Skip to content
Home » The perils of the impartial middle

The perils of the impartial middle

Fancy this: Fox News invites President Joe Biden for a 70-minute prime-time gala packed with progressive supporters who cheer his policies on gun control, climate change and voting rights. What would be the result if Rupert Murdoch condoned this improbable scenario and Sean Hannity gaslit the fuming audience afterward, explaining why viewers benefited from knowing the aims of the opposition?

The result would be a mass exodus from Fox to Newsmax.

Many CNN viewers feel the same way in the aftermath of CNN’s disastrous town hall with former President Donald Trump.

The backlash, covered astutely by Poynter’s Tom Jones, is a lesson for outlets that cotton to a particular political psychographic and then decide to abandon it, failing to retain regular viewers while divining for new ones. This is the case with Chris Licht, CNN’s president, purportedly in pursuit of objectivity.

I can speak with some authority about objectivity. In 2003, The Columbia Journalism Review cited my definition among the best: “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.”

Since 2014, cable news viewers have been seeing the world as they wished it were. They seek affirmation, not information. A Pew Research study concluded that liberals and conservatives “inhabit different worlds” with little overlap in the news they consume and trust.

Among other tendencies, the study found conservatives get political news from a single source, Fox News. Two-thirds say most of their close friends and associates share their views about government and policies.

By contrast, those with liberal views get their news from a variety of sources, from NPR to The New York Times. However, they are “more likely than those in other ideological groups to block or ‘defriend’ someone on a social network — as well as to end a personal friendship — because of politics.”

That might explain what is about to happen to CNN. Licht is going to be unfriended by a tsunami of viewers.

According to the American Press Institute, impartiality involves “a consistent method of testing information — a transparent approach to evidence — precisely so that personal and cultural biases would not undermine the accuracy of the work.” In other words, reporters may be biased but their methods ought not be.

Between 1996 and 2002, CNN was dubbed the most reliable broadcast news site, inspiring its brand as “the most trusted name in news.” By 2004, it shared that status with CBS’s “60 Minutes.” A decade later it lost some ground but still ranked higher than network news.

Then it began wooing left-leaning viewers.

By 2018, an All Sides survey affirmed that the cable news network had shifted to the left with a tendency to include progressive analyses alongside hard news, making it look like the opinion pieces were objective, fact-based reports.

Licht knew about those tendencies when CNN appointed him president in 2022. He had worked as the executive producer for MSNBC’s “Scarborough Country,” hosted by Joe Scarborough, and also revamped “CBS This Morning.” In 2016, he moved to “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” booking progressive political guests.

His resume showcased a more liberal, rather than centrist, skill set.

Nevertheless, impartiality remains his goal. One of his first actions at CNN included telling the news staff not to use the Democratic Party’s “big lie” when describing Trump’s big lie about a rigged election. According to Mediaite, Licht preferred “Trump election lie” or just “election lie.”

In August he fired Brian Stelter, host of “Reliable Sources,” labeled “a leading voice on the network criticizing the misinformation of the Trump administration and how that was impacting news culture and democracy.” The show’s staff was also fired, although “Reliable Sources” would continue as a newsletter under Oliver Darcy, senior media reporter.

Licht used the occasion to warn the CNN staff of significant changes to come.

The big change was viewership. CNN’s ratings continue to nosedive. For the week ending March 12, 2023, the network had its lowest-rated week in more than seven years with an average weekday audience of 409,000 viewers. (Fox News Channel had 1.359 million viewers; MSNBC, 673,000.)

The task of moving a network from the left to the middle is, well, formidable.

Profit margins are comparably low in the impartial center occupied primarily by the wire services, network news, BBC, NPR, PBS “NewsHour,” Forbes, Bloomberg, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

Beyond that, however, America has become a politically sectarian society that views the opposition as alien, immoral and an existential threat. As The New York Times explained, “the two parties have not only become more ideologically polarized — they have simultaneously sorted along racial, religious, educational, generational and geographic lines.”

Viewers increasingly patronize partisan voices on Fox News, Twitter, MSNBC and other platforms that have determined “it’s in their interest to lean into cultural warfare and inflammatory rhetoric to energize their side against the other.”

In other words, Licht’s goal of navigating the sectarian straits is similar to a ship captain changing directions to outrun an approaching storm. He should read a nautical manual to understand his plight. The larger the ship, the greater the turning radius, also affected by external conditions, such as the prevailing winds.

Turn too quickly, and the ship capsizes.

Warner Bros. CEO David Zaslav appeared on CNBC to address pushback about the Trump town hall. Media Matters wrote that the session “portended badly for the political approach that his company’s flagship news network is going to take during the coming presidential election.” CNN under Zaslav and Licht will pursue “a false sense of evenhandedness rather than taking seriously the genuine ongoing threat to American democracy presented by disgraced former President Donald Trump.”

That was obvious on May 10. The former president repeated his 2020 election lies, blamed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for Jan. 6 violence, and denied sexually assaulting writer E. Jean Carroll — even upon learning a jury of his peers had just decided that he had.

Moderator Kaitlan Collins did her best to counter these and other fabrications but was brutalized, wrote progressive outlet The Nation. “Trump got a standing f’ing ovation when he came out, as well as at the end of the nightmarish political stunt.” Collins tried repeatedly to counter Trump’s lies, but he talked over and mocked her, with the partisan crowd serving “as a laugh track for Trump’s lies and his insults.”

Almost as disheartening as the town hall was Anderson Cooper’s efforts to gaslight his audience, acknowledging that many viewers were “upset that someone who attempted to destroy our democracy was invited to sit on a stage in front of a crowd of Republican voters to answer questions and predictably continued to spew lie after lie after lie.

“And I get it. It was disturbing. You have every right to be outraged today and angry and never watch this network again.”

Had he stopped there, many might have felt better. But then he implied CNN viewers were in a silo, only listening to those who believed that Trump will go away. “If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite,” Anderson opined. “If you’re angry or upset, I understand. But you have the power to do something about it.”

Many CNN viewers agree with that assessment. They will stop watching CNN because they lost trust in the most trusted name in news. Licht elevated revenue over truth. Thus, the only way to teach him a lesson is to hit him where it hurts: ratings.

Even some CNN staffers understand the impulse to punish Licht. As the Hill noted, “Journalists at CNN and others outside the organization called the town hall a ‘debacle,’ a ‘disaster’ and ‘CNN’s lowest moment.’” On Twitter, #BoycottCNN, #DoneWithCNN and #ByeCNN trended following the broadcast.

The Trump town hall is a case study in how one executive’s vision can undermine the credibility of an entire newsroom.

Consider how Licht treated Oliver Darcy who criticized the town hall in the CNN newsletter, “Reliable Sources,” stating, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”

Darcy noted that the network was facing a torrent of criticism — “both internally and externally over the event. How Licht and other CNN executives address the criticism in the coming days and weeks will be crucial. Will they defend what transpired at Saint Anselm College? Or will they express some regret?”

Licht responded by calling Darcy and his editor to an executive meeting whereupon he informed both that their coverage of the town hall had been too emotional and warning them about the value of remaining dispassionate.

Dispassion has little to do with impartiality. As NBC “Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt puts it, “The days of dispassionate journalism are long gone. We have to acknowledge our audience and validate what we’re all seeing.”

Neither is impartiality a tone of voice. Darcy’s belittled assessment was tame compared to the emotional headlines and subheads of other popular outlets:

  • “Donald Trump’s CNN Town Hall Was a Disaster. If this is how the network plans to cover 2024, its CEO might as well resign now” (Slate)
  • “CNN’s own employees are disparaging the Trump town hall. Employees inside the company are slamming the network for giving Trump a platform to spout false claims on a multitude of issues” (Politico)
  • “CNN leadership under fire after ‘disastrous’ Trump town hall. A furious backlash raised questions about the future of chief executive Chris Licht and the larger challenges facing the news media going into the 2024 election” (The Washington Post)

Licht doubled down to criticism in Trump fashion about the abysmal town hall, stating, “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night. People woke up, and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before.”

People woke up changing channels. The perils of impartiality include professing to embrace the concept when everyone else knows you do not.

CNN’s town hall meeting was about revenue.

As Bloomberg reported last year, “Throughout much of his career in TV, Chris Licht has obsessed over ratings, often scrutinizing viewership data on a minute-by-minute basis to diagnose when viewers lost interest.”

In January, Licht considered hiring a comedian to raise viewership. In March, he was preaching patience as CNN’s prime-time ratings tanked by 61%.

One has to wonder whether Licht is capable of maintaining a core audience, let alone building a better one.

He sought impartiality by patronizing a megalomaniacal liar hellbent on destroying democracy. He preached patience when his impatient actions precipitated crises. And he saw the world not as it is but through the myopic view of the Nielsen lens.

That’s not a strategy. It’s a travesty.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!