Just a few years ago, CNN was teetering on the edge of irrelevancy.
Its nonstop coverage of missing airliners and ailing cruise ships made it the butt of late-night comics’ jokes, its ratings drop was so precipitous that even its newly named president, Jeff Zucker, likened the Atlanta-based network to a “spare tire in the trunk.”
But thanks to a cable news-obsessed President Donald Trump, CNN is now the center of relevancy, just not necessarily in the way its executives ever imagined.
From right-wing critics and media ethicists to social media scolds, everyone, it seems, has CNN in its crosshairs. Trump reupped his criticism of the network during a news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on Thursday, and some CNN anchors and executives reportedly have gotten harassing phone calls and social media threats.
Zucker, who turned down an interview request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, told The New York Times that CNN wouldn’t be intimidated by Trump. But its response has been rocky of late.
A recent string of high-profile moves — some done to uphold traditional journalism standards, but at least one that felt like an ill-advised case of media muscle flexing — have mostly boomeranged or backfired in ways that have CNN scrambling to defend itself. In a way, the network has become a proxy in a bewildering new era of what Trump likes to dub “fake news.”
“They’re confused. They don’t know how to operate in the present environment, not that anybody else does really,” said Rich Hanley, a Quinnipiac University associate journalism professor and veteran observer of the evolving TV news landscape. “They’re like a pingpong ball that’s getting bounced all around and yet they’re still on the table.”
Indeed, CNN’s ratings reached record total viewership in the second quarter, and the network has seen some of its highest numbers ever in the coveted adults 25 to 54 demographic. After trimming 300 positions in 2014, the division of Time Warner has been growing staff, now up to 3,500 employees. Atlanta, where Ted Turner started the network 37 years ago, still employs a little less than half of the operation, the iconic logo an overarching presence atop CNN Center downtown.
Meanwhile, Zucker told the Times earlier this week that CNN is on track to clear more than $1 billion in profit this year. While its latest wounds likely aren’t fatal, experts fear they could add to a growing distrust of the media, including among people who’ve traditionally relied on CNN for more fact-based, less partisan news than some of its competitors. They say it’s concerning how many of these wounds appear self-inflicted or suggestive of CNN straying from its mission as a serious newsgathering operation.
“One of the best ways to combat accusations of fake news is to do lots of news that isn’t fake and to keep on doing it,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Some of this feels more like (CNN) aggressively positioning themselves as doing that job than actually doing it.”
That may be the best explanation for what happened earlier this week when CNN went hunting for the original source of a wrestling GIF — and wound up suffering another black eye to its own image as a result. The video, which had been posted on Reddit, had superimposed the CNN logo on top of WWE owner Vince McMahon’s face while Trump “pummeled” him during a 2007 program. Trump retweeted the video in what some took as an invitation to violence against CNN and other media. Others turned it into the president’s most retweeted post ever.
CNN figured out who the Reddit user was and contacted him. After he posted an apology on Reddit, he spoke with CNN and asked not to be identified, fearing for his personal safety. The network agreed “because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again,” reporter Andrew Kaczynski wrote in a story, adding, “CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.”
To many critics, particularly on the right, that sounded like a threat, and #CNNBlackmail became a trending hashtag on Twitter for much of Wednesday. Yet a lot of media experts and even other journalists were more confused about what CNN was trying to accomplish by essentially boasting that it had found something juicy — but then keeping it all to itself.
“If you’re saying, ‘Nyah, Nyah, we’re not going to tell you,’ then don’t do it to begin with,” said Charles Bierbauer, a former CNN correspondent who’s now dean of the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina. “The president of the United States has tons of followers, not just on Twitter. He used this snippet to convey his own sense of how he feels about the press. That’s the story, it’s not who made it or put it on Reddit.”
The Reddit incident was just the latest in a series of dings that began in late May when CNN fired comedian Kathy Griffin from its annual New Year’s Eve show after a photo of her clutching a fake bloody Trump head caused an uproar. About a week later, it canceled contributor Reza Aslan’s documentary series, “Believer,” in reaction to his profane anti-Trump tweets. Then, in late June, the network retracted a single-sourced story alleging connections between a Trump administration transition official and a Russian investment firm, saying the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.” It also announced that three journalists who’d worked on the story had resigned.
Media experts say there’s a clear distinction between the Reddit and Russia story incidents, and they give CNN credit for at least moving quickly and transparently to address the latter.
“By all accounts, that story didn’t go through the proper vetting or adhere to the kind of journalism standards we’d expect CNN to have,” said the Bleier Center’s Thompson. “The three people are gone, not like at CBS, where Dan Rather lost the nightly news anchoring job (for a disputed report on President George W. Bush’s National Guard service), but got to stay at the network.”
Still, it wasn’t enough to quell Trump and his supporters’ anti-CNN fervor. If anything, CNN’s willingness to publicly disown a story that didn’t meet its standards just seemed to fire up the “fake news” machinery even more.
“Wow, CNN had to retract big story on Russia, with 3 employees forced to resign,” began one of Trump’s numerous tweets and retweets on the subject. “What about all the other phony stories they do. FAKE NEWS!”
Lambasting the media has been a reliably effective presidential strategy going all the way back to the country’s Founding Fathers. In 1798, as the United States was preparing for a possible war with France, President John Adams signed into law the Sedition Act, which permitted prosecution of individuals who criticized the president or the federal government. His successor, President Thomas Jefferson, also tried to censor critical press.
Frank Sesno, who worked at CNN for 25 years as a correspondent and D.C. bureau chief, said he still owns a cap from the George H.W. Bush 1992 re-election campaign that says, “Annoy the media. Re-elect Bush.”
But Trump has taken this strategy and amped it up several notches with his frequent refrains of “fraud news” and “fake news,” said Sesno, now the director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. Like an annoying, yet hard-to-ignore song playing on a continual loop in the media’s head, it influences what gets covered, and how.
“He creates demons and enemies to distract and detract in a very concerted strategy to some extent,” Sesno said. “CNN is playing into his strategy by being so focused on Trump Trump Trump, so focused on his controversies that it becomes a self-fulfilling, self-perpetuating experience.”
The result may be the sort of coverage miscalculations and outright mistakes plaguing CNN of late. And it could increase the level of distrust of the media as an institution. A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that only 30 percent of all Americans have some level of trust in the media, with the results starkly split along partisan lines: 56 percent of Democrats said they trust the media, compared to only 9 percent of Republicans. The poll of 1,205 U.S. adults was taken June 21-25.
CNN isn’t just being made to account for its own actions and mistakes right now, said Quinnipiac’s Hanley. But the original 24-hour cable news network with reporters and resources around the globe could still be able to right that situation.
“They are a proxy for a world that’s no longer respected by a lot of people, and it’s not always a pretty sight,” Hanley said. “That’s a reality, and the way around it is not to scold people on Reddit or Twitter but to stay with what you do best and don’t try to be anything other than that. Say, ‘This is what we know, here’s how we verified it and here’s what the experts say about that.’
“Be the source people still go to for news,” he emphasized. “And just know you’re not going to make everybody happy.”