In 2004, eight years after he’d sold CNN to Time Warner, Ted Turner, the network’s founder, sounded an alarm about the dangers of corporate ownership of news organizations. Mr. Turner wrote that in his day, “we put journalism first, and that’s how we built CNN into something the world wanted to watch.” In his view, “quarterly earnings obsessed” corporate owners would not have the same priorities because “the emphasis instantly shifts from taking risks to taking profits.”
His warning is especially chilling today, when the integrity of the press matters more than ever. Unfortunately, in the past 20 months CNN’s management has let down its viewers and its journalists by sidelining the issues and real reporting in favor of pundits, prognostication and substance-free but entertaining TV “moments.”
Still, I believe the network can again play an essential role. At its best, CNN is a journalistic enterprise with unparalleled reach and resources, connecting its viewers with people and conflicts half a mile or half a world away.
That’s why I believe that as a condition of Time Warner’s bid to merge with AT&T, CNN should be sold to a new independent entity. This sale would also include CNN international, Headline News and its digital and related properties. Though AT&T has dismissed talk of a sale, one could be compelled by regulators. A consortium of concerned Americans — philanthropists, foundations, small-dollar donors — could fund a trust to operate an independent CNN dedicated to news in the public interest. Subscription fees from cable and other service providers, along with ad revenue, would allow the network to support itself.
I became a devoted viewer of CNN in 1989, during its coverage of the standoff in Tiananmen Square. I remember my father telling me that the only reason the Chinese government didn’t massacre those kids right away was because CNN had cameras on the scene.
From Tiananmen Square to the fall of the Berlin Wall, from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, CNN provided exhaustive live, on-the-ground reporting. Its saturation coverage has had such a profound impact that there’s even a term for it: “the CNN effect,” the power to shift policy and inspire empathy by keeping eyes on unfolding events.
Consider how far CNN departed from this model in the last election. Even though CNN has many able journalists prepared to report stories and talk to voters in communities across the country, its programs were dominated by pundits in Washington and New York squabbling over tweets and polls.
From a journalistic perspective, this model poses real problems. Surrogates are held to a different standard from reporters and often given airtime even when they’ve proven to be reckless with the truth. CNN’s expert input is often of questionable value, as evidenced by the panel last Saturday night, which at one point consisted of one woman and eight men discussing the Women’s March.
But from CNN’s perspective, a pundits-on-panels model offers several benefits. To start with, it’s cost effective. On-the-ground reporting requires expensive crews, satellite trucks and travel. With far less effort, news executives can present polarized, high-drama debates that spike viewers’ outrage and short-term ratings. Most of that recent drama was centered on Donald J. Trump, who, during the early months of the campaign, got coverage from CNN that dwarfed that of the other 16 Republican contenders.
All this was about one thing, and it’s not better journalism. It’s bigger profits. Insiders have reported that CNN made more than $1 billion gross profit in 2016, at least $100 million more than the company projected.
While CNN made its numbers, it missed the story. After the election, CNN’s own media critic, Brian Stelter, rightly told the audience, “Some of you watching right now are having a very hard time trusting this channel.” And yet Time Warner’s chief executive declared 2016 a “killer year” for CNN.
Is there any reason to believe the pressure to maximize profits will decrease after AT&T spends $85 billion to buy Time Warner?
Freed of the relentless pressure to drive up profits, an independent CNN could rededicate itself to “journalism first.” Reporters could focus on informing the audience and exposing wrongdoing. This would create opportunities for journalistic rigor, risk and innovation.
There are instructive comparisons. Nonprofits like PBS and NPR often cover issues with more complexity and nuance than corporate-owned networks. The Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting are more fearless about holding power to account.
In my 15 years as a TV reporter, seven of them at CNN, almost every time I visited a newsroom, an office on Capitol Hill or an official in the White House, CNN was on. This hasn’t changed. The network still has an outsize impact on the world of politics and media, perhaps one reason President Trump has singled out CNN in his attacks on the press.
Thanks to CNN’s innovative technology, seasoned journalists and global reach, it can again be the world’s most trusted TV news brand. But only if the coming years are different than the last.
A healthy democracy needs trusted news sources to which all citizens can turn. Given the new administration’s hostility to dissenting voices and willingness to strong-arm corporations, we need independent and responsible media outlets more than ever before. I believe that CNN could once again be the place Ted Turner envisioned and built years ago. A strong independent CNN that answers to no one but the public would be a powerful force to safeguard our democracy.