Posted on YouTube eight months ago and entitled “We Are CNN,” the video crams a lot into four minutes. A tight shot of a TV camera lens. An off-screen voice counts down: “Four … three …” A huge microphone, a control board, a row of bright studio lights, a control room that looks like NASA Mission Control Center.
Long ago, in another world, CNN founder Ted Turner announces that CNN will “bring a better understanding of how people from different nations can live and work together in brotherhood.” (Ted’s always been big on “understanding” foreigners — at least the tyrants. He has five kids but praised China’s one-child policy. He defended Kim Jong Il. He called Fidel Castro “a great guy.” This is the mind that hatched CNN.)
We see a deeply serious Don Lemon; the steps of the U.S. Capitol; a sign reading “CNN London”; a cellphone showing a call from “HK News Desk CNN”; and, placed prominently on the desk of one of CNN’s many DEI executives, a copy of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste (2020), which argues that the U.S. is a caste society.
Two Latinos — a weekend anchor and a talent recruiter — shake hands. We see anchors at CNN Miami and CNN Washington, then a deeply serious Anderson Cooper. Offscreen voices say: “We all believe so deeply in what we do here.” “CNN is committed to covering the world.” “You have Mexico City live, and you have Argentina live.” “It is very important that we have empathy in the way we cover our stories.” “I think it’s important to hear both sides of the argument.”
If you didn’t know any better, you’d be bowled over by this fast-paced blizzard of aggressive self-promotion. What a network! All that high-tech equipment! All those serious, dedicated men and women around the globe — London, Hong Kong, Miami, Mexico City! All that journalistic nobility — comprehensiveness, commitment, responsibility, empathy, impartiality! Watching this claptrap, you’d scarcely imagine that this outfit — which, in its early days, seemed at least sometimes to be striving for these goals — had long since become a cynical establishment tool, a go-to place for Democratic Party talking points, a round-the-clock Trump-smearing machine.
Ah, those early days! When Turner invented CNN in 1980, it was a pretty remarkable concept. A worldwide cable network — nothing but news, 24 hours a day. At the time it seemed an impossible challenge. Yes, we’d all grown up with big doses of local news morning, noon, evening, and night — reports on local fires and robberies, anchors who goofed around with each other, a jolly weather guy, a chummy sports guy, and, for dessert, a human-interest story — a cat saved from a tree, a woman who collects string. Pretty lowbrow.
By contrast, the evening network news, which covered the momentous international events of the day, was the height of seriousness, with dignified foreign correspondents and consistently tight (if highly formulaic) writing and editing. By the end of the half hour, you felt that you’d been told all you needed to know about what had happened on the planet since the evening before: all meat, no fat. That being the case, what on earth could an apparently serious-minded all-day news network like CNN find to fill its time with?
Well, somehow it managed. And then it acquired competition. Soon, at war with Fox News and MSNBC, CNN was constantly airing promos profiling its talking heads as shrewd, gutsy, noble. But the more we saw of them, the more we saw through them. When Wolf Blitzer played Celebrity Jeopardy in 2009, viewers were stunned by his ignorance. When a Malaysia Airlines flight disappeared in 2014, Don Lemon asked an expert, in all seriousness, if it could have been swallowed up by a black hole.
Jeff Zucker was named CNN’s president in 2013. Two years later, Trump descended that escalator and became Zucker’s obsession. When Trump won, CNN went all Trump-hate. Any remaining traces of journalistic objectivity evaporated as Zucker’s hacks trafficked in big lies: first, Trump as a Russian tool; later, the Hunter Biden laptop as Russian disinformation.
One of the CNN bobbleheads who seemed most eager to do Zucker’s evil bidding vis-à-vis Trump was Brian Stelter, host of the ludicrously misnamed Reliable Sources. In a 2019 article, veteran journalist Chuck de Caro, a self-identified “member of early, ‘classic’ CNN,” accused Stelter of “doing his best to destroy the reputation of the once-proud network that I was honored to help create.”
When Stelter and his on-camera associates weren’t maligning Trump, they were beclowning themselves. On successive New Year’s Eve programs, Lemon got smashed in Bourbon Street bars. During the lockdown, Chris Cuomo pretended to be emerging from a weeks-long basement quarantine — even though he’d been photographed in public only days earlier. Then there were his painful softball interviews with his brother, the New York governor.
But even as its shows drifted further and further from real journalism, CNN continued to be terrific at promoting itself. For years, every time somebody in a Hollywood movie switched on a TV, we saw a CNN anchor reading “news” copy that was part of the film’s script. At an airport anywhere on earth, you’d see CNN on the tube. This was, in fact, the product of a deal between CNN and the airports, but it fostered the illusion that CNN was, all over the world, the definitive source of information about the world.
Increasingly, however, that was the opposite of the truth. In reality, CNN was tanking. By early 2022, it was reaching fewer than a third as many viewers as Fox News. At 9 p.m. on weeknights, Tucker Carlson was drawing five times as many eyeballs as CNN. So what did CNN honchos do? In April of last year, deluded by their own hubris, they launched a for-pay streaming service, CNN+. Nobody cared. It was closed down after a month.
And CNN’s slide continued. By the end of last year, it was the 21st-most-watched network. Fox News was at No. 5, MSNBC at No. 8; among the competitors that beat CNN out were the Food Network, Discovery, and TBS. CNN did even worst in the coveted 18–49 demographic, coming in at No. 31, with a piddling 126,000 viewers, which meant that it trailed the likes of Hallmark and Adult Swim.
Meanwhile, in the cruelest cut of all, 11 million people were watching every episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast.
Rogan! CNN had bureaus all over the world. It employed innumerable reporters, researchers, writers, producers, camera operators, lighting technicians, makeup artists, hair stylists, drivers, translators, DEI people, talent recruiters, and heaven knows what else. It was run by armies of executives who held solemn meetings in fancy conference rooms. It owned a fortune in fancy cameras, lights, mics, and other equipment. And it had all those amazing NASA-like control rooms. By contrast, Joe Rogan had — well — himself, sitting at a big table in a room in his house that he’d converted into a studio, and in which he talked with a wide range of guests, unscripted, for two or three hours a day. And this one man, this David against a Goliath, had many times more viewers, hands down, every day of the year, than the entire CNN empire.
And Rogan’s wasn’t the only podcast that was slaughtering CNN.
That “We Are CNN” video was a pathetic plea in response to the astonishing humiliation that Rogan represented. The video cries out: “Take us seriously! We’re the real thing!” In June 2021, Stelter and a guest expressed frustration at the fact that some podcasters and YouTubers were watched by more people than CNN, prompting Rogan to comment that they were “acting as if they were entitled to viewers.”
CNN shot back in its usual petty, dishonest manner: in September, when Rogan mentioned he was taking Ivermectin for COVID, CNN talking heads (obviously acting on orders) mocked him for it, dismissing that highly effective drug as a “horse dewormer.” Soon after, guesting on Rogan’s podcast, CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta agreed that CNN had done Rogan wrong — but then took part in a CNN segment spinning his Rogan spot in such a way as to further push the notion of Rogan as crackpot. Of course it didn’t work. On the contrary: by attacking Rogan, CNN was just shooting more holes in its own credibility.
Plainly, if CNN were to survive, it needed an overhaul. In January 2021, Acosta was demoted, and Lemon was moved from his primetime spot to a morning show. In April 2021, Project Veritas released an undercover video in which a CNN technical director admitted that the network, in order to swing the 2020 election, had painted Trump as feeble and Biden as robust while knowing that this was the opposite of the truth. In December 2021, after it came out that Cuomo had been advising his brother on how to deal with sexual-assault allegations, he was given the heave-ho.
Three months later Zucker himself was out, forced to resign supposedly because of a relationship with an underling. At about the same time, nearly 400 CNN employees were laid off. In August, Stelter got the ax. As Ellie Gardey commented, the CNN bigwigs had finally realized that Stelter had become “the symbol of CNN’s bias,” and was hence perhaps the biggest obstacle to the prospect of the network broadening its appeal.
Stelter wasn’t the end of it. Also in August, Jeffrey Toobin, the CNN legal analyst who’d been suspended for pleasuring himself during a Zoom meeting, was given the bum’s rush. In September, a day after calling Trump a demagogue, John Harwood — who’d been caught back in 2016 colluding with the Hillary Clinton campaign, but who’d kept his job nonetheless — was finally jettisoned.
And it still wasn’t over. Trump sued CNN for defamation, and in order to dodge the charge, as Carson Holloway noted last December, CNN was compelled to acknowledge that when it called Trump a “racist” or whatever, it wasn’t acting as a journalistic entity making statements it considered factual but was engaged in “rhetorical hyperbole” and “political invective.” This from a network that repeatedly, endlessly, shamelessly, called itself “the most trusted name in news.”
Even now, CNN has advantages. Its anchors get splashy book deals. Yes, in March 2021, the CNN airport deal came to an end, putting an end to the fantasy that CNN was the jet setters’ top news source; but CNN is still carried on cable services around the world that — for political reasons — refuse to give Fox News a platform.
CNN isn’t alone in its systematic deceit, of course. Most of what we used to call the mainstream media have long since traded in news for agitprop. The only thing these creaky old enterprises have going for them is that, well, they still look the same old way. The New York Times has that classic typeface and layout that some of us grew up with and that can still seem to embody authority and to demand our respect, despite the thoroughly dishonest editorial route that the paper has taken in recent years. Most important, the Times still has its storied name. In the same way, CNN, now 43 years old, has all the bells and whistles — the accouterments of a top-notch professional news organization — that are depicted in that “We Are CNN” video.
But what’s behind all the flash and glitter? In CNN’s case, nothing good. CNN is Frank Morgan in The Wizard of Oz, the man behind the curtain. Its lies helped bring down Trump and install Biden. Yes, it may have started out as a largely positive contribution to society, but no truth-loving person can possibly find anything valuable in it now. And with every day, the number of Americans who recognize it for what it is — a fount of mendacity masquerading as a news operation — continues to grow. The sooner CNN goes the way of CNN+, the better.