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New CNN President to Staff: Don’t Worry About Balance

Journalistic standards don’t apply when there are existential dragons to slay.

by | Oct 20, 2023 | Articles, Media, Opinion

Good news for progressives residing in airtight blue bubbles: The new president of CNN is signaling a hasty return to the woefully partisan programming of the Jeff Zucker years, with an added touch of insufferable elitism thrown in for your viewing pleasure.

“Mark Thompson told staff in his first meeting with them … that conventional TV ‘can no longer define us,’ and added that CNN’s journalists shouldn’t be distracted by debates about balance or false equivalency,” The New York Post reported Oct. 10.

Thompson, a veteran industry executive who has notably helmed the BBC and The New York Times, is replacing the ousted Chris Licht, who drew the scorn of progressives everywhere by seeking to steer the ratings-starved cable news network out of the reflexive, emotional, and highly restrictive hard-left lane it has been cruising in since Zucker took control of news operations in January 2013.

CNN — The Defending Democracy Network

Thompson wants CNN employees to know they should have no fear of climbing back inside their reactionary progressive box. “And let’s not second guess ourselves or get distracted by complicated arguments about balance or whataboutism or false equivalency,” he told staffers. “Let’s cover political news proportionately and fairly, but not be frightened of our own shadows.”

Similarly aligned big-box media voices see this as the salvation of a network that was brought to the brink of extinction by hyperpartisan “star” exemplars of this very brand of journalism, such as Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon.

“Behind the scenes, CNN staff were grumbling about an apparent attempt to move the network’s political coverage to a rapidly disappearing center – an effort typified by the widely criticized decision to host a town hall with Donald Trump in May,” UK newspaper The Guardian’s Andrew Gabbatt related in September.

But now it is “enter Mark Thompson” to “steady the ship.” What exactly does that mean? Let’s get an urban journalism professor to tell us.

“In an era in which rightwing politicians have no qualms spreading lies about issues including stolen elections, vaccines, trans people and more, one issue for CNN will be how it covers politics without platforming what [New York University journalism professor Jay] Rosen called ‘strategic lying,’” Gabbatt wrote.

Translation: Good journalism reports truth, you see, and progressivism represents truth. Therefore, good journalism is progressive.

“Being for democracy, being for truth… [they] were always background assumptions that anybody in journalism could make. They weren’t out front because nobody disputed them,” Rosen declared. “But now you have in the US a political party that is in many obvious ways anti-democratic. You have a movement, the MAGA movement, that is kind of done with traditional American democracy.”

GettyImages-1665695924 CNN

Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

This is the reality behind Thompson’s intentionally nonspecific “don’t worry about balance” remarks to CNN employees.

“I would say the most important problem Thompson faces, from my point of view, as an observer, is how to turn CNN into a truly pro-democracy, pro-truth network. To me, that is the biggest problem. It’s where creativity and leadership are most needed,” Rosen added.

He is not the only one saying this.

“These moves [Licht firing notoriously anti-Trump reporters John Harwood and Brian Stelter] seemed to be inspired by some quixotic idea that by axing some of its top Trump critics, CNN might regain the trust of some ex-viewers who had turned away out of a belief that the network had been unfair to the former president and his supporters,” Justin Peters wrote at leftist publication Slate on Aug. 31.

“But just as you cannot restore an outlet’s credibility by firing reporters who say true things about unscrupulous politicians and entities, you cannot run a news organization by pandering to people who hate and fear fact-based news,” he continued. “The ‘fake news’ seditionists aren’t ever coming back, and CNN shouldn’t make any more personnel moves based on the presumption that they ever will – or that their eyeballs are ones that are still worth engaging.”

Straight Talk Is Demagoguery

Thompson himself has shown an affinity for this missionary belief that journalism’s need to save “democracy” from sinister domestic enemies outweighs any professional urge toward neutrality in news coverage.

GettyImages-615755754 Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In 2016, while he was still running The New York Times, Thompson authored a book titled Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics? He was suitably feted by his dominant media peers for expounding on such a subject while the “vulgar” Trump was seeking the presidency.

Thompson’s approach was highly revealing. It amounted to a defense of political elites even as it seemed to criticize them for their inability to connect with regular citizens today.

Thompson was interviewed by PBS in October 2016, at the height of the Trump-Hillary Clinton clash. It’s not hard to see who he is really criticizing with these comments:

“Jeffrey Brown, PBS: I’m going to do a broad brush here and say that, in Hillary Clinton, I think many people see a kind of political rhetoric that comes off as phony. Is that fair?

“Mark Thompson: I think it is. She is almost the epitome of a certain kind of modern, technocratic, very rational, very carefully argued political language which many people find convincing, but a growing number of people, in many Western countries, are finding that kind of political language distant, alienating and unfeeling, and maybe even not believable.”

Translation: She’s contemporary, brainy, sensible, cautious, and compelling. Why can’t you rubes get her?

“And this is very fertile ground for a populist who wants to say something much simpler, which is, I speak like you. I’m an ordinary person like you,” Thompson continued. “I call it authenticism. By an authenticist, I mean a politician who very deliberately and consciously aims to appear authentic.”

Thompson penned an opinion piece in The Times in August 2016 that offered much more on these thoughts:

“Authenticism was banished to the fringes of politics after World War II and the defeat of European fascism. Technocratic policy-making delivered relative prosperity and security for the majority, and many voters found the rationalist rhetoric of mainstream politicians credible … But the uncertainty and division that have followed the global crash, mass migration and the West’s unhappy wars in the Middle East have given it a new opportunity.

“Today’s authenticists come in many different guises, from pure anti-politicians like Mr. Trump and Italy’s Beppe Grillo to mainstream mavericks as diverse as Britain’s Boris Johnson and Ted Cruz. None of them are Hitlerian in intent, but nationalism typically looms large (‘Make America Great Again!’), as does the explicit or implicit contrast between the chosen community and a dangerous or unacceptable ‘other,’ which in 2016 almost always means elites and foreign immigrants.”

With Trump the runaway favorite in polling for the GOP nomination, 2024 is shaping up to top 2016 and 2020 in terms of establishment hysteria over the “threat to democracy” posed by the ex-president and his supporters.

CNN’s progressive audience fully expects the network to wage war against this danger. Thompson’s published words indicate he will be eager to oblige. This all feeds on itself. It’s easy to dismiss “complicated arguments about balance” when you are blessed with a self-righteous mission to save the world.

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