It was the kind of story that media reporter Brian Stelter would normally jump on — if only it didn’t involve him.
CNN canceled “Reliable Sources,” its 30-year-old program on the media, suddenly last week and fired Stelter, part of a nascent effort by new management to reclaim a badly damaged brand image.
But the move seems to have been done in haste. CNN announced they have nothing planned to replace the “Reliable Sources” time slot on Sunday, and will instead be airing re-runs of the 8:00 a.m. show, “Inside Politics.”
The news network, now under the Warner Discovery corporate banner and led since spring by CNN Worldwide Chairman Chris Licht, is trying to inject more balance into its programming and become less unfair to Republicans. How and whether that can be accomplished remains a mystery.
“CNN has to figure out what it wants to be,” said Carol Costello, a former anchor there and now a journalism instructor at Loyola Marymount University.
Former President Donald Trump portrayed CNN as an enemy, and a Pew Research Center study illustrated the distrust conservatives have for the network. In 2014, Pew found that one-third of people who identify or lean Republican said they distrusted CNN as a source for political news. By 2019, that number had shot up to 58 percent — higher distrust than The New York Times, The Washington Post, or MSNBC.
And that was before the 2020 election campaign and the controversy surrounding its outcome.
Last year’s firing of CNN anchor Chris Cuomo after he helped his brother, former Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, behind the scenes, also hurt CNN’s reputation among Republicans, said Carlos Curbelo, a former GOP congressman from Florida.
As Trump attacked the network, CNN opinion stars fired back… and enjoyed a ratings surge. Under the previous leader Jeff Zucker, CNN’s liberal figures became more opinionated on the air than they ever had before. Anderson Cooper once likened Trump to “an obese turtle on its back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over,” a remark he later apologized for.
“All mainstream media took a hit with the ascent of Donald Trump,” Costello said. “I really think he did a number on journalism in general, not just CNN. For a time we all played into it, and our reporting was kind of hysterical.”
Being seen as a liberal alternative to Fox News Channel isn’t an issue for a news outlet that plays up partisanship. But for a company that has claimed to be an unbiased news source for more than 40 years — to viewers, to advertisers, to cable or satellite operators — that presents a problem.
It received little notice at the time, but cable news executive John Malone, now a member of the Warner Discovery board of directors, said in a CNBC interview last November that “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
Similarly, Warner Discovery President and CEO David Zaslav said at a company town hall in April that CNN should set itself apart from a cable news industry that is dominated by “advocacy networks.” CNN needs to be about reporting, truth, and facts, he said.
“If we get that, we can have a civilized society,” said Zaslav, who appointed Licht. “And without it, if it all becomes advocacy, we don’t have a civilized society.”
Licht has given few interviews to outside journalists since taking over, and a CNN spokesman turned down a request for this article.
Licht would like to see more Republicans appear on CNN for meaningful interviews, not necessarily to be used by them to appear tough to supporters for standing up to hostility. There have already been small signs of success in recent weeks: appearances by South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott and Texas U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw.
“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 credibility with essentially half the country,” said Curbelo, an NBC News contributor. It’s early, but Curbelo said he has liked what he’s seen with Licht so far.
The outreach with Republicans has raised some eyebrows among the liberal media, with Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella suggesting in a Los Angeles Times column that CNN was “eager to pander” to conservative politicians.
“No matter what they do, they’ll be attacked,” Whitaker warned.
Other visible moves are likely to come soon. Licht has been eyeing a shakeup of CNN’s morning hours and recently hired Ryan Kadro, a former CBS News colleague who handled that network’s morning show.
CNN still has another hole in prime time, too: Chris Cuomo hasn’t been replaced since he was fired last December.
But what’s next remains unclear, which Deggans advised against. He called on CNN’s leaders to be clear with viewers about what’s being done. “The attitude of the new management seems to be, ‘Trust us, we have a plan.’”
The Associated Press contributed to this article