On Thursday, Sept. 1, in a prime-time speech at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, President Joe Biden described Trumpism as a clear and present danger to American democracy. During CNN’s analysis of the speech, White House correspondent John Harwood noted that the president’s core point was true. “That’s something that’s not easy for us as journalists to say,” said Harwood. “We’re 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. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election, and other things as well.”
The next day, on his Twitter account, Harwood announced he was leaving CNN effective immediately, and it was hard not to draw a direct connection to his frank on-air characterization of Trump’s Republican Party. Regardless of whether Harwood’s analysis itself was what earned him the heave-ho, or whether he felt free to speak so bluntly because he already knew he was being shown the door, the two incidents were clearly correlated.
Calling Donald Trump a dishonest demagogue shouldn’t be the sort of thing that might get a journalist in trouble. The statement is roughly as disputable as saying that fire is hot or water is wet. Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, pretended he didn’t, induced thousands of idiots to storm the U.S. Capitol in order to “stop the steal,” and is now using his political clout to support those midterm candidates who most aggressively subscribe to his election lies. Journalists are supposed to report the facts, and Trump’s dishonest demagoguery is one of the plainest facts of the present day.
So why does the new management at CNN seem so intent on pretending otherwise? The answer, of course, is because millions of Americans still support Trump and believe his obvious lies, and because CNN would like very much for some of these people to help boost the network’s flagging ratings. After the February departure of longtime network CEO Jeff Zucker, and the April merger of CNN’s parent company with Discovery, the network has been under a renewed mandate to build a stronger, more sustainable business in the cord-cutting era. But in its haste to renew its appeal with the sorts of old cranks who will be last in line to cancel their cable subscriptions, the network risks damaging its credibility as a news organization that can be counted on to tell the truth even when its viewers do not want to hear it.
Harwood’s departure was just one in a string of notable CNN departures over the past month. In August, longtime Reliable Sources host and occasional Fox News critic Brian Stelter lost his job when new network CEO Chris Licht abruptly canceled his show. This Friday, investigations editor Pervaiz Shallwani, whose team covered policing, announced on Twitter that he had “recently left CNN to pursue other projects.” Shallwani’s announcement came days after CNN had hired John Miller, recently the NYPD’s deputy commissioner of counterterrorism, who earlier this year had publicly defended the department’s controversial post-9/11 Muslim surveillance program.
The link between Harwood and Stelter, at least, is that both men had been conspicuously willing to speak blunt truths on air about the fundamental dishonesty and demagoguery of the modern GOP and the right-wing media outlets that wield misinformation as a tool of tribal cohesion. And all three departures come at a time when CNN as a whole seems to be actively tacking toward the middle, or at least an idea of it: pulling back on direct critiques of the Trumpist right while seeking out voices and perspectives that are equally as critical of Biden and the left. Many have speculated that this transition has been prompted by right-wing pressure in the new C-suite and boardroom—and, indeed, current Warner Bros. Discovery board member John Malone has gone on record as praising Fox News while noting that he’d like to see CNN “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
This take on the relative merits of Fox News and CNN indeed sounds like the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a very rich man who gave at least $250,000 to Trump’s 2017 presidential inauguration, and who is currently a director emeritus of the Cato Institute. But new CEO Licht, who before coming to CNN was executive producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, doesn’t strike me as an obvious right-wing hack, and partisan capture isn’t the only possible explanation for the recent personnel shifts at the network.
At the end of his final episode of Reliable Sources, Stelter expressed his belief that the world needs CNN to be strong. Put another way, in a highly partisan environment rife with factual instability and motivated misinformation, there is great value in having one authoritative source that a plurality of people trust to report the news as it actually is, a source with credibility on both sides of the aisle. This role as the One True Reliable Source is, I think, the one that CNN wants to regain after having lost a bunch of viewers who disliked what they perceived as constant opinionating about the president from ostensibly neutral analysts and reporters.
By curtailing the blunt assessments of Trump and Fox News and others in that same loopy, malignant orbit—assessments that, no matter how true they might be, likely aren’t changing anyone’s minds at this point, and which aren’t always absolutely central to the broad texture of the network’s reporting and analysis—CNN may well hope to win back some of the viewers who tune out when they hear Trump named as what he is. Over time, if these viewers start watching again, they might come to think more critically about the aggressive misinformation that pervades so much of the Trumpist right. In times of national crisis, then, these people might be more apt to trust CNN’s accurate reporting over the motivated illogic of people who are hoping to personally profit by stoking or exploiting those crises.
But if this is CNN’s best case for pursuing false balance while dissuading its personalities from calling Trumpism by its name, it’s not a very convincing one. News outlets earn their credibility not by euphemizing the truth in order to appeal to more people, but by telling the truth even when it’s difficult. How can CNN claim to speak with authority when it simultaneously seems to be muzzling some of its most morally articulate reporters? The fact that this seems to be the network’s path forward tells me that its new leaders fundamentally misunderstand the realities of media in the post-Facebook era.
CNN’s uniquely authoritative voice during the decade or so after its founding was largely the product of a constrained media environment in which news consumers lacked easy access to other options. Back then, major networks and newspapers were able to wield significant influence within the country and their communities because they were basically the only game in town. Today, though, the sphere of consensus has fractured, and no single “neutral” outlet now exerts the same level of influence that their predecessors did on mainstream opinion. CNN isn’t going to regain its pre-internet stature, because that stature was largely a function of the era’s structural limitations. People have more options now, and the big names in news and opinion no longer serve the same unifying roles that they once did. Instead, we’ve got countless smaller outlets that reach audiences cohered by their pre-existing affinities, as well as hordes of loons with Twitter and YouTube accounts who will passionately argue that compression socks and yelling are the real cures for COVID-19.
The point is that tacking to the middle in order to regain an authority that was largely the product of an expired era in media is a flawed strategy—and that constraining one’s reporters and analysts in response to bad-faith criticisms will ultimately make your network beholden to the biases of people who don’t actually value your work and will always just find some other dumb reason to hate you. No party or standpoint holds a monopoly on media criticism, and there are intelligent critiques of CNN to be found on the left, the right, and in the middle. But it’s also true that the dominant MAGA critique of CNN is not based on logical, objective responses to the network’s reporting and analysis: It’s based on Trump’s choice to thumb his nose at fact-based reporting while yelling “fake news, fake news” over and over. CNN will be hard-pressed to win back the viewers who fled during the Trump era, because their flight wasn’t rational in the first place. These lost viewers don’t want objective reporting: They want the network to suppress any and all criticism of Trump and the right, or at the very least to balance it out by criticizing Biden and the left in equal measure.
CNN should criticize Biden and the left when they deserve it. CNN—and, indeed, every hard-news outlet—should not align itself with any political party’s goals or fortunes. Democracy needs its media outlets to cultivate adversarial relationships with all who hold the levers of political power. But what happens when the nation is, objectively, in an era where the right qualitatively deserves more and deeper criticism than the left? What happens when the right is led by a demagogue driven exclusively by self-interest and the left is led by an old dude who stutters sometimes? Should the choice be to adhere to some outdated fairness principle and criticize both sides in equal measure?
This brand of false balance has poisonous side effects. If one political party claims that the presidential election was stolen, and the other says that it wasn’t, it is insufficient to just report the debate as if both sides have an equal claim on the truth. Refraining from calling out egregious lies for fear that doing so will offend the liars’ constituencies is a form of cowardice that emboldens the liar and ill-serves the rest of us. Choosing false balance and milquetoast smarm over competent analysis serves no one except for those on the right who are actively attacking the nation’s democratic foundations for their own personal gain.
It can be tempting for journalists to take a speech such as Biden’s Independence Hall address and, when analyzing it, focus on how abnormal it is for a sitting president to call out factions in the opposing party as anti-democratic—and to do so “against a backdrop of two Marines standing at attention and the Marine Band,” as CNN correspondent Jeff Zeleny wrote on Twitter. (Zeleny’s CNN colleague Brianna Keilar also called out the optics of positioning “Marines in uniform behind President Biden for a political speech”.) Fair enough! Reporters should be free to criticize the optics of Biden’s choices—but they also shouldn’t lose sight of the ongoing context in which those choices reside. There are norms and then there are norms, and the one that Biden transgressed by speaking so bluntly in Philadelphia came in response to the norm that Trump and so many on the right continue to transgress by pretending that the 2020 election was stolen. Any reporter who can’t see the difference—or who can see the difference but is nevertheless willing to primly claim false equivalence between the respective norm violations—ought to turn in their notepad.
As uncomfortable as it might make journalists who were trained in an ethic of strict neutrality to admit, Biden’s read on the threat that the MAGA movement poses to American democracy is absolutely accurate, and in times of great crisis it is a shallow and destructive choice to focus on tone rather than substance. Because the thing is that both Biden and John Harwood were right. It is definitionally dishonest to claim, over and over, that you won something that you lost, and it is definitionally demagogic to do so in order to rile up logically challenged voters so that they might help you retain public office.
By this point, the only people who would dispute Trump’s dishonest demagoguery are motivated by either stupidity or greed. By this point, the only people who would resist calling Donald Trump a demagogue are those people who have a vested interest in pretending that he isn’t. Is the perception of equity and nonbias the goal for the new CNN, or is the execution of truth-based reporting and analysis the goal? The latter is a goal that serves the country; the former is a goal that serves the people who want to destroy it.