How CNN’s crisis echoes previous episodes of major US TV networks | CNN
VSnews ratings are down sharply, public trust in journalists is at an all-time low and one of the most famous names in the media business is in a post-pandemic C-suite crisis ahead of a major midterm election.
But the money keeps pouring in, at roughly $1 billion a year in profits for its parent company, AT&T’s WarnerMedia, as data-driven content decisions push the network toward tabloid-like obsessions and a tone rooted in exaggeration and alarm.
CNN, the company founded in 1980 by Ted Turner with revenue from one of the world’s largest libraries of classic films, has found itself at a crossroads that, internally, looks like a crisis at least.
Two weeks ago, CNN President Jeff Zucker was abruptly fired for failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a senior colleague. Few believe the account, as the relationship had been known for years and at least one CNN host, Don Lemon, shed tears on air at Zucker’s departure.
Zucker’s departure seemed more likely tied to another outrageous firing, that of show host Chris Cuomo, who is suing the network for up to $60 million after being fired for playing an inordinate and unstated role. in the formation of the defense of his brother, the former governor of New York. Andrew Cuomo, against allegations of sexual harassment.
The scandals echo previous episodes in which executives of major US television organizations were accused of establishing a culture of impunity for other senior executives, almost always men. This seems to illustrate a larger problem in the upper echelons of these companies: extremely powerful organizations whose leaders seem to have assumed that the normal rules did not apply to them.
Take CNN’s big rival, Fox News. In 2016, Fox News chief Roger Ailes was fired after a sexual harassment scandal. A complaint filed by the shareholdersnaming Ailes’ estate as well as 21st Century Fox majority shareholder Rupert Murdoch alleged that Ailes had “sexually harassed female employees and associates with impunity for at least a decade” and that Murdoch and others allowed Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly to harass several employees.
The company paid $55 million to settle sexual harassment claims and lost key female anchors, including Megyn Kelly, Greta Van Susteren and Gretchen Carlson, afterwards.
The Fox News scandal was followed two years later by a sexual harassment scandal involving CBS CEO Leslie Moonves, which included allegations of an attempted cover-up by CBS executives. Moonves was later denied a $120 million severance package. This followed the firing of CBS morning show co-anchor Charlie Rose in November 2017 after several women accused him of harassment and misconduct.
But CNN’s troubles, while lacking comparable charges against Zucker, whose relationship was consensual, suggest other issues are at play in a new industry in a near-constant state of turmoil.
CNN’s viewership in the first week of January was down 90% overall and in the critical demographic coveted by advertisers from a year earlier, while the network — like its ideological counterpoint and previously plagued by Fox News scandals – draws criticism for editorial positions.
According to Ariana Pekary, public editor for CNN at the Columbia Journalism Review and MSNBC reporter who now focuses on the systemic flaws in commercially broadcast news, the story of a toxic male-dominated culture doesn’t fully describe the problems facing America’s broadcast industry.
Instead, some of the issues involve what’s on screen, not who’s behind it.
“Zucker was hyper-focused on ratings and financial incentives and that drove the shifts in news toward opinion because opinion drives ratings,” Pekary said. “CNN is more about trying to create a narrative that they think audiences will follow, so they build coverage around certain characters that are in the news every day or will reappear.”
Zucker was brought to CNN in 2012, two years after leaving NBC, where he led the entertainment division’s ratings with shows like Donald Trump’s The Apprentice, which helped restore his public image and, some say, made his presidency possible.
Despite Zucker’s background in reality television and the morning news, CNN’s parent company Time Warner hired Zucker to boost ratings and inject “more passion” into the programming.
According to the Washington Post, Zucker managed to monetize the network by expanding programming beyond news. Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown was among the new offerings, along with a new documentary division designed to create programming for weekend viewers.
Pekary left MSNBC in 2020, written on his site this coming from public radio, “where no decision I’ve ever witnessed was based on how a subject or guest would be ‘rated’, on cable news ‘I’ve seen such picks – c is virtually integrated into the editorial process – and those decisions affect news content every day”.
The pressure to make editorial decisions based on polls and audience data, Pekary says, starts in morning press briefings — where Zucker was famously an ever-present force at CNN. “That’s why the hour-to-hour coverage sticks to the same stories and narratives. They make decisions about what they think is best, based on what worked well and social media.
Pekary recently noted that in the absence of Donald Trump to drive the ratings, CNN has pushed aggressively into “the realm of tabloid-like content.” There was Gabby Petito, the Long Island woman murdered by her boyfriend in Wyoming, and Alec Baldwin’s involvement in the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins.
The problem is not exclusive to cable news, but only exaggerated. The dedication to ratings, says Pekary, has warped editorial control and credibility in cable news and the news industry in general.
According to data from the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, 56% of Americans agree with the statement that “journalists and reporters deliberately try to mislead people by saying things they know to be untrue or grossly exaggerating.”
An even higher percentage – 58% – said they thought “most news outlets are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public”.
For CNN, the Cuomo saga began with Chris Cuomo often interviewing his brother on air — a clear conflict of interest — before escalating into a sexual harassment confrontation. After Jeffrey Toobin, a longtime CNN legal analyst, exposed himself during a Zoom call with colleagues at The New Yorker, he was put back on the air.
The devotion to data has created opportunities to compete with other, sometimes controversial, sources. Two weeks ago, podcaster Joe Rogan found himself in a public feud with Neil Young and others over Covid misinformation.
Pekary says cable news could redeem itself if it focused more on gathering news and less on selling opinions, which is cheaper to produce outside of massive on-air talent salaries. It doesn’t matter who is responsible. But with CNN making $1 billion in profits for its parent company, the incentive for change is limited.
“No matter who’s in charge, I don’t see this format changing as much as I think it will,” she said. “They spend an awful lot of time, especially in prime time, rehashing the outrage of the day when they could produce much better news programming with a different format that actually informs a wider audience, but they opt for the lowest common denominator.”