Change management | CNN Management Wants to Change How People View the Network

At least up until the network canceled its long-running media criticism show "Reliable Sources" and fired its presenter, Brian Stelter, the first moves toward change at CNN were slow and incremental.




(AP) NEW YORK — If only it didn't include him, it was the kind of story that media writer Brian Stelter would typically get his teeth into.


As part of a newly launched initiative by new management to regain a brand identity that it feels was harmed during the Trump period, CNN said last week that it was canceling "Reliable Sources," its 30-year-old program on the media, and letting Stelter go.

The news network, which is currently operated under the Warner Discovery corporate brand and is overseen since the spring by Chris Licht, chairman of CNN Worldwide, is attempting to inject more balance into its content and lessen its partisan resonance. The question of whether and how that is possible still exists.


Former CNN anchor and current journalism professor Carol Costello remarked, "CNN has to decide out what it wants to be."


A Pew Research Center study showed the effect that former president Donald Trump's portrayal of CNN as an enemy had on his supporters. According to a 2014 Pew survey, one-third of Republican identifiers or leaners distrusted CNN as a source of political news. By 2019, that percentage had skyrocketed to 58 percent, placing it above mistrust of MSNBC, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.


And that was before the tumultuous 2020 presidential race and the outrage over the results.


According to Carlos Curbelo, a former Republican congressman from Florida, the decision to fire CNN anchor Chris Cuomo last year after he assisted his brother, former Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, behind the scenes, damaged CNN's standing with Republicans.

CNN fired back as Trump blasted the network. CNN anchors spoke more opinions on air than ever before under the former leader Jeff Zucker. Trump was reportedly compared by Anderson Cooper to "an obese turtle on its back, writhing in the scorching sun, realizing his time is done," a comparison for which he later offered an apology.


With Donald Trump's rise, "all mainstream media took a hit," Costello claimed. I believe he made significant contributions to journalism in general, not just CNN. We all participated in it for a while, and our reporting was quite absurd.

According to Mark Whitaker, a senior journalist and former CNN executive, CNN's tone had a significant role in improvements to the network's reputation. Under Zucker, CNN had stronger ratings and more buzz, but Whitaker questioned if it was worthwhile in terms of how it altered the perception of the company.


For a news organization that emphasizes partisanship, being perceived as a lefty alternative to Fox News Channel is not a problem. That poses a challenge for a business that has promoted itself for more than 40 years as an objective news source to viewers, marketers, and cable or satellite operators.


Morning host Brianna Keilar used to occasionally criticize Fox coverage, but that stopped when Licht took over. Although Licht hasn't officially addressed Stelter's departure, "Reliable Sources" frequently featured the media reporter's criticism of Fox.


In a CNBC interview last November, cable news executive John Malone, who is currently a member of the Warner Discovery board of directors, said: "I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism it started with, and have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing." This statement received little attention at the time.

In a similar vein, Warner Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav suggested in an April company town hall that CNN should distinguish itself from the "advocacy networks" that now dominate the cable news landscape. He asserted that CNN must focus on reporting, reality, and facts.


Zaslav, who chose Licht, argued that if they could achieve that, a civilized society might be possible. And without it, if everything turns into advocacy, we lack a civilized society.


Since taking over, Licht has given few interviews to outside journalists, and a CNN spokeswoman declined a request for this article.

Licht has made progress toward the objectives set forth by his superiors. He wants CNN anchors to be aware of how they occasionally talk down to people. He desires informed panel discussions that are not dominated by extreme viewpoints. He is trying to avoid "outrage porn." He commanded that only legitimate breaking news should be featured in the on-air "breaking news" banner.


Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, and Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House, were among the Republican officials Licht met while in Washington.

Licht would want to see more Republicans appear on CNN for insightful interviews rather than merely to show their fans that they are capable of facing down the opposition. Recent appearances by Texas U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott were minor indications of success.


According to Curbelo, an NBC News contributor, "This is true of all three (cable news) networks: When you can get only members of one party to show up, it shows that your news division is lacking in trust with virtually half the country." Even though it's early, Curbelo declared that Licht has impressed him thus far.


The Republican approach has drawn some criticism, with Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella writing in a commentary for the Los Angeles Times that CNN was "ready to pander" to politicians who were disconnected from reality. Additionally, NPR's television critic Eric Deggans expressed concern over the possibility of lies like the 2016 presidential election being rigged being accepted truths.


When journalists insist on the truth and refuse to cooperate with a political party that is redefining the facts to suit its own goals, they are sometimes accused of being partisan, according to Deggans.


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