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Jungyeon Roh
Jungyeon Roh

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The Three CNNs

CNN has revitalized itself in the age of Donald Trump — but is it doing what a news network should?

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

Donald Trump’s birther speech was the 2016 campaign moment CNN had been waiting for. Check that: It was the moment those of us who’d been puzzling over CNN’s place in the universe had been waiting for. How does a network devoted to the political center handle a fact-resistant candidate like Trump? As it turns out, a viewer watching CNN from morning to night Friday saw at least three different answers to that question. This — as James Earl Jones says — is CNN, a network that can be at its naïve worst, its righteous, ass-kicking best, and its worst again on the same day.

Friday morning promised big news. Trump’s campaign told the media that Trump would give a "major" speech about birtherism — the long-standing lie that Barack Obama was born abroad. A CNN chyron said "SOON: TRUMP TO ADDRESS BIRTHER ISSUE." CNN — along with the other two networks — cut to live shots of a stage at Trump’s new Washington, D.C., hotel.

But Trump was … not actually talking about birtherism. For 20-plus minutes, he mostly stood by and allowed himself to be toasted by military veterans. When Trump finally took the podium, his major speech amounted to four sentences. He said he rejected birtherism, blamed Hillary Clinton for starting the issue, and then left.

For CNN’s anchors and reporters, the hype they’d lavished on the speech became an embarrassment. Longtime reporter John King declared, "We just got played." Jake Tapper, host of The Lead, called the speech a "political Rickroll."

This is the first of three CNNs — the one that critics have been pouncing on for more than a year now. This CNN is a dupe, a passive instrument for Trump. CNN — again, along with the other cable networks — devoted hours of airtime to showing Trump’s roastmaster speeches. It allowed Trump to call in for interviews, which prevented viewers from studying his reactions. When anchor Chris Cuomo tried to interview Trump in one such phoner in May, Trump bullied him off script. "I understand CNN perhaps a lot better than you do," Trump boasted.

CNN understood that indulging Trump was great for ratings. "CNN’s prime-time audience has more than doubled to 435,000 viewers a night in its target demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds," The Wall Street Journal reported in May — it left MSNBC in the dust and nearly caught Fox News. On The Ringer’s Keepin’ It 1600 podcast (cohosted by CNN contributor Dan Pfeiffer), NBC’s Chuck Todd alit on another attraction: Trump flattered an old-media institution like CNN. By granting interview after interview, he allowed CNN to imagine it had recaptured something like its ’90s primacy, when Al Gore and Ross Perot debated NAFTA on Larry King Live.

It was one thing to fall for a Trump head fake during the primaries. It’s another thing to fall for it months later. As the clock ticked toward noon on Friday, something remarkable happened. CNN fought back.

Jake Tapper is a combination of an anchor and a traditional print columnist — an anchorist, if you will. He came on CNN after Trump’s speech Friday. Of Trump’s claim that Clinton started the birther movement and that Trump ended it, Tapper said crisply, "Those are two factually false statements."

Tapper added:

Tapper was still truth-squadding two days later, on State of the Union, CNN’s Sunday morning political show. Chris Christie claimed that Trump had shelved his birtherism back in 2011, when Obama produced his longform birth certificate.

Nope, Tapper said, Trump kept up the birther charade for five years.

When Christie insisted that Trump hadn’t, Tapper replied, "Sure he did."

This is the second CNN. It consists of a cell of smart people like Tapper, Brian Stelter, and others who aren’t passive instruments. They see CNN’s middle ground as a moral high ground from which to cover both candidates. If Fox News hosts talk like GOP operatives, and MSNBC hosts talk like Vox writers, the best CNN hosts talk like eye-rolling newspapermen. In fact, Tapper’s birther corrective was similar to the history that Dave Weigel wrote for The Washington Post last year.

On Friday, you could find that kind of fact-checking up and down the CNN schedule. Political analyst Gloria Borger told Wolf Blitzer, "You just can’t put an end to history in a sentence." Another analyst, Ronald Brownstein, said, "There is simply nothing in that statement that is attached by any tether to reality."

In January 2013, when Jeff Zucker became president of CNN Worldwide, he inherited a network at low ebb. New York magazine reported that "viewership had fallen to its lowest levels since 1991." When compared with the unembarrassed partisanship of Fox and MSNBC, CNN’s studiously centrist approach had the ring of disengagement. "You can’t be above it all," Zucker once declared, according to New York.

Zucker was an ace Today show producer who’d become a terrible network president — he treated NBC’s prime-time schedule (Fear Factor, The Apprentice) like a morning show segment. It turned out that Zucker’s morning aesthetic was a better fit for CNN. Giving Emeril Lagasse an NBC sitcom was a disaster. But putting Anthony Bourdain in CNN’s lineup alongside Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer gave the network a wit it lacked. Zucker also packed CNN’s late hours with documentaries, from the Tom Hanks–produced The Seventies (which, on NBC, could have been a Tom Brokaw joint) to muckraking fare like Blackfish and Holy Hell.

Zucker believed that being in the middle of the political spectrum didn’t mean doing the PBS NewsHour. In 2013, Tapper came to CNN from ABC News and became one of the network’s most incisive interviewers. The same year, The New York Times Stelter took over Reliable Sources, the Sunday morning media show, and made it something other than a hand-wringing ombudsman column. In August, when a Trump surrogate dared anchor Brianna Keilar to name the polls that showed Trump trailing, Keilar replied, "All of them." It was like the rallying cry of the feisty center.

Plus, CNN had its breaking-news bona fides. Its 2014 coverage of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 verged into self-parody. But to borrow an old Clinton campaign line, it’s still the network you trust to take a 3 a.m. phone call. On Monday, when New York City bombing suspect Ahmad Khan Rahami was arrested after a shootout with police, CNN snapped into action. After 11 a.m. ET, hosts John Berman and Kate Bolduan were whirling among the network’s reporters in New Jersey, the site of the arrest, and their own experts in studios across the country. There were occasional lapses: Ashleigh Banfield, who hosts a show called Legal View, convicted Rahami on the air ("We’ve got a man on a stretcher on his way to a very, very long detention.") But CNN — again, like newspaper reporters — looked like it was in its element.

Trump’s Friday speech produced another newsman’s tic: angry resolve. Even from anchor Don Lemon, who said plainly, "Donald Trump was not being honest."

It was like the cable-news version of penance. If being duped by Trump "represented the worst of the media," CNN reporter Dylan Byers wrote in the Reliable Sources newsletter, then "the next six hours represented the best of it."

But what about the hours after that? A viewer flipping on CNN at 7 p.m. ET found that a lot of work done by Tapper and company was being undone by a third CNN.

On her show OutFront, host Erin Burnett convened four panelists to talk about Trump’s birther speech. Two of the panelists were Clinton supporters; two supported Trump.

Basil Smikle, a New York State Democratic Party official, said, "It is imperative that we do not let Donald Trump perpetuate this lie. Hillary Clinton did not start [the birther movement]."

"The message of ‘he is not one of us’ began with the Clinton campaign," said Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump supporter who appears frequently on the network. "Let’s look at facts. I know before everyone goes crazy, let’s look at the facts."

"Hold on," Burnett said. "I don’t want to relitigate that … " The panel, Burnett realized, was leaving the realm of punditry and entering the realm of fact — facts that CNN’s own anchors had nailed down hours before.

Before Burnett could cut her off, McEnany forged ahead. "The Washington bureau chief of McClatchy said it began with [Clinton aide] Sid Blumenthal, who asked him to investigate [the birther rumor]."

"That is a report we have not yet confirmed," Burnett said. But McEnany had mentioned new "facts" on air. And CNN’s policy of backbreaking fairness now prodded Burnett to turn back to Smikle and give him equal time.

Smikle, of course, was there to argue about the news of the day, not adjudicate on what Blumenthal may or may not have said to a reporter eight years ago. "Hillary Clinton did not do it," he protested. "The campaign did not do it … "

"She questioned his faith!" McEnany said, plunging into another thicket of rumor from ’08 campaign — and moving the goalposts. A viewer of the segment could have thought "Hillary started birtherism" wasn’t factually incorrect but a matter of partisan dispute.

The idea of populating CNN with Trumpites who are impervious to facts is another Zucker brainstorm. "I think it was a legitimate criticism of CNN that it was a little too liberal," he told the Journal this spring. For the ’16 campaign, Zucker hired Jeffrey Lord, an obscure former Reagan official, and Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s exiled campaign manager who was accused of manhandling a reporter.

The third CNN is like a comic version of the second. CNN’s anchorists are still trying to scrub crankery and lies from the public record. But the lies they contend with are introduced by their colleagues at CNN. Sometimes, the fluff is relatively harmless. Earlier this month, Lord argued that Trump shouldn’t release his tax returns:

CNN’s Paul Begala sat by with pursed lips, because Democrats are arguing that Trump’s tax returns will hurt Trump.

Other times, CNN’s Trump surrogates have dumped poisonous junk onto the air. In August, Brian Stelter recorded a commentary that shamed journalists for allowing Trump to repeat the canard that the election might be "rigged." "We can’t just let it seep into the discourse like it’s normal," Stelter said. But later, when Stelter was doing a guest spot on Don Lemon’s show, Lord repeated that very canard. He mused the election could be "stolen."

"Please, please don’t do that to our viewers," Stelter replied. "Please don’t do that to our country … "

The same month, Lewandowski invoked birtherism on Lemon’s show, wondering if Obama’s old Harvard records would show Obama was "a citizen who wasn’t from this country." (Meanwhile, Lewandowski’s company was still receiving money from Trump and he was reportedly advising the campaign even as he "analyzed" it on the air.)

At a CNN town hall this week, Tapper told colleagues that the network needed to have personalities that showcased the views of Trump voters. This confuses views on immigration or free trade with conspiracy-mongering. It’s nuts for CNN’s anchors to decide something like birtherism or stolen elections are pernicious lies, and then have CNN personalities repeat the lies on the air.

Part of CNN’s problem, as Jon Stewart noted in his legendary appearance on Crossfire, is the old panel-show tic of thinking everything can be resolved by having a Democrat and a Republican argue. But the real problem is that Trump and his surrogates are key to CNN’s 2016 branding strategy. This campaign is unique in that both candidates have sub–45 percent approval ratings. (Trump has inspired a massive defection of party regulars that Clinton has not.) As Zucker explained, "[Y]ou … have an American electorate that is displaying its anger and antipathy towards Washington on both the Republican and Democratic sides."

Fox and MSNBC, more or less, are stuck bucking for historically unpopular candidates. (Fox also lost its spiritual leader, accused harasser Roger Ailes, who is reportedly advising Trump in preparation for the presidential debates.) Zucker’s CNN charts a middle course. It’s just liberal enough for a Democratic viewer and it’s just Trump-friendly enough for a Republican. Indeed, Donald Trump has denounced CNN while cheering on Jeffrey Lord.

On Friday, after talking birtherism, Erin Burnett’s panel moved on to yet another Trump outrage. Trump had either made an assassination joke about Clinton or repeated a gun rights talking point about how, if Clinton wanted gun control, she ought to first disarm her own bodyguards.

Burnett threw it to the panel. "Hillary Clinton is against the Second Amendment," Trump adviser Boris Epshteyn said — a statement that’s also factually untrue. The panel dissolved into a dogpile. Watching the third CNN is like listening to a low-information voter. Both candidates are terrible, the facts are unknowable, and the only solution is to be angry at everything and everybody. It’s the most unsatisfying form of middle-ism, the kind that says that everybody sucks.

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