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Major changes at CNN in recent weeks have sparked chatter in media and political circles that the network’s new corporate ownership is pulling it to the political right.
CNN strongly denies such a change is taking place, saying it is entirely focused on objective journalism.
But recent high profile on-air departures, coupled with what’s seen by some as a shift in tone in the network’s political coverage, are drawing intense scrutiny.
Criticisms of President Biden by on-air personalities in particular have triggered questions from the political left about whether things are changing at CNN, which has a new corporate owner in Discovery.
Brianna Keilar, an anchor on CNN’s flagship morning program, lambasted Biden’s White House last week over a decision to use U.S. Marines and a dark-red backdrop in the background of a speech slamming Trump Republicans.
“Whatever you think of this speech the military is supposed to be apolitical. Positioning Marines in uniform behind President Biden for a political speech flies in the face of that. It’s wrong when Democrats do it. It’s wrong when Republicans do it,” the anchor wrote on Twitter.
Keilar has also offered pointed criticism of Trump over the years, which to some made the comments about Biden even more significant.
Keilar’s commentary also reportedly angered staffers inside the White House and came a day before the network departure of White House reporter John Harwood, who had been strikingly critical of former President Trump as well.
In late August, CNN canceled “Reliable Sources,” the long-running Sunday show focused on the media, parting ways in the process with host Brian Stelter, one of the most prominent critics in media of Trump and Fox News.
“The message coming out … is that this is part of a deliberate effort to get rid of people at CNN who are seen as too critical of Donald Trump and Fox News,” said Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a liberal media watchdog.
He also noted “some very high-profile cases of CNN staffers making a sort of public display of criticizing President Joe Biden.”
CNN in a statement to The Hill said criticism from those like Gertz are completely off base.
“CNN is not shifting from left to right or pursuing a centrist position,” a CNN spokesperson told The Hill. “We are entirely focused on our core strength and mission — objective journalism, presented in a fair and compelling way. We will continue to acknowledge different worldviews and experiences. We will always stand up for democracy and call out lies — regardless of their origin. That is not centrism, that is journalism.”
It has been a year that has brought significant change for CNN, which is still churning from the departure in February of former President Jeff Zucker.
Zucker was an imperious presence at CNN, well-known for messaging questions from his control room to on-air personalities as they interviewed public figures and guests.
During the Trump presidency, CNN saw its ratings boom during an often confrontational period with the president that at times seemed personal: Zucker had been a leading executive at NBC when Trump’s show “The Apprentice” was a hit for the network.
Trump regularly derided CNN, Zucker and some of the network’s stars, such as Jim Acosta — at the time a White House correspondent. Trump at one point retweeted a video that showed him wrestling and punching a person whose head had been replaced by the CNN logo.
Zucker was replaced as president of the network by Chris Licht, a broadcast veteran who has come under online criticism over the Harwood firing and other changes since his tenure began — some of which was shared on social media by White House chief of staff Ron Klain.
The hashtag #BoycottCNN was briefly trending on Twitter late last week after the Harwood news broke.
“I decided to #BoycottCNN as soon as the network began its shift to the right,” wrote Jon Cooper, a former finance chair for President Obama. “If I wanted to watch right-wing propaganda, I’d watch Fox.”
Some liberals have suggested any tone shift for CNN can be traced back to John Malone, a billionaire media mogul who is a major shareholder in Discovery, which purchased CNN’s parent company, Warner Media, last year.
Before the purchase, Malone turned heads with comments saying he “would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
Warner Media declined to comment this week on recent changes made to CNN’s programming and personnel, while Malone told The New York Times he had “nothing to do with” the decision to cancel “Reliable Sources.”
That hasn’t stopped the chatter.
“A lot of people on the outside are seeing this as some sort of gambit for audience and viewership,” said Michael J. Socolow, a former assignment editor at CNN who is now an associate professor at the University of Maine’s Department of Communication and Journalism. “There are much bigger economic and regulatory benefits for the political positioning than any kind of viewership gains.”
More shake-ups to the network’s daytime and prime-time evening programs are widely expected, and the recent changes have left a feeling of nervousness among staffers since Licht took over.
“There isn’t a bigger, faster rumor gossip machine than a newsroom,” said Joe Ferullo, a former network television executive who writes occasional columns on the media for The Hill. “In a vacuum, that rumor machine goes in overdrive, so it has to be addressed.”
Since arriving at CNN, Licht has engaged on what he has called a “listening tour” while promising advertisers and staffers his vision for the network is one where partisan rhetoric takes a back seat to objective analysis and sensationalism is trumped by sobriety and context in the outlet’s news reports.
He met with a number of Republicans on Capitol Hill earlier this summer to solicit feedback, a move that rubbed some liberal critics the wrong way. Licht also met with Klain and a number of Democrats on Capitol Hill earlier this summer.
“To contend that there are two sides to the Jan. 6 insurrection or Trump’s methods really is beyond remarkable, it’s kind of repulsive,” said Larry Sabato, a pundit who runs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Why are they doing it? The media moguls want it done because they’re fairly conservative themselves, whether they openly admit it or not. So they’re pleasing themselves and justifying it by saying we’ve all got to get back together.”
Licht, whom people close to him have described as a methodical tactician more than a top-down visionary as Zucker was, has also not done a sufficient job communicating his ideas internally and externally, others point out.
“While Twitter is not necessarily real life, one can’t help but notice that CNN viewers are growing frustrated with some of these recent developments,” wrote Tom Jones of the Poynter Institute. “It would behoove Licht to get out ahead of this and explain what CNN is doing and where it is going.”
This story was updated at 10:13 a.m.