Same as the old boss? | WORLD
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Same as the old boss?

TRENDING | New CNN head’s rebranding attempts haven’t changed the network’s liberal slant—or its dismal ratings

Illustration by Brian Hubble

Same as the old boss?
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When CNN cashiered ­domineering boss Jeff Zucker and hired Chris Licht as his replacement in May, there was a lot of talk about how CNN would attempt to curtail its blatant editorializing of the Trump years and restore a more sober brand of broadcasting.

Ratings had been falling, and network leaders reportedly wanted to restore CNN to its “brand” status—like the Coke or Pepsi of news. “CNN is not shifting from left to right or pursuing a centrist position,” a CNN spokesperson told The Hill. “We are entirely focused on our core strength and mission—objective journalism, presented in a fair and compelling way.”

It’s easy to argue that CNN’s “objective journalism” brand has been tarnished for a long time—if not pureed into soup under Trump. The network has long been a de facto publicist for Democratic presidents and a crusading critic of Republican ones.

Licht wants CNN to return to its subtler 1990s style (even if conservatives mocked it even then as the Clinton News Network.) To that end, stars like Brian Stelter and John Harwood were sent packing, but some outspoken anti-Trump anchors remain. Jim Acosta, for example, is still there, and so is Don Lemon, who has argued on-air that yelling at Republicans is the essence of journalism. And while there are fewer hour-on-the-hour commentaries by anchors, anyone watching CNN daily isn’t seeing a dramatic shift.

Except for left-wing Twitter personalities, that is, some of whom say CNN wants to be Fox News. When CNN anchor Brianna Keilar criticized President Joe Biden for using the United States Marines as the backdrop for a highly politicized speech in which he railed against Republicans, liberals complained this was the new CNN. But Keilar’s critique was an exception and not the rule.

Meanwhile, some of Licht’s stated preferences in news coverage are simply being ignored. For example, he expressed distaste for the term “The Big Lie”—describing Trump’s assertion that his reelection was stolen—but it’s still routinely used on air. One anonymous CNN staffer told Vanity Fair: “I really hope that we don’t ‘both-sides’ democracy. I really hope that we don’t go back to false equivalence.” Translation: Trump’s refusal to concede defeat means CNN can claim its tilt toward Democrats is its duty to “democracy.”

CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht

CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery

That tilt remains, as revealed when CNN interviews Biden or Vice President Kamala Harris. In June, Dana Bash interviewed Harris and asked six questions on abortion, all from a left-wing ­perspective. Later, CNN aired more of the interview, with Bash asking Harris another 10 questions, also from a ­liberal perspective. Bash ended with a pair of toothless questions about ­inflation and one about whether Donald Trump should be prosecuted for Jan. 6.

Jake Tapper debuted his new prime time show in October with a Biden interview. In a discussion of the economy, Tapper went along with the ­president in pretending America is not currently in a recession. When Biden dropped his crib sheet for the interview, Tapper ­helpfully handed it back to him without comment.

But Tapper’s worst softball was this open-ended question: “Prosecutors think they have enough to charge your son, Hunter, for tax crimes and a false statement about a gun purchase. Personally and politically, how do you react to that?”

An anchor concerned with facts might have elicited more of them had he asked Biden about how Democrats insisted Hunter’s laptop was a phony Russian plot before the 2020 election, but now admit it’s not. Or how, given the laptop evidence, Biden can possibly say routinely that he didn’t discuss Hunter’s business clients with him.

Tapper’s interview with the president drew only 854,000 viewers, less than a third of the 2.6 million who watched Sean Hannity during the same time slot on Fox News. Which makes some CNN rebranding tactics—such as moving the factually erratic Don Lemon to mornings—seem a ­little like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Comparing Republicans to Nazis or segregationists a little less often isn’t moving to the center, even if it is a positive step.

When it comes to Republicans, CNN’s favorites are still Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, both (for now at least) House members who defied the GOP and joined Nancy Pelosi’s special Jan. 6 committee to provide it with a veneer of bipartisanship.

So nothing’s changed there. But there are still subtle ways CNN could approach 1990s normalcy. Like dialing back political news and airing more features on health, celebrities or sports. That happens some days, but the result at this point is really just a softer tone rather than any real move away from liberal bias. (Comparing Republicans to Nazis or segregationists a little less often isn’t moving to the center, even if it is a positive step.)

A 1971 hit song by The Who featured a famous lyric: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.” Chris Licht may be trying to guide CNN in a new direction, but so far nothing much has changed.

—Tim Graham is executive editor of NewsBusters at the Media Research Center

Tim Graham Tim is a former WORLD reporter.


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