The revamping of CNN begins this month with the arrival of its new president, Jeff Zucker. He takes the reins of a previously prestigious channel that has become largely irrelevant in the journalism industry. To succeed, Zucker will have to take the bold approach as in 1980 when CNN founder Ted Turner proclaimed, “I am going to do news like the world has never seen before.” Turner was not a guy who tweaked and finessed. Zucker shouldn’t be either.
Zucker’s résumé has a mix of great success and dismal failure. He was executive producer at NBC’s “Today” during its ratings heyday. He later rose to president of NBC and oversaw the collapse of prime-time ratings, an era that included the ill-fated move of Jay Leno to a nightly 10 p.m. slot. After leaving NBC, Zucker signed with Katie Couric to produce her giggly talk show.
Boldness would have Zucker take CNN in the direction of renewed journalistic relevance. His background, however, and early moves suggest there might be more giggling ahead for CNN.
In a conference call with reporters, Zucker said he intends to “broaden the definition of what news is.” In an email to CNN employees, Zucker wrote he was committed to “CNN’s core mission,” but added, “. . . we will have to continue to evolve.” A recently published report indicated Zucker is trying to recruit reporters from entertainment publications, such as Hollywood Reporter.
These signals could suggest a more infotainment-based CNN. That would mean CNN is taking the easy path to hype ratings, pandering with a puffy news agenda that might appeal to a distracted audience. If this happens, CNN will lose its place as what Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik calls “the nation’s last bastion of television journalism.”
CNN surely does have to do something to improve ratings. Even though 2012 was an election year, CNN lost 13 percent of its total audience during the year. Prime-time shows featuring Anderson Cooper and Piers Morgan were both down double digits, as were the morning shows. Fox News Channel and MSNBC both saw ratings gains last year.
Instead of softening the news agenda, Zucker should first address CNN’s perceived credibility and bias problems. A myth exists that CNN is a centrist news organization. Zucker appears to have bought that myth, saying in a recent interview, “Just because you’re not partisan doesn’t mean you can’t be exciting.” Audience research and analysis of news content dispute that nonpartisan notion.
A study by the Pew Research Center in August showed that CNN’s credibility rating dropped 18 points in the past decade. The partisan gap in believability between Republicans and Democrats for CNN is only 1 percent less than for MSNBC. Even news outlets such as The New York Times and National Public Radio, long considered left-leaning, are viewed as more centrist than CNN. Another Pew study reported CNN ran more than three times as many negative stories about GOP nominee Mitt Romney as positive stories. Regarding CNN’s election coverage, the study indicated “Obama fared markedly better than Romney and better than in the media generally.”
Personnel moves are under way in the CNN transformation. The network’s biggest coup so far is to hire veteran White House correspondent Jake Tapper away from ABC. Tapper will be chief Washington correspondent and have his own daily show. Soledad O’Brien is reported to be moving her aggressive interview style from mornings to evenings, with Erin Burnett taking her chattiness from evening to morning. Reports have circulated that Zucker wants to recruit Ann Curry from NBC to create a high-profile evening show. Clearly, CNN’s lineup will soon look much different.
However, CNN most needs to redirect its cultural image. This is the network on which prime-time host Piers Morgan, while recently interviewing conservative author Ben Shapiro, dismissed a copy of the Constitution as “your little book.” This network each year puts controversial comedienne Kathy Griffin on its New Year’s broadcast. On live television this year, Griffin bent down and kissed the crotch of co-host Anderson Cooper. CNN has yet to apologize or make a statement about the matter. If Zucker doesn’t fix these kinds of image-destroyers, the loyal news viewers he seeks will not tune in.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a professor of communication at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, and author of Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences. Contact him at email@example.com. On Twitter: @Prof_McCall