The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It appears CNN and the New York Times forgot a lesson of the Trump years

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5 min

An earlier version of this column misspelled Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive David Zaslav’s last name.

Two of America’s most important news outlets, CNN and the New York Times, are signaling that they will continue and even increase some of the both sides-ism, false equivalence and centrist bias that has long impaired coverage of U.S. politics and therefore our democracy itself. I hope they reconsider.

In recent interviews, outgoing New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet and his replacement, Times managing editor Joe Kahn, have emphasized that the paper must be “independent.” Baquet, in a memo he wrote before his departure, urged Times staffers not to use Twitter too much. CNN executives are suggesting that the network must return to largely covering “hard news.” Warner Bros. Discovery chief executive David Zaslav, who oversees CNN, has announced that the network should not be involved in “advocacy.” Incoming CNN chief executive Chris Licht, in a tweet on Monday, announced that he would no longer be using Twitter.

Being independent, not doing advocacy, covering hard news and not being overly obsessed with Twitter all sound like generic, noncontroversial notions. But in the context of U.S. news and politics today, these comments have unstated but important meanings. Twitter has become code for “the cultural left” or “highly-educated liberals.” Baquet and Licht want to make clear that their news outlets are not captured by those mind-sets.

Disavowing Twitter is a mistake. The platform has empowered people and ideas that couldn’t previously get much traction on CNN, the Times and other mainstream media outlets, which tend to unconsciously promote a “don’t change the status quo too much” centrist approach that is roughly the ideological range between Hillary Clinton on the left and Jeb Bush on the right. Twitter was essential to the rise of Black Lives Matter — and also was a useful platform for former president Donald Trump. Trump is now off Twitter, but it remains a powerful tool for movements and activists, particularly on the left and outside both parties’ establishments.

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It would be great if these news executives, while distancing themselves from Twitter, were making some other deep commitment to reaching people whose views might not be in the mainstream. Instead, they are likely further entrenching themselves in upper-middle-class coastal America and its perspectives. And in a nation where Black people disproportionately lack power and influence, it is disappointing that the inclinations of the leaders of major news organizations are to disengage from Twitter, one of the few media platforms where Black people have outsize clout and influence.

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In terms of independence, let’s be honest, the Times and CNN are declaring freedom from the left — they are not worried about being cast as too aligned with the Republicans. This is not a new move. Baquet repeatedly emphasized during the Trump years that his paper was not part of the Democratic “resistance.”

Of course the media should be independent. But I suspect independence and not doing advocacy are just updated terms for problematic forms of objectivity and neutrality that mainstream news organizations have long favored. During Trump’s presidency, the Times and CNN played an important role in signaling to the nation that he was behaving in extreme and at times anti-democratic ways. This honest coverage was nothing to be ashamed of. Now, these news executives are implying some of that coverage was misguided and won’t happen in the future.

I worry that what these executives want in the future is for their coverage of political issues to be perceived as equally independent from Republicans and Democrats. Such an approach is likely to lead to false equivalence and obfuscation — for example, reporters being worried about forthrightly identifying inaccurate statements by politicians. It basically encourages Republicans to continue to lodge bad-faith claims of media bias. It will put Black reporters in a bind, since honestly describing that the aim of some GOP-sponsored voting laws is to make it harder for Black people to cast ballots might sound like what a civil rights advocate or a Democrat might say.

If I were Trump, I would be ecstatic about these announcements.

Finally, breaking news at CNN is intended to replace commentary on the network, which became increasingly anti-Trump in his final two years in office. I would love it if CNN and other cable networks devoted more time to covering education policy, transportation and other subjects that they don’t currently feature. But what I suspect Licht is outlining is replacing political commentary with more reporters standing in front of buildings like the White House and summarizing the words of elected officials.

Such an approach will no doubt limit anti-Republican commentary and make GOP officials happier. But the goal should be to inform the audience, not appease officials in each party equally. When I watch cable news, I learn the most from the commentators, such as CNN’s Ron Brownstein, who study politics deeply and come to evidence-based conclusions. If the U.S. president is behaving abnormally, it’s vital to have commentators who will assess that behavior, as opposed to networks searching for whatever happened in America that will qualify as hard news and can be presented in a manner equally good and bad for both parties.

What’s driving this rhetoric is that for many journalists and news executives in today’s America, the worst thing is to be perceived as being too liberal and too pro-Democratic. But in reality, it would be worse to miss stories of underrepresented communities, avoid being reality-based in favor of neutrality, prioritize breaking news in favor of offering important analysis and context and play down threats to democracy. Journalists should prioritize good journalism over journalism perceived to be unbiased. After four years of Trump, including an attempt to overturn the election results, I’m surprised and disappointed I have to keep writing that.