Surely it’s a good thing that new CNN chief Mark Thompson is going to replace the network’s morning show with — well, with news.
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I spoke with CNN’s Jon Passantino via email today for a story in the Reliable Sources newsletter about some causes for hope amid a startling run of newsroom cuts. Here’s what I said:
“Billionaire newspaper ownership is coming under fire lately because of [Los Angeles Times owner Patrick] Soon-Shiong’s fecklessness and because Jeff Bezos has hit a few bumps with the [Washington] Post, although I think that will prove to be temporary,” Kennedy told CNN, pointing to recent successes at The Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Boston Globe newspapers.
“There are reasons to be optimistic given the hundreds of independent local news organizations that have sprouted up in recent years,” he said. “The challenge is that coverage at the hyperlocal level is hit or miss, as some communities are well-served and others — especially in rural areas and in urban communities of color — tend to be overlooked.”
As social-media sharing continues to deteriorate, I am posting more links here for the benefit of Media Nation regulars. Here are three must-reads for your Friday morning:
- “Behind CNN Turmoil, a Series of Shattered Friendships” (free link), by James B. Stewart and Benjamin Mullin, The New York Times, Nov. 15. An in-depth look at the mess created following Warner Bros. Discovery’s acquisition of the network, which led to the firing of two successive chief executives of CNN, Jeff Zucker and Chris Licht, at the hands of the new boss, David Zaslav.
- “A former sideline reporter stunningly admitted that she made things up,” by Tom Jones, Poynter Online, Nov. 17. Jones writes: “In what was a jaw-dropping admission, Amazon Prime Video and Fox Sports anchor Charissa Thompson said on a podcast this week that when she was a TV sideline reporter on football games, she sometimes fabricated a report for the broadcast.” Will Thompson keep her job. Should she? (No.)
- “As Musk endorses antisemitic conspiracy theory, X has been placing ads for Apple, Bravo, IBM, Oracle, and Xfinity next to pro-Nazi content,” by Eric Hananoki, Media Matters for America, Nov. 16. The sociopath in charge of X/Twitter has flirted with antisemitism and neo-Nazism for quite some time. But his latest outburst could carry real consequences, as major advertisers may finally be waking up — including IBM, which has suspended its ads.
Does Fox News lead or follow its audience? I’ve long thought it was both.
During the 2015-’16 presidential campaign, Fox tried to take out Donald Trump, as when then-Fox host Megyn Kelly confronted Trump with his misogynistic remarks at the first Republican debate. It didn’t work, and eventually Fox got with the program. Then, after Joe Biden defeated Trump in 2020, Fox tried to play it straight, more or less. Famously, it was the first media outlet to call Arizona for Biden, a state that ensured his victory. But when Fox’s audience started stampeding to farther-right cable channels like Newsmax and OAN, Fox reversed itself and embraced Trump’s lies so tightly that it cost them $787 million in a libel settlement.
Brian Stelter makes that argument in an interview with Tom Jones of Poynter. Stelter, who’s written a new book about Fox called “Network of Lies,” tells Jones that most Fox employees don’t much care about politics. Instead, they are motivated by the usual: making a living. Here’s an excerpt:
For most, it’s just a job, not a calling. Some producer and director types truly believe in the Trump agenda and will stop at nothing to see him reelected. But most are just trying to make good TV. They definitely aren’t losing sleep about Fox’s coarsening of the culture or Trump’s brainwashing of the base.
I write in the book that rank-and-file staffers like to gossip about hookups between hosts and ratings rivalries between shows. On the occasions when I steered my source chats in a more serious direction, toward the impact of Fox-fueled disinformation on society and democracy, staffers turned cagey or dismissive. I heard some predictable whataboutism and rants about the flaws of other networks.
Bottom line: I think introspection and accountability are in short supply at Fox, a tone that’s set at the top, by Rupert, who advised Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott years ago to “ignore the noise.”
You should read the whole thing. And by the way, although Stelter probably isn’t interested, I wonder if it might be possible for new CNN head Mark Thompson to lure Stelter back now that the brief, unlamented Chris Licht era is over. Stelter appeared on CNN last week to plug his book, so who knows? I wouldn’t expect to see Stelter return to his old job, which is being ably filled by Oliver Darcy. But Stelter is among the very best media reporters in the business, and it would be great to see him return in some capacity.
My main takeway from Kristen Welker’s interview with Donald Trump on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday is how little commentary there’s been after the fact. Oh, there’s some, and maybe there will be more later. But, honestly, we’ve been down this road many, many times, and at this point there’s really not much to say.
The most important question is: Why? “Meet the Press” is a prestigious program, so much so that you’d think Welker’s first guest might be President Biden. Welker opened, though, by saying that Biden had in fact been invited, which suggests that the White House turned her down. Poynter media critic Tom Jones speculates that Biden didn’t want to be questioned about his son, Hunter, who last week was indicted on federal gun charges.
As he always does, Trump confronted Welker with a stream-of-consciousness gusher. For every lie she called out, she had to let another 10 go just because of the sheer volume of idiocy coming out of his mouth. In the post-debate panel, New York Times political reporter Peter Baker called Trump a “bulldozer, shoveling falsehoods and lies.” Indeed. At least Welker didn’t interview Trump in front of a howling MAGA mob, as CNN’s Kaitlan Collins did earlier this year. On the other hand, I thought Collins did a better, more aggressive job of pushing back than Welker did, even though Welker had the advantage of recording Trump ahead of time and occasionally interrupting the flow with a return to the studio, where she pointed out a few of the former president’s lies. NBC News did run an online fact-check, but who’s going to look at that?
New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, writing on the Platform Formerly Known as Twitter, criticized Welker and NBC News for offering “a ‘zero innovations’ model,” explaining: “Everything was predictable, nothing was surprising, and new host Kristen Welker did nothing to justify going to the well again with another Trump Q&A.” Writing in The Daily Beast, Corbin Bolies added that “like those who have tried before, her inherent skills as an interviewer were no match for a chaotic interview subject like Trump.”
The argument for interviewing Trump is that, despite facing numerous federal criminal charges, he’s leading his Republican rivals for the presidential nomination and is tied with Biden. I get it. But it was a terrible way to kick off Welker’s debut at “Meet the Press,” and it opens her to the criticism that was often voiced about her predecessor, Chuck Todd — that he would rather normalize authoritarianism than stand up to Trump and his allies.
I started out writing a much longer post about Tim Alberta’s astonishing 15,000-word takedown of CNN’s now officially embattled CEO, Chris Licht. But I decided there’s really no need. You can read Alberta’s story for yourself along with Jon Allsop’s analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review of what it all means, Brian Stelter’s article at New York magazine on the chaotic aftermath inside CNN, and Benjamin Mullin’s story in The New York Times on Jeff Zucker, Licht’s bitter and scheming predecessor.
Rather than add to that, I want to focus instead on one small point that shows Licht sort of/kind of had the right idea. While speaking to a student group, Alberta writes, “Licht sought to differentiate CNN from both networks — slamming Fox News for being a duplicitous propaganda outfit, and rebuking MSNBC for trafficking in hysteria.”
Licht has been talking this way from the moment he ascended to the top of CNN, and it’s why I was willing to cut him some slack despite misguided decisions such as firing Stelter, the network’s excellent media reporter. The problem, it seems, is that he understood CNN’s problems correctly but superficially and thus wasn’t really able to execute.
CNN didn’t need to move from the left back toward the center or to be more polite to authoritarian right-wingers, as Licht seems to think. Rather, it needed to readjust the balance between opinion and reporting.
Of course, it’s fair to ask who is really calling the shots at CNN — Licht or his overlords, David Zaslav, the head of Warner Bros Discovery, and right-wing billionaire John Malone, who owns a significant chunk of the company. It all fell apart when CNN’s town hall event with Donald Trump turned into a disaster in exactly the ways in which everyone had predicted — with Trump simply yelling lies in the face of his well-prepared but overwhelmed host, Kaitlan Collins, while the Trumper crowd hooted and hollered off stage.
You may have heard that another media executive, David Leavy, has been brought in as CNN’s chief operating officer, a significant wing-clipping for Licht, who has presided over a steep decline in ratings, revenue and morale. It seems hard to believe that Licht can survive the humiliation, much of it self-inflicted, that he endured in Alberta’s piece.
It’s equally hard to know where CNN should go from here. A return to Zucker’s clown show (Chris and Andrew Cuomo, anyone?) would hardly restore the reputation of a still-great news organization whose on-air product often fails to match the excellence of its journalists.
CNN is just as much in need of a reset today as it was when Licht took over.
If you’re so inclined, you can sift through mounds of commentary on CNN’s alleged news event Wednesday night with Donald Trump. Tom Jones of Poynter has a solid account here. I thought beforehand that it would be terrible, but it was even worse than that.
If you saw it, or if you’ve just read about it, you know that the hall was filled with MAGA types who cheered Trump’s every utterance, whether it was his support of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists or his dismissal of E. Jean Carroll as a “whack job.” Carroll just won a $5 million jury verdict against Trump for sexually attacking her and for libel.
CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins was well-prepared and tried the best she could to hold Trump to account. Predictably, though, he shouted over her, spewing lies at such a rapid clip that she could only latch onto a few of them in an attempt to push back. It was a disgraceful night for CNN, and president Chris Licht ought to be fired. Then again, he was only doing what his corporate overlords want, and he seems quite pleased with himself today.
I do want to zero in on one moment. When Collins pointed out that people died on Jan. 6, Trump immediately cited Ashli Babbitt, an insurrectionist who was fatally shot by a Capitol police officer. Trump denounced Lt. Michael Byrd, who’s Black, as a “thug,” and by injecting him to the proceedings unbidden, he put the officer’s life and safety in danger at the hands of deranged right-wingers and white supremacists. Byrd told NBC News in 2021 that he’d gone into hiding. If he has since been able to resume his normal life to some degree, Trump has now shattered that.
“America was served very well by what we did last night,” Licht told his staff after the event, according to tweets by Brian Stelter, the network’s media reporter until Licht fired him. No we weren’t, and CNN’s current media reporter, Oliver Darcy, said so in his morning newsletter, writing, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”
It’s going to be a while — if ever — before we know why the loathsome white nationalist Tucker Carlson and his ratings-obsessed enablers at Fox News parted company.
Carlson was far from the biggest on-air liar in claiming that Dominion Voting Systems had rigged the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden. As Josh Marshall puts it, “If you looked at the material Dominion had assembled the most damning stuff was about Bartiromo, Pirro, Dobbs. Very much the B Team. As odious as he may be, Carlson is quite good at the ‘just asking questions’ shtick.”
Carlson’s internal emails, though, were incredibly embarrassing and damaging, proving beyond a doubt that no one inside Fox believed claims by Donald Trump and his hangers-on about voting-machine fraud. My insta-theory is that Rupert Murdoch fired Carlson in a blind rage after Dominion extracted a nearly $800
billion million settlement.
For those of you who are hoping for a kinder, gentler Fox, you may recall that the firings of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly a few years ago led to similar dreams. Instead, Fox took a sharp turn from the right toward the far right. I’m not sure a similar move now is even possible unless Carlson is replaced by, say, Alex Jones or Steve Bannon.
Carlson is the big media news of the day, but let’s not overlook Don Lemon, the hapless CNN host who was fired today. Lemon has been on thin ice since making some cringe-worthy sexist remarks on air, but he deserved better than (as he claims) to be cut loose without any communication from CNN management.
For Carlson, it’s been a long, strange devolution from principled conservative to openly racist hate-monger. In 2019, I wrote a piece for GBH News detailing my own experience with Carlson, including a convivial lunch at The Palm in Washington more than 20 years ago. I’ve occasionally wondered what happened to that guy. Maybe he does, too.