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CNN Sells Itself Again (and Again)

CNN once again tries to attract conservative viewers in a moment of ratings panic, writes Eric Alterman.

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CNN is working hard to claim credible nonpartisanship, but it's a seemingly hard sell given the network's push to attract right-wing viewers. (AP/Mark Lennihan)
CNN is working hard to claim credible nonpartisanship, but it's a seemingly hard sell given the network's push to attract right-wing viewers. (AP/Mark Lennihan)

"Journalism is our core value; it’s who we are," Greg D’Alba, CNN executive vice president and chief operating officer for advertising sales and marketing, told an audience of potential advertising buyers on Tuesday morning in New York’s Time Warner Center. "We’re the only credible, nonpartisan voice left. And that matters," added Jim Walton, president for CNN Worldwide. "Our mission, our mandate, is to deliver the best journalism in the world," chimed in Jonathan Klein, president for CNN U.S. "No bias, no agenda. We will never abandon our core faith in being the sole nonpartisan cable network in this country."

Well, as Ernest Hemingway’s Jake Barnes once said in a decidedly different context, "Isn’t it pretty to think so?" In fact, to pretend that CNN has upheld the standards described above would be to embrace a fiction plotline so contradictory to our experience in reality that few novelists would dare try it. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Lou Dobbs broadcast nightly on the network, ratcheting up the racism of the anti-immigrant hordes and bestowing an undeserved stamp of legitimacy of the nutty "birther" movement.

At the time, Klein tried to pretend that Dobbs had only "reported on" on the alleged controversy rather than promoted it. But ask yourself if that’s the case when, for instance, on July 20, 2009, speaking of Obama’s birth certificate, Dobbs told his CNN audience, "Seemingly the questions won’t go away because they haven’t been dealt with." A day later, he insisted, "All he has to do is produce the original birth certificate." In fact, right after Klein announced that "Barack Obama is an American citizen. That is settled. It is a dead issue as far as CNN is concerned," Dobbs returned to it the very next day. "My question is simply, why not provide the long form birth certificate and end all of the discussion?"

Interestingly, as Jamison Foser pointed out on Media Matters at the time, Howard Kurtz, the host of CNN’s "Reliable Sources" media program—and no stranger to conflicts of interest himself—did not deign to cover CNN’s birther problems. Rather audaciously, he blamed MSNBC’s Chris Matthews for reporting on them instead. "Think about that," wrote Foser. "Howard Kurtz, who is a paid employee of CNN, blamed Chris Matthews, who hosts a show for CNN’s competitor, for giving the birther nonsense attention. This despite the fact that Matthews has been debunking the theories. And Kurtz didn’t say a word about Lou Dobbs, the person who has been pushing this garbage." (Dobbs eventually resigned from CNN and carried away with him a multimillion-dollar severance package.)

CNN execs were making the same case about their credibility back then as they are today. "There are several networks that reside in the cable news category, but only one that reliably delivers the news unbiased," said Klein, the president of CNN’s domestic network. "We would do ourselves a disservice if we thought that our main competitors were the other so-called cable news networks."

In one respect, Klein was right. CNN’s downward ratings spiral has grown so pronounced that it is not even placing third anymore in the prime time sweepstakes on many nights, but is getting beaten by HLN, what one writer for Slate calls "a waiting-room budget brand, daily-tabloid style" network (also owned by TimeWarner). Larry King—Mr. Klein’s idea of a journalist, apparently—saw his audience fall 43 percent for the first quarter of 2010 and 52 percent in March alone. Anderson Cooper’s audience fell 42 percent over the quarter as well.

This rapid trip into the ratings toilet appears to have created a sense of panic at the network and its response has been just what it was in the past: to try to appease the far-right wing audience that has embraced Fox. New York Times pundit Ross Douthat noted that he attended a media event in Washington recently where he "watched a CNN producer try to persuade a gaggle of skeptical right-wing journalists that the network’s hosts really are objective."

Actually, that’s the second time that’s happened. When Walter Isaacson took over the presidency of the network in 2001, he too travelled to Washington to try to convince conservative Republicans that the network was there for them as well.

In both instances, the CNN spokespeople are responding not to any real world liberal bias on the part of CNN, but to a concerted campaign by the right to "work the refs" on behalf of their own side. In each case the network then went off in search of a bevy of conservative commentators to hire to try to make right wingers feel more comfortable in their studios.

(In another related example of this phenomenon Douthat was forced to addend a correction to his column here and here for his false claim that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show only invited conservative guests "when they had anti-Republican views to express." Douthat admitted on his blog that he "intended a touch of hyperbole about MSNBC’s biases," which is the only way even to begin to equate its practices with those of Fox, but this practice is routinely done across the mainstream media.

MSNBC is almost universally treated as a liberal alternative to Fox when in fact it broadcasts 10 hours of conservative talk five days a week. On its morning show host Mika Brzezinski insisted, rather crazily, on the day after Sarah Palin resigned her job as a governor—eventually to take up a job as a Fox commentator—that Palin represented "real Americans," and that some people in "urban America" just didn’t get it. Leave aside Palin’s nuttiness and the imputation of disloyalty at those who have left the farm. Nearly 80 percent of Americans now live in urban areas.)

CNN has been using this same process for decades now. In the past it turned to the likes of Robert Novak, Tucker Carlson, William Bennett, Mary Matalin, Alex Castellanos, and Jonah Goldberg, among others, to try to earn its cred with the right. One suspects it would not be easy to surpass the oddness of hiring a bunch of conservative consultants and a pundit who equates liberalism with fascism on a network that prides itself on its alleged commitment to journalistic standards and nonpartisanship. But in its current moment of desperate panic the station has managed to do so.

CNN’s most recent right-wing hire, Redstate.com’s Erick Erickson, made himself known to the public by comparing White House Health Care Communications Director Linda Douglass to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, calling Michelle Obama Barack’s "Marxist harpy wife," and describing outgoing Supreme Court Justice David Souter as "the only goat f***ing child molester to ever serve on the Supreme Court." So naturally CNN thought he would be an ideal hire to uphold the values of serving as the "only credible, nonpartisan voice left" and sticking to its plan of "No bias, no agenda."

Kurtz gave Erickson the opportunity to explain away some of these statements on his CNN program, but the best he could do was to admit that he had not realized so many people were paying attention and that he would try hard to "grow up." With that, he turned around a few days later on a local radio program and threatened, in the event of being questioned by a census worker, to "pull out my wife’s shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door."

Douthat rightly observed that "People at CNN see themselves as victims of a polarized political culture." But a more realistic view would paint them not as victims of such a culture but as its perpetrators. Insisting that you are not as biased as Fox is a lot like saying you are not as sick as a dead person. You may not be that sick, but it is not something worth bragging about. My guess is that CNN will continue its collapse in the ratings until its executives can proudly describe it in a manner consistent with what viewers see on their TVs.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals. His "Altercation" blog appears sporadically here and he is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.

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Eric Alterman

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