The recent conviction of Trump antagonist Michael Avenatti should prompt some serious assessment of how a high-profile lawyer for a porn star and now convicted felon was for so many weeks the darling of a major cable news channel.
Avenatti appeared on CNN well over two hundred times in less than a year, according to NewsBusters. One CNN host even touted Avenatti as a presidential candidate. Apparently, nobody at CNN pondered the viability of Avenatti as a genuine news source. That he was anti-Trump seemed sufficient.
Then there was the seemingly insignificant Twitter post in July 2017 when attorney Mark Zaid predicted CNN would “play a key role” in President Donald Trump “not finishing out his full term as president.” Zaid then fully entered the public eye last fall as attorney for the impeachment whistleblower. He had just days before that 2017 tweet appeared on CNN. His prediction now doesn’t seem to have been mere prescience, but rather inside knowledge of CNN’s apparent strategy of gearing programming to batter Trump. Zaid has, himself, supported the CNN effort, appearing on the channel numerous times in 2019.
CNN proudly leads the media arm of the Trump resistance, focusing for months on Russian collusion and the Mueller investigation, then seamlessly switching to Ukraine and impeachment. News consumers didn’t need to see Project Veritas’ video last fall to suspect CNN president Jeff Zucker was directing the legendary news channel to go full bore on impeachment.
The impeachment inquiry and subsequent trial was obviously real news, as was the Russian collusion investigation, but the one-note song CNN played overlooked lots of other news stories that also needed to be on the agenda. The issue is not that impeachment or the Mueller investigation got covered, but in what proportion and with what tone. The public deserves measured coverage without cheering from the press box.
A news organization that tries too hard to push a cause or ride an ideological high horse is just bound to make missteps that sensible journalistic decision-making would otherwise avoid. Like Wolf Blitzer last fall asking Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway about her marital “issues” when she was on set to presumably discuss the House impeachment inquiry or CNN hiring former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe as a contributor last summer. That’s the same McCabe who was canned after the Justice Department determined he leaked to the media. McCabe should be the subject of news rather than an analyst of it.
And how about CNN media analyst Brian Stelter bringing actor Robert DeNiro on set recently to blast Trump in a foul-mouthed, rambling barrage of cheap shots that included the conspiracy notion that Trump won’t leave the White House should he lose the next election. This is a weird era in which pop culture blends with public affairs, but the public surely suffers when radical actors are given a platform as supposed national policy experts.
Jim Sciutto was a veteran journalist when he took a political appointment to work in the Obama administration. Then he came back across the journalism/political divide and now serves as a CNN anchor and chief national security correspondent. It is hard to return to objective reporting once you work in the political arena. Maybe that’s why he reached too far for a “scoop” last fall about a Russian spy that the CIA remarkably rebuked.
Then there is CNN’s grandstanding Trump antagonist, Jim Acosta, who brings his predisposition to every report as chief White House correspondent. Of course, CNN’s prime time lineup also features Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, both of whose shows transparently demonstrate where each anchor stands on any issue.
CNN should ponder how long it wants to plod down this destructive path, relegating itself to a non-competitive third place in the cable news battle, and buried in the all-cable rankings. The marketplace has been speaking to CNN and CNN has not been listening. Even CNN founder Ted Turner criticized the channel last year for its obsession with politics at the expense of anything else. Research by the Morning Consult found that CNN is the second most polarizing brand in the nation, trailing only Trump Hotels. That’s a worse showing than The New York Times, Fox News, MSNBC, and even Smith and Wesson.
The political activist strategy at CNN goes over fine with Trump resistance viewers, but diminishes the nation’s public sphere and professional journalism. One must wonder if even legendary newsman Walter Cronkite could have found a place at CNN. After all, he once said a journalist covering politics has a duty to “not permit our prejudices to show. That is simply basic journalism.”
At this point, CNN should acknowledge its in-kind approach to the political world and perhaps just register as a political action committee. Otherwise, it simply comes off looking like the “Confused News Network.”
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University. Follow him on Twitter: @Prof_McCall