Media critic

CNN’s Jake Tapper (Associated Press)

CNN went on a journalistic tear over the transition period. The network: broke the news of widespread plagiarism by Monica Crowley, who’d been tapped to serve in a national security communications job. She ultimately withdrew from the appointment; broke the news of a high-level briefing at which then-President-elect Donald Trump was told about a dossier containing allegations about his ties to Russia; and broke the news about a dicey stock purchase by Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price, triggering a retraction request that proved the story correct.

Such a streak makes this week an odd time to drop a hit piece on CNN. But there is Jessica Yellin, a former CNNer herself, ripping the network in a New York Times op-ed. Inspiration for the opinion comes from a general, and often very valid, skepticism about the impact of large corporate imperatives on journalism. Instead of allowing CNN to convey into a merged Time Warner-cum-AT&T, Yellin argues that the network should be spun off to an “independent entity.” “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,” she continues. “Subscription fees from cable and other service providers, along with ad revenue, would allow the network to support itself.”

Evidence in favor of such a decision, declares Yellin, comes from the network’s coverage of the 2016 election. There were just too many lame panel discussions and other cheapo approaches to political reporting, she argues. “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,” she claims. More: “With far less effort, news executives can present polarized, high-drama debates that spike viewers’ outrage and short-term ratings.”

Permission requested to write a few paragraphs of dissent. Granted.

There’s little question that CNN uses panel chats to fill its enormous air-time schedule. Nor is there any question that such discussions, which often rely on the unpaid labor of guest commentators, are less costly to project than on-the-ground stuff. And yes, those panel discussions are forgettable, except when they feature Trumpite Jeffrey Lord, in which case they’re just unfortunate.

Yet the CNN that the Erik Wemple Blog watched for hundreds of hours throughout the 2016 election was anything but studio-bound. As we reported here, CNN spent the primary months hustling its chyrons off in a successful effort to plaster its airwaves with debates and town-hall events. Here’s a chunk of that schedule:

Jan. 7: Obama Gun Town Hall
Jan. 12: State of the Union
Jan. 25: Iowa Democratic Town Hall
Feb. 1: Iowa Caucuses
Feb. 3: New Hampshire Democratic Town Hall
Feb. 9: New Hampshire Primary
Feb. 11: PBS Democratic Debate — Simulcast
Feb. 17: S.C. GOP Town Hall — Greenville, S.C.
Feb. 18: S.C. GOP Town Hall — Columbia, S.C.
Feb. 20: Nevada (D)/S.C. (R) Primaries
Feb. 23: Nevada (R) Primary
Feb. 23: S.C. Democratic Town Hall
Feb. 25: CNN GOP Debate —  Houston
Feb. 27: S.C. (D) Primary
March 1: Super Tuesday (Ala., Ark., Ariz., Colo., Ga., Mass., Minn., Okla., Tex., Tenn.,Vt., Va.A, Wyo.)
March 5: Super Saturday (Louisiana, Nebraska, Kentucky, Kansas, Maine)
March 6: CNN Democratic Debate — Flint, Mich.
March 8: Super Tuesday (Hawaii, Idaho, Mich., Miss.)
March 9: Simulcast Univision Democratic Debate
March 10: CNN GOP Debate — Miami
March 13: CNN Democratic Town Hall — Columbus, Ohio
March 15: Super Tuesday (Fla., Ill., Mo., N.C., Ohio)
March 21: CNN Presidential Prime-time Event, The Final Five Candidates
March 22: Western Tuesday Primary

Those are the maneuvers of a profitable news organization, not some “independent entity” fed by small donors. It takes endless teams of producers, anchors, worker bees and others to pull off all these events. Nor can Yellin or anyone else deprecate the value of debates and town halls — they churned out news and genuine insight on the qualifications of candidates for the highest office in the land. CNN’s aggressiveness on this front even yielded a quote that has taken on an ironic sheen. “They are pros up and down from [CNN Worldwide President] Jeff Zucker at the top all the way to the contributors and the production team and their reporters. They have a complete team of top-notch professionals.”

Who said that? Sean Spicer, then an official with the Republican National Committee and now an aide to CNN-hating President Trump.

CNN didn’t use its resources exclusively to produce ratings-scoring events. It hired more than 50 digital reporters to cover all aspects of campaign 2016. Yellin gripes that these folks didn’t see enough airtime. Okay, but this is 2017: There’s something called CNN.com, which wasn’t once mentioned in her New York Times op-ed. Those digital reporters churned out a bottomless number of stories, just like their competitors at other well-funded outlets. When people complain about how the mainstream media failed to probe the Trump crowd, we often send along a January 2016 story by CNN staffers MJ Lee, Sara Murray, Jeremy Diamond, Noah Gray and Tal Kopan. It’s titled”Why I’m voting for Trump” and synthesizes input from more than 150 people in 31 cities. What was that about getting into communities?

In October, CNN lifted an entire team of reporters — the KFile — from BuzzFeed. The group takes its name from Andrew Kaczynski, who has a knack of finding things on the Internet that others either cannot find or don’t care to. It was a bold move in that Zucker all but airlifted these folks out of the BuzzFeed offices, such was the abruptness of their departure. But don’t call it anything other than a bona fide investment in journalism.

As CNN ramped up its digital politics staff in anticipation of a crazy presidential race, many folks in the industry whispered to the Erik Wemple Blog that these folks might well find themselves out of a job after the election concluded. According to CNN spokesman Matt Dornic, the team continues growing.

Herewith a barrage of caveats: Zucker himself acknowledged that CNN carried too many unfiltered Trump rallies; the hiring of Corey Lewandowski as a commentator while he was still receiving payments from the Trump campaign was a disgraceful move that received multiple condemnations in this space; and hiring a whole team of Trump surrogates surely did pollute a lot of conversations on CNN. Not perfect by any means.

Yet the network sunk north of $50 million into political coverage that’s now carrying over into the Trump administration. In just the past few days, CNN correspondents and their peers have watched as Trump and his people have uttered one falsehood/lie after another, leaving behind a fuliginous public record. The reportorial challenge of the coming years is thus ample. To meet it, we’d prefer the richest possible CNN.