In his last show for CNN, “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter scolded his longtime employer, saying “It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues.”
The line itself was partisan. There is judgment baked into the term, and no one had to ask Stelter who he was calling a demagogue. He’s written a book critical of former President Donald Trump and Fox News. The New Yorker called him “a TV face of the Trump resistance.” This stance has won him many fans, including the author Stephen King. But it also seems to have cost him a lucrative job, as CNN seeks to reinvent itself as a bias-free news source under new CEO Chris Licht.
This transformation will take more than the ousting of Stelter and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. Partisan bias isn’t just revealed in talk-show monologues, but also in the nuances of how news is presented. An example is the recent CNN Business analysis, picked up by other news outlets, that said the recent decline in gas prices amounts to getting a $100-a-month tax cut or raise.
Note to CNN: If it reads like a Democrat talking point, it’s partisan.
The final broadcast of “Reliable Sources” delivered strong ratings, by CNN standards, anyway. And Stelter’s departure was dignified, unlike that of Keith Olbermann, who has been ranting about MSNBC since he left the network more than a decade ago and who recently lit into his former employer on his new podcast.
In a scorched-earth diatribe that Megyn Kelly shared on her SiriusXM show, Olbermann demeaned MSNBC superstar Rachel Maddow and Alex Wagner, Maddow’s replacement four days a week, and he called morning-show host Joe Scarborough “one of the worst human beings I have ever met.” He said MSNBC had been an “industry joke” until he helped shape it into “the first and so far only even kinda liberal TV news network because I believed, and still believe, America needs a kinda liberal TV news network.”
There’s so much to unpack here.
For one thing, most Americans believe all the major news networks but Fox lean liberal, which is one reason Fox consistently dominates cable news ratings. (In the second quarter of 2022, according to Nielsen, all but one of the top 10 cable news shows were on Fox.) It’s unclear who, besides Olbermann, thinks America needs a kinda liberal TV network, but it’s not Licht, the new guy at CNN.
Licht, who previously worked for MSNBC and helped develop Scarborough’s “Morning Joe” show, is reportedly determined to return CNN to the old-school ideal of reporting the news neutrally.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year that Licht told a friend, “There’s a difference between standing up for yourself and becoming part of the resistance.” But the resistance has been too much present in the Fourth Estate in recent years, which is why there are historically low levels of trust in the press.
All media — partisan or not — have been under attack throughout the Trump years, from the former president’s constant assault on “fake news” to the expletive recently used by Arizona’s Kari Lake, a Trump-backed candidate for governor and former news anchor who recently called the media “evil.”
Such rhetoric is wrong and damaging to democracy, which may not need a kinda liberal TV network, but decidedly needs a free press. But Licht is right: You can’t be part of the resistance — to any ideology — and insist that you’re impartial.
Meanwhile, the travails of CNN and MSNBC bring to mind the beginning and the end of America’s short-lived liberal radio network, Air America. The network started in 2004, at the height of the Rush Limbaugh era, when there was the sense that America needed a liberal radio network.
After several troubled iterations, the network went off the air in 2010, and one of its personalities, comedian Janeane Garofalo, later dismissively said that conservative shows succeed because conservatives are “comforted by authoritarian figures, they are comforted by marching in lockstep.”
That rhetoric isn’t much different from calling the media “evil.” One could more convincingly say that conservative media companies are simply better at business than their liberal counterparts, who have tried and failed to match their ratings (and profits) for three decades.
Will MSNBC ever go the way of Air America, or even the way of CNN, by renouncing its partisan leaning? Not anytime soon. With CNN smartly trying to claim the center at a time when many Americans say they are tired of hyperpartisanship, there’s room for MSNBC to be the network of the left and Fox of the right.
In this regard, the new CNN will be a great experiment. Do Americans really want news delivered neutrally, without a sly dig at the “other” side? Only time and Nielsen will tell. But the success of both Fox and Limbaugh suggest that CNN’s success may depend as much on its ability to entertain as its ability to report news.