When ThinkProgress announced that it was going out of business, a few observers wondered aloud, “Why didn’t anybody buy it?” But why would they have, when we have CNN?
As a child, I was aware of CNN in part because its introductory bumper featured the sinister voice of Darth Vader, and in part because it was both the prototype and the stereotype of the 24-hour news channel. CNN showed up in movies, either as itself or in parodies that imitated its role. It was on in the airports and the hospitals and the hotel lobbies, and in the waiting room at the dentist’s office. When something bad or exciting was happening, you would tell your friends, “Turn on CNN.”
CNN was careful and self-consciously nonpartisan — or, at least, it was keen for viewers to believe that it was. Its slogans were “This is CNN” — well, yes — and “The most trusted name in news,” and it cultivated its position within the firmament in much the same way as does Wikipedia today. It could be sensationalist and intrusive at times, but it was sensationalist and intrusive in the way that the paparazzo is rather than in the way that protesters who bang drums in your face and insist that you give up gasoline are. In short, it was what it said it was: a news network.
It is no longer that. These days, CNN is a peculiar and unlovely hybrid of progressive propaganda outlet, oleaginous media apologist, sexless cultural scold, and frenzied Donald Trump stalkerblog. When news breaks, it is no longer useful or appropriate to tell someone, “Turn on CNN,” because if he did, he would be as likely to be presented with a wall of advocacy and obsession as with the headlines of the hour. Today, CNN does not broadcast the news; it broadcasts what it wants you to think the news is. At long last, it has become Fox.
It is difficult to convey in words just what the candidacy and then presidency of Donald Trump have done to CNN, but one can gain a sense of the descent by comparing the network with a news organization that has largely maintained its sanity: the New York Times. On April 30 of this year, the front page of the Times featured stories on Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the consequences of ISIS’s rule of Raqqa; on the biggest measles outbreak of the 21st century; and on the Labor Department’s decision to treat workers in the “gig economy” as contractors rather than as employees. The first column of CNN’s homepage, by contrast, featured — in order: “77 lies and falsehoods Mueller called out”; “What’s in the Mueller report? CNN breaks it down”; “William Barr now has to try to defend the indefensible”; “Barr gave his version of the report. Then we read it”; “Democrats ramp up Trump financial probe, make new hire”; “Prosecutors seek to block Stone from seeing unredacted portions of Mueller’s report”; “Analysis: Is Rosenstein the hero of the Russia probe? Or the villain?”; “Biden: Congress would have ‘no alternative’ to impeachment if Trump blocked Mueller probe.” The second column of the homepage was headed up by a puff piece — “Joe Biden’s past 24 hours could not have gone more perfectly” — and some fascinating reporting on whether Pete Buttigieg minded Oprah’s joking about his name. To find some actual news — that there had been an uprising in Venezuela — one had to go all the way over to the third column. April 30 was twelve days after the release of the Mueller report.
This has been typical of the network’s monomania. On August 14, the New York Times ran with the news that protesters had taken over Hong Kong’s airport; that Nicolás Maduro was torturing his foes in the Venezuelan military — sometimes to death; and that the White House was delaying its proposed tariffs on China. More prominent than any of these stories on CNN.com were an “analysis” titled “Trump’s talking more than ever about men’s looks”; an “analysis” of “Donald Trump, plastic pusher”; an “analysis” under the headline “This one word is a telltale sign Trump is being dishonest”; and a piece providing “proof Obama was better for the stock market than Trump.” Pick any day, and you’ll find the same disconnect. Were CNN to change its website address to “TrumpImpeachmentWatch.com,” would anyone notice the difference?
In 2017, the network adopted a new slogan, “Facts First,” which it promoted via a widely run advertising campaign that explained that, unlike President Trump, its employees were able to distinguish between an apple and a banana. “Lies,” the ubiquitous spot insisted, “can become truth, if we let them.”
Which, of course, is absolutely true — just as it is absolutely true that President Trump, the clear target of the drive, is a habitual liar and an unreconstructed narcissist. The trouble is . . . so is CNN. With the possible exception of the hallucinatory MSNBC, no other institution in American life spent more time and effort indulging the false idea that President Trump was quite obviously guilty of treason, collusion, and bribery, and insisting that the impending Mueller report would not only reveal this guilt, but would prompt Trump’s removal from office and, possibly, his arrest. For two long years, the network was breathless. The walls were always “closing in,” the hours were perpetually “ticking down,” and the end never stopped beginning. Wars have been fought with less relentless effort than Jeff Zucker and co. put into starting with their conclusion. Anything with the word “Russia” glued to it — however minor or tenuous or self-evidently silly it was — warranted a “BREAKING” chyron, and a grave, dramatic, eschatological tone. Nothing gave rise to skepticism or pause — not even the publication of the Mueller report itself, the details of which, when revealed, were all but rejected in favor of yet more conspiracy theories. Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning that “he who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster” has never been more assiduously ignored.
This regrettable mania has not only pushed CNN to indulge whatever rumors happened to be running around Twitter that day, it has provoked serious mistakes from within. One of those mistakes, the publication of a story that claimed that Congress was investigating a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials,” was predicated upon a single anonymous source and represented such a serious breach of protocol that its three authors were forced to resign. Among the other false stories promulgated were that a CIA asset had needed to be extracted from Russia in 2017 because President Trump had put him in danger (Trump hadn’t); that James Comey was set to tell Congress that President Trump had lied when he said that Comey had told him he was never personally under investigation (Comey didn’t); that President Trump’s lawyers had edited Michael Cohen’s 2017 testimony before Congress and thereby suborned perjury (they had not); and that President Trump and his campaign had been granted early access to the hacked DNC emails, before they were made public (this didn’t happen). It is true, of course, that human beings make mistakes. But that all of CNN’s mistakes have gone in one direction, and on one subject, is telling. When all you have is a hammer . . .
It remains hard to escape the conclusion that CNN considers its main role to be as part of the “Resistance.” In August, the network hired former acting director of the FBI Andrew McCabe as a contributor, despite his having been fired from the agency after a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general that showed he had leaked information to the press and then lied to investigators to cover it up, and it continues to publish articles that presume or assert things for which there is simply no evidence. In reaction to the Horowitz report — a devastating document that highlights routine abuse at the FBI and in the FISA courts, and cuts off at the knees the idea that the investigation of Carter Page was based upon serious data — CNN published an “analysis” by Katelyn Polantz that insisted that “many of the claims by Steele, a former British spy, have held up over time, or have proven to be at least partially true.”
Bananas, apples, kumquats, whatever.
Watching CNN try to push an obvious political agenda while retaining sufficient space for plausible deniability is akin to watching a two-year-old child try to steal a much-coveted chocolate bar without getting caught by his parents; one can only shake one’s head and laugh at the incompetence.
Often, one can follow these attempts in real time. Jim Acosta, who seems to believe that his job is to act as the loyal opposition to President Trump, serves as a good example of the tendency, prone as he is to showing up at press conferences and emoting until he inspires a reaction about which he can subsequently complain on Twitter. Even more transparent a player than Acosta is Don Lemon, who is a “news anchor” in the same sense as that in which Nick Saban is a referee. In recent years, Lemon has become famous for refusing to accept when he is wrong — in 2014, having been informed that he did not know the difference between a semiautomatic and an automatic firearm, he tried to make the distinction a matter of personal taste with a desperately deployed “for me . . .” — and for his routine inability to control his emotions during interviews. The best — well, the worst — illustration of the latter tendency came in August of 2019, when Lemon invited the Reverend Bill Owens onto his show and then grew angry as Owens, an African-American pastor who had just met with President Trump to work on improving conditions in inner cities and wanted to talk about that rather than about Trump’s ridiculous tweeting, repeatedly refused to call the president a racist. When it became abundantly clear that Owens was not going to take the bait, Lemon instantly and dramatically switched tack, accusing Owens of homophobia, questioning whether he was sufficiently “Christianly or godly,” and implying that Owens was “condoning” Trump’s attacks on figures such as Representative Elijah Cummings. As Lemon did this, the technical team at CNN changed the chyron at the bottom of the screen so that it ceased to describe Owens as an “African American faith leader” and labeled him instead as a “controversial pastor.” From honored guest to enemy of progress in five minutes flat.
On other occasions, CNN has attempted to push a line by sheer volume alone. In the month following the February 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., the network’s site and cable channel became essentially indistinguishable from the Brady Campaign, filling every hour of its broadcasts and every pixel of its website with relentless, unyielding gun-control advocacy. As part of the push, the network hosted a televised “town hall” event that was deliberately designed to provoke grieving people into lashing out at politicians and policy organizations that hold a different opinion on gun control from their own, even as it provided a platform for the one person who actually held some responsibility for the attack — Sheriff Scott Israel, who has now been removed for incompetence — to playact as an indignant man of the people. Alongside this grotesque stunt, which it mined for videos for weeks afterwards, CNN took to misinforming the public with outlandish claims, such as that there had been hundreds of mass shootings already that year, or that Americans across the country were coming “dangerously close to a moment in time when every one of us will know someone who has been shot in a mass shooting.” It was an embarrassment.
Did CNN know this? It seems not to have, nor to care about the feedback it received. And how could it, given that, more than any other outlet in America, CNN has bought into the extremely silly idea that members of the press are heroes by default — akin in nature to firefighters or doctors — and that their interests are synonymous with the interests of the First Amendment? Keen to ensure that any criticism of it is conflated with criticism of free expression per se, CNN offers up a glossy propaganda show named “Reliable Sources,” the primary purpose of which is to whitewash the most egregious decisions it makes, to defend similar decisions made by its allies, and to explain why mirror-image behavior by Fox News represents a unique threat to the republic. Reliable Sources is presented by Brian Stelter, a man who insists that he is not a “media critic” and who is, in a literal sense, correct in this evaluation. A better description for Stelter might be “media apologist,” or perhaps “media sculptor,” for Stelter clearly believes that his job is to suppress any information that makes the outlets he likes look bad and to highlight any information that he believes makes the outlets he likes look good. He is, in his own mind, the Arbiter of the Press. A National Media Ombudsman. The First Amendment’s Own Inspector General. To understand the nature of Reliable Sources, one needs only to know that Stelter managed to cover in obsessive detail the appearance of former White House press secretary Sean Spicer on the ABC reality show Dancing with the Stars, while assiduously ignoring fresh and explosive evidence that ABC News had withheld its knowledge of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal years before it broke.
Over time, CNN has followed this self-referential instinct to its logical conclusion, and thereby convinced itself that its staff are as much a part of any story as the story itself. Which is why, among the vital pieces of news we have been brought by the network this year, are “CNN reporter gets emotional over his story,” and why one can find multiple stories and videos under headlines that start with “CNN host shuts down panelist” or “CNN anchor shuts down commentator” or “CNN anchors slam . . .” — all of which would, for most of American history, have seemed odd things for a news network to boast about. So self-indulgent has the organization become, in fact, that when I learned this year that it was starting a “CNN Hero of the Year” award, I half-expected to see Brian Stelter tearfully giving it to himself.
Does that sound outlandish? It is not. In October 2018, a few days before the midterm elections, the channel began running an advertisement for itself every ten minutes that featured Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, telling Ron DeSantis, the Republican candidate for governor of Florida that, “this is CNN, not Fox — you have to bring facts.” Or put another way: CNN, which is putatively a news organization, endorsed and repeatedly aired a cheap political attack from a candidate it was supposed to be covering, against a candidate it was supposed to be covering, as publicity in defense of its own neutrality. You couldn’t make it up.
Until Donald Trump burst unbidden onto the political scene, my biggest criticism of cable news as a medium was that it routinely ended up filling time with anodyne, useless, repetitive nonsense. During the papal conclave of 2005, a CNN anchor based in Atlanta conducted a live interview with a correspondent over in Vatican City, the upshot of which was that both participants agreed they knew nothing. At the outset of their exchange, having been invited to give an update, the correspondent said bluntly, “Well, I honestly don’t know anything more than you do” — an admission that, I thought at the time, raised the question of why the station was paying for a satellite to host the call.
Now, cable news is filled with pernicious, misleading, delirious nonsense instead — a considerably worse state of affairs. This was perhaps inevitable. Combine a nation in which poverty has declined and medicine has improved and crime has dropped dramatically with a culture that rewards short-term thinking and instant excitement with a medium that has an infinite number of hours to fill, and what do you get? You get titillation, rumor, faction, groupthink, a disastrous, chronic absence of judgment, and a strange feeling that everything needs to be aired and commented on. Having displayed a weird Trump-campaign tweet that portrayed the president as the supervillain Thanos from the Avengers, Don Lemon sputtered and twitched and shook his head on his show last week, before saying, “I can’t even believe I’m even having to report this on the news.”
But you know what, Don? You don’t have to report that. Nobody has to. There are many words that one might use to describe what Fox, MSNBC, and CNN are doing in the year 2019, some of them unprintable in this magazine. “News,” alas, is not among the first 50 that come to mind.
This article appears as “This Is CNN” in the December 31, 2019, print edition of National Review.