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.
“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, who speculated that Bash might have faced internal discipline in an earlier era. But, she added, "It was what anybody was thinking, so it wasn't wrong to say that."
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 at a network that built its reputation on studiously neutral impartiality. “For tens of millions of our fellow Americans,” Tapper intoned after CNN called the election for Biden, “their long, national nightmare is over.” Awaiting the verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial last month, host Don Lemon confessed that “I’m anxious about it. . . . We shall see what the value of a Black life is.” When the Minneapolis police officer was convicted in the death of George Floyd, Lemon proclaimed, “justice has been served.”
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 prime-time 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. (Fox News and MSNBC also set records.)
“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.”
But Brown — famous for covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks over a 17-hour shift — applauded CNN for sticking to the middle while MSNBC targeted the political left and Fox News targeted the right. “CNN has a brand, and it’s an incredibly valuable brand,” he said.
“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 he 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, while holding court on CNN’s annual New Year’s Eve broadcast. And his news show includes a deeply opinionated segment called “The Ridiculist,” in which Cooper sometimes plays the role of insult comic. Last fall, he compared Trump to “an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun, realizing his time is over,” a comment he later apologized for — but which might have triggered more severe consequences in a different era.
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 as its president 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 Corp.
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.
“I think that as an anchor, I knew what CNN was about under Jeff Zucker in a way that I never knew under anyone else,” said Costello, who left the network in 2018. “He wanted you to be in-your-face, no-holds-barred, ask the right questions. . . . But, stick to the facts. Don’t be irresponsible.”
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.”
Lemon, the prime-time host, said as much during a podcast interview last month with Kara Swisher for the New York Times. “I have a lot of support from the big guy,” Lemon told her. “And if I go too far or whatever, then we’ll talk about it.”
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. In a November appearance, he postulated that when Trump leaves office, “he just goes back to being another crackpot on the Internet.” In January, as the outgoing president sought to challenge the election results, Acosta put it in terms of Trump “scrambling to scam his way into a second term.”
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, while CNN spokespeople called out the president in pithy replies on Twitter.
There was a history here, of course: Many critics believed Zucker’s CNN, in hopes of hooking viewers, had lavished excessive airtime to Zucker’s reality TV superstar as he launched his unlikely 2016 campaign. Zucker later apologized for that, though not for his other controversial practice of hiring staunchly pro-Trump pundits to tangle on-air with CNN’s political analysts.
From that standpoint, many critics on the left see CNN’s shift to a more opinionated journalism as a corrective.
“They’re moving in a direction away from false equivalence, false balance, mollifying bad-faith critics from the right — and focusing instead on what the story is,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America.
But some found the adversarial stance toward Trump to be “one-note,” as Chetry put it, and less than fearless. “You’re not necessarily going out on a limb when you’re criticizing the Trump administration,” said Chetry, who left CNN in 2012. “It’s really easy to have an opinion when you don’t have to be afraid that anyone disagrees.”
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. “Despite his faults, he’s been the best leader CNN has had in my many, many, years here,” said a senior producer who was not authorized to comment. (Zucker declined to discuss his future beyond what he said in February.)
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.
Keilar, whose “Roll the Tape” segments attempting to hold public officials accountable for past comments have gone viral, was recently given a plum spot as co-anchor of the network’s morning news show, “New Day.” 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 runs 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, noted Carusone. “This model of just standing there and leaving it there is not where CNN seems to be going, which is that they are going to actually do the secondary piece of helping digest and making assessments,” he said.
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.”
Cuomo, who worked as a traditional correspondent for ABC News, came to CNN in 2013 as a traditional morning news co-anchor — until 2018, when the network gave him his own show in the more opinionated prime-time hours and let him run wild. As he began gleefully skewering both Democrats and Republicans, network management put one key restriction on him: that he not cover his governor brother because of the inherent conflict of interest.
But CNN dropped the policy during the early weeks of the pandemic, arguing that his conversations with Gov. Cuomo were “of significant human interest.”
So when Cuomo explained a year later that he couldn’t interview his brother about the allegations lobbed against him, some network critics saw a double standard at play. “Why is this different from spring/summer of last year?” Mary Katharine Ham, a right-leaning CNN contributor, asked on Twitter.
Cuomo, meanwhile, also has drawn criticism for his other way of personalizing the pandemic. Some raised questions about the timeline of his covid-19 recovery, which the host commemorated with a live-TV emergence from the basement where he had been in quarantine. And after The Washington Post and other news organizations reported that his brother’s administration arranged for the newsman to get preferential diagnostic treatment, critics accused CNN of dismissing or downplaying the story.
Andrew Cuomo remains governor of New York, despite myriad calls for his resignation, which means that CNN will probably continue facing criticism for ignoring the controversy during a key evening hour. But viewers don’t seem to mind: During the first three months of this year, “Cuomo Primetime” was the most-watched show on cable news among the 25-to-54 demographic coveted by advertisers.
And although he wouldn’t discuss the network’s decision-making about Cuomo, Zucker said the controversy has “changed nothing” in his view of the host’s role in CNN’s future. “Not at all,” he repeated.