth and refusing to go along with a political party that is redefining the truth to serve its own ends,” Deggans said.
CNN points out that Licht made a similar pitch to aides at President Joe Biden’s White House, showing demographic information of viewers to illustrate it would be worthwhile to appear for interviews. The network resists suggestions that lies would not be challenged, but said wants all Americans to feel their opinions are listened to.
“No matter what they do, they’ll be attacked,” Whitaker said. “Trump and others will continue to cry ‘fake news’ about anything they don’t like from the media.” But, he said, CNN has the best chance of any cable news network to reach an audience looking for a more balance in journalism.
Other visible moves are likely to come soon. Licht has been eyeing a shakeup of CNN’s morning hours and recently hired Ryan Kadro, a former CBS News colleague who handled that network’s morning show. CNN still has a hole in prime time, too: Chris Cuomo hasn’t 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 be clear with viewers about what’s being done. “The attitude of the new management seems to be, ‘Trust us, we have a plan.’”