Washington Post: CNN is 'opinionated and emotional' thanks to Jeff Zucker

Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

Today the Washington Post has a piece up about the emo turn at CNN. It’s titled “The new CNN is more opinionated and emotional. Can it still be ‘the most trusted name in news’?” But that headline sounds a lot more interesting than the story actually is. What we actually get is a kind of look back over the Zucker era of CNN with a mostly positive spin on his leadership and his willingness to let CNN hosts be more opinionated and…weepy.

“One of the things that I’ve tried to encourage is authenticity and being real,” Zucker said. “If we pretend not to be human, it’s not real.”

These days, it’s not uncommon for CNN personalities to cry on air. In March, anchor Brianna Keilar got tearful during a segment about a mass shooting at a grocery store in Colorado. And after correspondent Sara Sidner apologized for getting choked up during a January report about pandemic deaths (“It’s really hard to take,” she sighed), the boss called to reassure her.

The article does admit this relaxed approach sometimes leads to problems.

Chris Cuomo — who has exemplified the New CNN as much as any on-air personality — won over many viewers early last year when he both chronicled his own battle with covid-19 and hailed the public-health efforts of his brother, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, in regular segments where the two would banter cutely about their childhood.

That decision put CNN in an uncomfortable position when the New York Democrat became mired in scandal — allegations that he sexually harassed women and that his administration concealed the number of covid deaths in the state’s nursing homes — and the network decided that one of its primetime stars is now too conflicted to discuss one of the biggest political stories in the country…

So when Cuomo explained a year later that he couldn’t interview his brother about the allegations lobbed against him, some network critics saw a double standard at play. “Why is this different from spring/summer of last year?” Mary Katharine Ham, a right-leaning CNN contributor, asked on Twitter.

But the general tone of the commentary is that the new CNN is just better TV than the old, straight-laced version. But eventually the piece gets around to the real core of the Zucker era of CNN, it’s resistance to President Trump.

CNN’s chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, pushed back on Trump’s press secretaries and critiqued the administration in a way that raised the eyebrows of news traditionalists.

“This is a nation without a president,” Acosta said last year, criticizing Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

CNN had its best year ever last year thanks to the pandemic and President Trump. So, not surprisingly, 2021 is shaping up rather differently. Without Trump to serve as a foil and with the constant emergency of the pandemic waning thanks to the vaccines, CNN has been struggling in the ratings. As Ed noted yesterday, CNN appears to be falling behind its competitors in the ratings even as ratings for all the networks have drifted back to earth.

CNN and MSNBC reaped the rewards of becoming the resistance networks for two different wings of the Democratic Party. Jeff Zucker was definitely behind that shift at CNN. But now that Democrats have the White House, the House and the Senate it’s hard for CNN to hold the interest of the viewers it gathered over the past four years looking for daily Republican outrage material. When you add in the fact that Trump has been removed from most social media sites, there’s not much left for CNN to capitalize on.

The past four months have been a series of GOP media villains, each an attempt to replace Trump as a target. I don’t know how much longer CNN can continue to milk this sort of thing. By this point, Zucker and the other suits must be hoping Republicans re-take the House so they’ll have someone new to complain about. Zucker himself may be leaving the network at the end of the year. He probably should have left in January if he wanted to avoid going out in the midst of a ratings drop.