The highest echelons of the US media were once again in the spotlight this week, after CNN this week abandoned a newly launched streaming service and the New York Times appointed a prominent Bostonian to lead it.
CNN+ will shut down on 30 April, about a month after it was launched with a $300m investment. The new owner of the network, Warner Bros Discovery – itself the product of a $43bn merger between AT&T and the Discovery Network – decided the subscription-based streaming service was unfeasible. Only 100,000 users had signed up.
The new chairman and chief executive of CNN, Chris Licht, said the decision to dump CNN+ was the product of a uniquely bad situation.
“We have to own what happened, even though it’s not a result of what we did,” Licht told employees at a town hall meeting.
The shelving of the service leaves in the lurch high-profile hires including veteran Fox News journalist Chris Wallace and Kasie Hunt, formerly of NBC News and MSNBC. It is also the end of a project that encouraged top CNN reporters toward less news-focused fare such as Jake Tapper’s Book Club and Parental Guidance With Anderson Cooper.
At an Oprah Winfrey-hosted company meeting on the Warner Bros lot in Burbank, California last week, David Zaslav, chief executive and president of CNN’s corporate parent, reportedly said he wanted CNN to focus on the facts and set itself apart from a cable- news industry monopolized by “advocacy networks”.
“If we get that, we can have a civilized society,” Zaslav reportedly said. “And without it, if it all becomes advocacy, we don’t have a civilized society.”
A board member, John Malone, has also spoken on the subject of media bias.
“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone told CNBC in November.
CNN is not alone in signaling that it is abandoning a kind of reporting that arguably came to pass in an effort to counter Fox News, the far more profitable rightwing outlet known for intense audience loyalty.
Addressing the bleed-through of opinion into news has also been on the menu at the New York Times, though less overtly so given the gift that would present to the paper’s enemies.
This week, the controlling Sulzberger family tapped Joe Kahn, a former China correspondent, to be the new executive editor.
Though top editors felt by some staff to have overlooked limitations on which opinions were fit to publish have left the paper, the publisher, AG Sulzberger, has said he believes “in the principle of openness to a range of opinions”.
This week, a Times insider told New York magazine: “There is a sense – and this makes a lot of people very happy – that [Kahn] is much less willing to indulge the complaining and the constant creatures of activism and that he is somebody who has expressed little patience for the newsroom culture-war eruptions that have been such a distraction for us lately.”
Two weeks ago the paper’s outgoing executive editor, Dean Baquet, issued “a reset” in the paper and reporters’ approach to Twitter, long held up as having undue influence over some aspects of the Times’ editorial approach.
“We’re not ordering anybody that they can’t be on Twitter,” Baquet said. “But we also just want to help people modulate it.”
Like many news organizations, the Times is attempting to steer a path between who would see the anti-democratic excesses of the right as reason to counter with greater activism from the left and those who say news organizations should be essentially non-political.
“We won’t be baited into becoming ‘the opposition’”, Sulzberger said in 2018. “And we won’t be applauded into becoming ‘the opposition’.”
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, said a breakdown of political discourse had created a problem for all institutions.
“They all have strategies and those strategies go out of favor so they change them,” he said. “No one really knows what to do but there are different ways of faking it.”
For the Times, Rosen said, carefully worded statements by Kahn and others were really saying: “There’s pressure to become more liberal and we’re not going to do that.”
He said: “They think their critics and core readers want them to be pro-Joe Biden, and overlook any faults he has. They’re saying they’re not going to be intimidated by the right wing or congratulated by the left wing into doing what they want.”
In February, the Times launched a new advertising campaign: Independent Journalism for an Independent Life. To Rosen, it was the carefully calibrated articulation of a shift that cannot be fully articulated.
“This whole issue has been wrapped up in a bow of independence,” he said. “It’s the language they’re using to announce a shift without articulating any need for a shift.”