CNN: Veering right and aiming low

Digging through Gary Condit's tabloid trash and courting Rush Limbaugh, is the venerable all-news network playing catch-up to the Fox News Channel?


Eric Boehlert
September 5, 2001 11:30PM (UTC)

For CNN, the struggling all-news network anxious to jump-start its ratings, President Bush delivered a welcome gift on the night of Aug. 9, when he opted to address the nation live in prime time to announce his decision about federal funding for stem cell research.

At least for that evening, CNN would be on the news front lines, rounding up experts to discuss a complicated issue of national concern. Yet there was something odd about CNN's coverage that night; in what may have been a first for the network, not one member of the president's opposition party was interviewed on the air for his or her reaction after the address.

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Instead, for two hours CNN presented Bush advisor Karen Hughes, conservative Republican senators Orrin Hatch and Sam Brownback, Dr. James Dobson, founder of the conservative group Focus on the Family, Bush Cabinet member Tommy Thompson, Republican pollster Frank Luntz, conservative commentator Tony Blankley, conservative Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes, and the conservative deputy director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Not only did no Democratic elected officials appear on screen, but CNN didn't present one Democratic-leaning pollster, consultant or columnist to utter a stern word in protest. (And don't blame the Democrats -- according to a party official, "there was no conscious decision to keep anybody off the air" that night.)

For some reason it fell to a few nonpartisan doctors and entertainers, such as Mary Tyler Moore, Montel Williams and Christopher Reeve, to deliver muted criticisms of Bush's stem cell decision.

For those looking for evidence that CNN, rattled by the surge in ratings for Fox News, was skewing to the right, the evidence that night seemed clear. Days earlier Walter Isaacson, the new chairman and chief executive of CNN, had visited exclusively with Republican leaders of Congress in a reported attempt to patch up relations with stalwart conservatives. Was CNN now trying to dispel the perception that it was, by any stretch of the imagination, "liberal"?

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But ramping up the percentages of on-air conservative pundits and Republican flacks may not be the only prong in CNN's comeback campaign. Taking its cue from the Bush-cheerleading Fox, it is also imitating the new kid in town in a fashion that could only put a smile on the face of Fox's founder, Rupert Murdoch, the king of the screaming headline. The all-news network, for most of the summer, suddenly became the all-Chandra Levy network.

So is CNN going tabloid and sucking up to conservatives in order to play catch-up with Fox? CNN says no. "CNN since about 1990 has been in an extremely competitive environment," says Sid Bedingfield, executive vice president and general manager of CNN U.S. "And the way to win viewers is to do the best and most compelling journalism out there. That's the mandate we're reacting to."

Whether or not CNN is veering to the right will be a never-ending topic of debate for media pundits. But anyone who watched the network this summer could hardly fail to notice that CNN also doesn't mind occasionally aiming for the bottom. With the Chandra Levy story, the network struck double gold: a tawdry story with a Democratic Congressman involved that longtime Clinton critics, like Barbara Olson, just can't get enough of. It's all about the numbers. Fox's ratings are growing at a heady clip; CNN's are not.

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A little perspective: During August 2000, in cable households where viewers could choose between both news channels (CNN is in 82 million cable households, Fox News is in 68 million), CNN averaged 360,000 viewers in prime time, compared to Fox's 289,000, according to Nielsen Media Research. (That's cable TV's dirty little secret: Very few people actually watch the all-news channels.)

Fast forward one year to August 2001, and riding the Levy wave CNN's average among households with both CNN and Fox News jumped to 430,000 prime-time viewers. Fox though, ballooned to 498,000.

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"The numbers are terrifying for CNN," says Brent Baker, vice president of the Media Research Center.

Terrifying not just because the network is getting beat on a tawdry summer sex scandal, but because CNN even lost ground on the biggest legitimate news story of last year, the Florida vote recount. When the story first broke Americans reflexively tuned to CNN, which drew the largest audience. By the time the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Bush vs. Gore, Fox was on top in prime time.

"CNN's in a tricky spot," says Dow Smith, associate professor of broadcast journalism at the Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University. "In terms of the evolution of the organization, if they screw this thing up they could kill CNN. They could ruin the brand, ruin the value."

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Kill a media giant that turned a profit of $350 million last year? It's possible, says Smith, who points out that in the world of cable television economics, perceived value is everything. That's because local cable operators pass along a portion of each subscriber's monthly bill to cable networks in exchange for allowing the operator to carry the programming. CNN, along with ESPN and MTV, is perceived as a must-have and receives among the highest compensation rate from cable operators. (One industry source estimates roughly half of CNN's $800 million in revenue last year came from subscription fees, the rest from advertising.)

But if Fox continues to gain viewers at a breakneck pace (the network is up 144 percent year-to-date) and leaves CNN in its ratings wake, while MSNBC develops into a solid second or third choice, the day could come when operators decide they don't have to pay CNN as much in sub fees, or even leave CNN out of the channel mix all together.

"Those cable operators are brutal," says Smith. "If there's no value, they won't pay."

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This, at a time when AOL Time Warner bosses, having just laid off 400 CNN employees, are looking for the network to post double-digit gains annually.

The stakes couldn't be higher, which is why Isaacson may be remembered as the man who either saved or lost CNN. (He was not available to comment for this article.)

This isn't the first time Isaacson has been called in to turn around a venerable news title. Prior to CNN, Isaacson was managing editor at Time magazine, where he was credited with rejuvenating Time, breathing new life into the stodgy title with a mix of young writers and a populist, even daring, approach to cover stories. Isaacson jumped the gun by pronouncing John F. Kennedy Jr. dead on the cover of a Time "Commemorative Issue" three days before authorities found the remains of Kennedy, his wife and her sister. Some critics called the move presumptuous, but the bold stroke paid off at the newsstands; the JFK crash cover was the magazine's bestselling issue of the year, posting 1.3 million in sales.

Isaacson's makeover of Time did not translate into more readers, though. The magazine's circulation has remained essentially unchanged (albeit creeping downward slightly) for nearly a decade.

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While the selection of Isaacson to run CNN was widely applauded, the move did come with one uncomfortable irony. As Time magazine's managing editor back in 1998, it was Isaacson who was forced to pen a full-page apology to readers for the Tailwind fiasco, that infamous, synergistic debacle between newly married CNN and Time. The later-discredited blockbuster investigation reported that in 1970 the U.S. military used deadly nerve gas in Laos and killed American defectors. "Valley of Death" aired on CNN. Its producers wrote a print version for Time magazine, both of which are owned by Time Warner. Time published the story (albeit with a question mark in the headline) despite questions about "the substance and the sources and the evidence of the story," according to one Time editor at the time.

American Journalism Review dubbed the incident "one of the biggest journalistic embarrassments in the news weekly's 75-year history."

Of course the Tailgate debacle should not be pinned on Isaacson, but if CNN is moving to the right and simultaneously going tabloid, he is sure to be held responsible.

On July 11, just days after being tapped to run CNN, Isaacson appeared before 200 writers at the Television Critics Association's annual dog and pony marathon out in Pasadena, Calif., to hype CNN.

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Also a Harvard alum, Rhodes scholar, world class Southern schmoozer and ever-willing pundit ("Isaacson may not be a household name, but it's not for lack of trying," wrote USA Today in 1999), Isaacson was his usual articulate, passionate self that day as he laid out a vision for CNN. It was a vision anchored in excellence: "That's a very important mission, to do journalism, to actually get stories right and to report them honestly and fairly. I don't think you have to go tabloid to get ratings."

At almost the precise moment Isaacson was speaking, CNN's "Talkback Live" was airing yet another discussion on Chandra Levy's disappearance. In fact, on July 11 CNN ran 22 segments on the Levy story, including six entire programs devoted to the topic.

There, a former homicide investigator with no firsthand knowledge of the case was busy contradicting D.C. police, insisting Rep. Gary Condit was "a major suspect" in the "murder" of Chandra. Before wondering out loud whether Chandra "was pregnant" at the time of her disappearance (she was not), he said he was sure that "if anyone gets indicted in this case it's going to be [Condit]."

Hours later CNN host Greta Van Susteren, co-anchor on "Burden of Proof," wondered if Condit would have been able to erase any trace of "blood evidence" in his apartment before police searched it. (The guest assured her Condit could not; no blood was ever found in his apartment.)

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Looking to liven up the discussion, she asked her on-air expert to "assume hypothetically there was a struggle" in Condit's apartment.

That night on "Crossfire," co-host Robert Novak mentioned how Condit "did have a big sex life." This was all just from one day, July 11 -- the same day Isaacson assured the press that CNN wasn't going "tabloid" in pursuit of ratings.

One week after Isaacson's address to the Television Critics Association, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an interview with Jamie Kellner, the former head of the WB Network. Kellner, as the newly minted chairman and CEO of Turner Broadcasting, hired Isaacson to run CNN. In the Chronicle, Kellner shot down industry speculation that CNN was perusing former president Bill Clinton as a talk show host. Kellner told the paper Clinton had made it clear the show was not a priority for him at that time. And besides, Kellner stressed, "CNN would be interested only if we could have a show that's balanced."

That seemed to be more than a passing reference to complaints fostered by Fox News and other conservatives that CNN, founded by proud liberal Ted Turner, leaned too far to the left politically. Kellner appeared to be signaling that CNN would become increasingly scrupulous about not currying favor with either political party.

Yet the ink was barely dry on the Chronicle when CNN's Isaacson journeyed up to Capitol Hill for a Republicans-only rendezvous, meeting exclusively with conservatives and longtime CNN critics. The Hill newspaper Roll Call, suggesting CNN was playing catch-up with the unabashedly conservative Fox News, quoted one Hill staffer this way: "[Isaacson] is panicked that he's losing conservative viewers. He said, 'Give us some guidance on how to attract conservatives.'"

The public condemnations were swift. "It's shocking and embarrassing for CNN to be groveling like this," says Peter Hart, analyst for the liberal media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "It violates every notion of what standards for journalistic ethics should be."

Just as that drama was dying down, it was revealed that CNN had entered preliminary discussions with Rush Limbaugh about having the conservative commentator join the CNN team.

Would CNN be interested in Limbaugh only if his show were "balanced"? More importantly, would CNN court Republicans Tom Delay and Trent Lott, or revel for four months in a story about a consensual affair, if Fox News weren't breathing down its neck?

Some TV pros argue Isaacson's visit to Capitol Hill only telegraphed CNN's fixation on Fox's newfound influence.

"[Fox News chief] Roger Ailes has always been in their face, now he's in their head," says Reese Schonfeld, former CNN pioneer who served as the network's first president. (Those at CNN insist the episode was blown out of proportion and that Isaacson never asked Republicans how to court conservatives.)

But Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, defends Isaacson's trip to Capitol Hill. "Why not have a meeting with Tom Delay? Walter is trying to save his network. If conservatives are abandoning CNN to go to Fox, then he'd want to find out why. But Walter needs to know what the arguments are, to get a bill of particulars, and if they're out of whack to take that into account. But when your competitor is eating your lunch, you'd be a fool not to respond."

Perhaps the better question is does CNN even have a liberal bias? Or is that ongoing campaign just smoke and mirrors, an attempt to throw CNN off stride?

"Might Fox want to use this against us? Of course, that's Roger Ailes' style," says Aaron Brown, who recently left ABC News for CNN, where he'll soon anchor an evening newscast. "But it doesn't have much to do with the truth or the facts."

FAIR's Hart agrees: "Right-wingers and Republican Party operatives have argued about that and complained for years. But they're long on rhetoric and short on facts."

A recent FAIR report studied guest bookings on CNN's prime-time news show "CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports," and found that of Blitzer's 67 partisan guests between January and May of this year, 39 were Republicans and 28 were Democrats. By contrast, 50 of the 56 partisan guests booked during the same time on Fox News' nightly "Special Report with Brit Hume" were Republicans.

"Conservatives get a fairer shake on CNN than liberals get on Fox," agrees Jones.

There are additional signs CNN is treating Bush quite gently. CNN's signature weekend political chat show, "Capitol Gang" (executive-produced by conservative columnist Novak), recently expanded to a full hour, which, on Aug. 18, gave conservative panelist Kate O'Beirne time to tape a segment pitching softball questions to Karen Hughes on the lawn of the White House. ("You're a very cohesive group. Where does that come from?")

Perhaps that's why even strident Republicans are now offering up solid grades and even faint praise for CNN's job in covering the new Bush administration.

"I haven't seen any red flags that got me hopping out of my seat and screaming at the TV set," says conservative Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund.

"I'd give them a B, and that's higher than all three of the networks," adds Baker at the conservative watchdog group the Media Research Center. To really win conservatives back, "it would take them doing something dramatic in prime time. Something like hiring Rush," he says. ("If Rush Limbaugh is on he will be in a limited fashion and designed to reflect political perspectives from both sides of the aisles," explains one CNN executive.)

While the catcalls from the right subside, the accusation of a liberal bias continues internally at CNN, from longtime host Bob Novak, according to one senior CNN source.

"It's continuous and his line is always the same: 'I'm the only true conservative at CNN.' Walter [Isaacson] comes to town and Novak pulls him aside and says, 'I've been in D.C. for 43 years I know the answer to CNN's problems: It's liberal.' Walter says no, it isn't. Novak says regardless, it's perceived that way. You need to make the pilgrimage to the Hill. That was all Novak."

Asked for a comment, Novak said he had "no interest in talking about that at all."

Chandra Levy, of course, is a topic CNN can't stop talking about. Despite the fact that the news organization has not broken a major story during the four-month scandal, CNN, by a cautious count, has devoted more than 200 separate shows to the Levy story. And more than 50 since Condit's interview on ABC two weeks ago. By comparison, during that same two-week period, alleged serial killer Nikolay Soltys, accused of stabbing to death six family members in Sacramento, was on the run from the law for 10 days, and the subject of a massive law enforcement manhunt. CNN found room for just 10 shows about that case.

CNN's tenacity on the Levy story caught some CNN competitors off guard early on. "I was very surprised that they stayed with the story," says one senior Fox News executive.

A CNN spokesman stresses that even all that Levy coverage still only represented a fraction of its summer stories.

But the feeling among some internally is that the tabloid tone of the Levy coverage has been unmistakable and "has probably been a reaction to Fox," says one CNN source. "What choice do they have?"

The network's Levy performance has enraged some journalism pros. "CNN's been appalling, just disgraceful," says Jones at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It's been a mistake and it's not responsible journalism."

CNN's Bedingfield offers no apologies: "I think it's a story of great interest to our viewers. It's a mystery. There's a public official at the center. You have law enforcement involved. There are a lot of angles. And I happen to think it's a real news story." (In July, CNN gained 200,000 more prime-time viewers, compared to July 2000.)

"The Chandra Levy story is sort of an exaggerated self-parody of what's wrong with TV news," argues Robert Jensen, associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas. "Why in the world does anybody even have to offer up a critique? It's just absurd on the face of it, and highlights how trivial American journalism has become."

Jensen was referring to CNN's "Ground Hog Day"-like prime-time lineup this summer of returning pundits who endlessly chewed over a stagnant story, seemed to get most of their expert information by reading the morning papers, and then spun webs of what-ifs, with many trying to stitch together a workable narrative that put Condit at the center of Levy's disappearance. The whole time CNN hosts were careful never to poke holes in the paper-thin scenarios.

Says Bedingfield at CNN: "I'm not in any way embarrassed by our coverage of the Levy/Condit story."

Indeed, Isaacson had instructed his troops not to "hold their noses" when pursuing the story, according to the New York Times. Despite that, one CNN source says, "the hand-wringing that takes place has been pretty extensive."

Which explains one reason why CNN is in such a bind; its competitor is busy playing by a different set of rules. Or does anybody think Fox News' Paula Zahn did much hand-wringing the night after she invited a psychic on her show to reveal the supposed whereabouts of Levy's body?

"You can't compete with Fox on their terms," warns former CNN president Schonfeld.

That's something the cable news giant may have to learn for itself.


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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