CNN has changed dramatically since it went on the air in 1980. Back then, it covered news.
The Washington Post seems to labor under the delusion that it still does. In what was presented as a hard news story, the paper claimed that CNN only recently abandoned cable news’ “industry-wide standards of impartiality” to become more “authentic.” Reporter Jeremy Barr shoehorned that assumption into the headline, “The new CNN is more opinionated and emotional. Can it still be ‘the most trusted name in news?’”
Under network president Jeff Zucker, CNN’s once studiously neutral team now call out politicians, share their feelings and occasionally cry on air. It doesn’t seem to hurt ratings. https://t.co/RCTBBnyxV3
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) May 12, 2021
Applying the same level of sophistication and misguided assumptions could produce a question like, “Santa Claus has gained so much weight. Can he still make it around the world in one night?” Yet Barr, boasted online, “I spent about two months tracing the evolution of CNN over the last two decades, talking with anchors from different eras and finally speaking with network president Jeff Zucker about encouraging his on-air personalities to be more ‘real’ and ‘human.’”
I spent about two months tracing the evolution of CNN over the last two decades, talking with anchors from different eras and finally speaking with network president Jeff Zucker about encouraging his on-air personalities to be more “real” and “human.” https://t.co/TOHPt5bIgc
— Jeremy Barr (@jeremymbarr) May 12, 2021
Barr admitted that he couldn’t find any “obvious moment when CNN pivoted away from” its alleged “studiously neutral impartiality.” But ultimately, he traced CNN’s change to the beginning of Jeffrey Zucker’s tenure with the company … in 2012. Zucker let the anchors begin crying and exclaiming profanity on the air.
True, Barr confessed, “to some ears, and during some stories, CNN’s new emotional rawness can sound like bias.” But, he concluded, you can’t argue with success.
“[W]hile some viewers may miss the old strait-laced, just-the-facts CNN, the new strategy seems to be working,” Barr wrote. “In 2020, an extremely newsy year, it attracted its largest audience in its 40-year history.”
Actually, Barr blew the most verifiable fact of the story: CNN’s largest audience came in January 2021. Is he right that viewers rewarded CNN for shedding its pretense of objectivity and embracing the anchors’ “authenticity?” For that matter, was CNN ever “the most trusted name in news?”
Like most subjects, which news source the public trusts depends on which public you ask. A YouGov poll last June found the majority (57%) of Republicans trusted only one news outlet: Fox News. Other media that posted respectable numbers include the Wall Street Journal and One America News Network (OANN). Rounding out the bottom were The Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC, trusted by about one in ten conservatives.
But among Democrats, The Washington Post, CNN, and The New York Times held a virtual three-way tie for first place, followed closely by MSNBC and The Wall Street Journal. So, Barr didn’t misstate the facts; he just told us that he’s a Democrat — which should have been clear based on his position as a reporter for The Washington Post.
But Barr reads CNN’s ratings history backwards. During its heyday as a putatively down-the-middle news organization, CNN ruled the airwaves as the first 24-hour cable news channel. The pioneering experiment was so successful that, two years later, it spawned Headline News.
But while CNN’s transmogrification into a shrill, hyper-partisan mouthpiece went into overdrive during the Trump years, it had been set in motion virtually from the outset by its Leftist founder, Ted Turner.
CNN regularly whitewashed totalitarians and terrorists. During her stint at CNN, Connie Chung noted that the Islamic terrorist group Hamas preferred to be called “freedom fighters.” Similarly, CNN insisted in 2002 that Fidel Castro had made Cuba a “success” where “everyone has access” to healthcare. In reality, it was (and is) a racist, repressive, Marxist state where “the best clinics and hospitals only served political elites” and basic medicines like aspirin and antibiotics can only be had on the black market.
The network’s domestic coverage was also so biased that, by 1992, conservatives dubbed CNN the “Clinton News Network.” During that year’s Democratic National Convention, CNN didn’t label a single speaker “far-Left” — including former California Governor Jerry Brown and his assistant/donor Jodie Evans, who once asked, “Why is being a Communist anti-American?” But at the Republican convention in Houston, CNN described ex-Education Secretary and Drug Czar William J. Bennett — a former Democrat and lifelong civil rights advocate — a “very hard, far-Right conservative.”
Over the years, CNN — like the rest of the legacy media — simply grew more comfortable shedding the pretense of objectivity, professionalism, and civility. Witness Don Lemon, who laughed himself to tears as his guests called the 63 million Americans who voted for Donald Trump credulous rubes who can’t spell. Or Christiane Amanpour, who compared the Trump administration to a four-year-long Kristallnacht.
It’s true that Jeffrey Zucker had a heavy hand in its transformation, but it’s not clear how much of these performances are “authentic.” Undercover footage released by Project Veritas shows Zucker setting the day’s news agenda, telling reporters what to cover and how to cover it. “Stay very focused on impeachment,” he said. “Lean into” the idea that Donald Trump “maybe is on the after-effects of steroids.”
True, CNN had the best month of its existence in January 2021 — because it struck gold on a single day: January 6. Its saturation coverage of the Capitol riot drew a reported 5.2 million viewers, the largest audience in its 41-year history. For once, it outperformed Fox News.
But CNN’s modest collection of ratings victories — “one in a row” — follows a losing streak rivaled only by the Washington Generals. Fox News administered a continuous drubbing in the ratings boxes of Nielsen families coast to coast for 19 straight years. Even its slogan, “Fair and Balanced,” resonated with viewers long conscious of CNN’s bias. Shortly after 9/11, FNC overtook CNN in the ratings and never looked back, as this chart from the Pew Research Center illustrates.
By 2019, when Fox News and MSNBC rated as the top two networks on basic cable, CNN came in fourteenth — behind TLC, A&E, and Investigation Discovery, and just a notch ahead of the Food Network.
And the network’s brief moment in the sun came to an abrupt end after January 20, when CNN lost its greatest foil and gained a ratings albatross named Joe Biden. CNN’s audience collapsed from 1.2 million viewers a day to 749,000 by late April. Last Friday, not a single CNN show attracted 900,000 viewers.
With another seven months of success like that, CNN won’t exist at all. But its journalistic integrity died long ago.
Ben Johnson is the Media Reporter at The Daily Wire. He previously worked at the Acton Institute, FrontPage Magazine, and LifeSiteNews. He’s the author of three books, including Party of Defeat (2008, with David Horowitz).
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.