“Welcome to the New CNN Where Journalists Have Been Given the Green Light to Say What They Want to Say”

From a Washington Post story by Jeremy Barr headlined “The new CNN is more opinionated and emotional. Can it still be ‘the most trusted name in news?'”:

As the first presidential debate of the 2020 general election came to a close last fall, CNN’s top anchors and political correspondents stepped up to offer their seasoned perspective and analysis.

“That,” said anchor Jake Tapper, “was a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck.” But political correspondent Dana Bash insisted on cutting to the chase.

“You used some high-minded language,” she parried. “I’m just going to say it like it is: That was a s— show.”

In fairness, the chaotic Sept. 29 debate left a lot of journalists sputtering for words, as Donald Trump relentlessly interrupted both Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace. But Bash and Tapper’s casually vivid language highlighted the dramatic tonal transformation of a once-staid network over the past decade.

“I can’t imagine that being accepted in 2001,” said former CNN anchor Carol Costello….

Welcome to the new CNN, where journalists and anchors, traditionally restricted by industry-wide standards of impartiality, have been given the green light under network president Jeff Zucker to say what they actually want to say — even if it strikes some as opinionated.

“One of the things that I’ve tried to encourage is authenticity and being real,” Zucker said. “If we pretend not to be human, it’s not real.”

These days, it’s not uncommon for CNN personalities to cry on air. In March, anchor Brianna Keilar got tearful during a segment about a mass shooting at a grocery store in Colorado. And after correspondent Sara Sidner apologized for getting choked up during a January report about pandemic deaths (“It’s really hard to take,” she sighed), the boss called to reassure her.

“What I told her was, ‘Don’t ever apologize like that again,’ ” Zucker recounted. “She was just being real. She’s a human being. She was expressing an emotion that probably many people in the audience were feeling. And I’m totally comfortable with that happening on television. What people react to is authenticity and reality.”

Yet to some ears, and during some stories, CNN’s new emotional rawness can sound like bias….“For tens of millions of our fellow Americans,” Tapper intoned after CNN called the election for Biden, “their long, national nightmare is over.”…

And prioritizing personal connections to current events can backfire. Chris Cuomo — who has exemplified the New CNN as much as any on-air personality — won over many viewers early last year when he both chronicled his own battle with covid-19 and hailed the public-health efforts of his brother, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in regular segments where the two would banter cutely about their childhood.

That decision put CNN in an uncomfortable position when the New York Democrat became mired in scandal — allegations that he sexually harassed women and that his administration concealed the number of covid deaths in the state’s nursing homes — and the network decided that one of its primetime stars is now too conflicted to discuss one of the biggest political stories in the country.

But while some viewers may miss the old strait-laced, just-the-facts CNN, the new strategy seems to be working: In 2020, an extremely newsy year, it attracted its largest audience in its 40-year history….

“That is what they used to call ‘good television,’” said Syracuse University professor and television historian Robert Thompson. “It shows personality, it creates characters, it introduces a sense of dramaturgy that makes for compelling viewing.”

Back in the day, the news was the star at CNN — far more so than any particular news anchor.

“Nobody was turning it on because Bernie Shaw was necessarily on,” said Lisa Napoli, author of a book about the network’s origins. CNN got its start in 1980, founded on the radical notion that viewers might want news 24 hours a day, back when the big broadcast networks only offered a few hours.

Aaron Brown joined CNN in 2001, when “they were really serious and they took themselves very seriously — way too seriously,” he said. “They weren’t public television, but they were pretty damn boring.”…

“There was an adherence to traditional journalism, as opposed to opinion commentary,” said Kiran Chetry, who joined CNN as an anchor in 2007. “They were trying to showcase that we have more bureaus than any other news network. That we have people that are very plugged in.”

There’s no obvious moment when CNN pivoted away from its traditional approach, but there were personalities along the way who embodied the shift.

Anderson Cooper joined the network in 2001, but it was his 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina that drew notice for its urgent tone. Cooper scolded officials in confrontational interviews that crossed a line into advocacy journalism and visibly choked up on camera.

Today, hosting his nightly news show, “Anderson Cooper 360,” he often strikes a more sober Brokaw-esque tone than the many colleagues who have adopted his heart-on-sleeve sensibility — but he’s also been liberated to get silly, and seemingly tipsy….And his news show includes a deeply opinionated segment called “The Ridiculist,” in which Cooper sometimes plays the role of insult comic….

Yet it was a new president who joined CNN several years later whom most credit for the network’s new vibe. After a quick rise to the job of executive producer of NBC’s morning show “Today” at age 26, Zucker shifted to NBC’s entertainment division in 2000, the later years of the network’s sitcom-studded “Must See TV” peak. He was responsible for “The Apprentice,” the boardroom docudrama that helped expand Trump’s celebrity, and, many argue, put him on the path to the White House.

By 2007, Zucker was president and CEO of all of NBCUniversal. But he was pushed out in 2010, amid tumbling ratings and the network’s acquisition by Comcast.

In 2012, CNN’s then-parent company, Time Warner, hired Zucker to juice the network’s flagging ratings and, as he put it at the time, to inject “more passion” into the programming. The pick was controversial, considering his background in reality television and lighter-side morning news.

But Zucker largely succeeded in making the network profitable, at first by broadening the network’s programming beyond news, to travel shows such as “Parts Unknown,” hosted by Anthony Bourdain; a newer hit show features actor Stanley Tucci eating his way across Italy….

Without sharing specific examples, Zucker acknowledged he has had to hit the brakes a few times.

“There are times where I’ve called folks and said, ‘Hey, I think that might have been a little too much,’ ” he said. “That’s the role of the coach. The coach is supposed to encourage you and then bring you back.”…

It was during the Trump era, though, that the network’s new tone became most evident. CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, pushed back on Trump’s press secretaries and critiqued the administration in a way that raised the eyebrows of news traditionalists.

“This is a nation without a president,” Acosta said last year, criticizing Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis….

Acosta’s detractors say that he made himself the story — perhaps less of an insult these days in a personality-driven medium like cable news. CNN recently rewarded Acosta with a new position as a weekend news anchor.

But the network was also becoming part of the story during these years — notably when the White House suspended Acosta’s press credentials in 2018 and he went to court to get them restored. Zucker jousted publicly with the White House and with Trump, his onetime friend….

Zucker has said that he will probably leave the network at the end of 2021, when his contract ends, but has not explicitly ruled out the possibility of signing an extension. Some employees are hoping he will do that….

The Zucker era at CNN has been marked by the elevation of anchors who are comfortable veering from pure-news delivery to call out what they see as misinformation and bad-faith arguments….

Tapper, a veteran of ABC News, saw his star rise at CNN by speaking bluntly about Trump (“grotesque, dangerous, undemocratic”), congressional Republicans who cast doubt on the results of the presidential election (“the sedition caucus”), and the Murdoch family that owns Fox News (who he said should “put their country above their profits”); CNN just gave him an additional hour every weekday and a new title as lead Washington anchor.

A cable news schedule is a zero-sum game, and Tapper’s extra hour is coming from Wolf Blitzer, who joined the network back in 1990, becoming a cable-news icon with his coverage of the Gulf War that helped make CNN a household name. His neutral affect is a trait once valued in broadcast news but makes him seem like an outlier at the new CNN….

Yet few cable news anchors are better known and respected than Blitzer, who was a steadying presence during the network’s coverage of the unnerving early days of the pandemic, and who remains a symbol of its long-standing identity, as the channel to turn to when a big breaking news story happens.

Zucker, however, said that CNN will always have room for multiple approaches to news.

“I don’t want everybody doing the same thing all day long,” he said. “Yes, you’re going to have folks who are more comfortable, folks who are more traditional, and I think that’s what gives it a dynamic feel.”…

Jeremy Barr covers breaking news about the media industry for The Washington Post.

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