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CNN Boots a Big Moment as Its Future Comes Into Clearer View

CNN sign outside press conference for the WBA Super Lightweight Championship at State Farm Arena on May 20, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
(Image credit: Prince Williams/Getty Images)

This should have been CNN’s moment. Whether it was the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion, the 9/11 attacks, or the U.S. invasions of Panama, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, the cable news channel has long been the go-to source for those wanting to know what’s actually happening in a big, ongoing breaking-news event. 

Instead, at a moment when the network could use a big ratings win for its substantive Ukraine war coverage, it added to the misery of the past year, where it’s been flailing amid post-election malaise, executive departures and a pending mega-merger.

The company fired a few large-caliber rounds into its own metaphorical foot, cutting from somber coverage of air-raid sirens in Kyiv to totally not the same thing, a restaurant chain’s boot-kicking ad extolling the glories of cold beer, chicken wings, and “jeans that fit just right.” 

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HBO’s John Oliver roasted his corporate cousin on his Sunday night show, noting, “CNN during its coverage of air-raid sirens in Kyiv somehow found a way to make it even worse with this terrible transition to break.” 

Actually, there was no transition from sirens wailing to the Applebee’s ad featuring a man in cowboy boots shaking his, uh, booty to a country song. For its part, Applebee’s quickly issued a statement that said the ad “never should have aired, and we are disappointed in the actions of the network.”

Oliver’s riposte was lacerating: “That’s some deft international diplomacy from the home of both the ‘grilled oriental chicken salad’ and the ‘tipsy leprechaun.’” 

Ouch.   

Of course, CNN is hardly the only news organization stepping on a linguistic land mine these days around Russia’s indefensible invasion. 

Reporters and commentators have drawn fire from an organization representing Middle Eastern journalists for their comments expressing shock that an invasion of Ukraine was affecting people who looked not that different than them, rather than some faraway impoverished nation of darker-skinned humans.

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“We’re not talking about Syrians fleeing bombs of the Syrian regime backed by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives,” a commentator on France’s FBM TV noted. 

Among others getting roasted for similar unfortunate language were the BBC, CBS, ITV, the Telegraph newspaper, and, somewhat improbably, Al Jazeera’s English-language outlet. 

At least CBS senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata apologized quickly for his heavily caveated but still crummy comments that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

Such cluelessness and disinterest in the effects of war on faraway people who don’t look like us European sorts is hardly new. Just look at the journalist neglect for years of the Second Congo War, which began in 1998, involved nine countries and more than two-dozen paramilitaries, and killed as many as 5.4 million people in its first decade. Side conflicts continue to kill and displace many in that vast Central African country, but you won’t hear much of that on Western news. 

But the Ukraine, that’s gotten the attention of many for its impacts right on the European continent, the first major conflagration there since World War II. Some just don’t know how to talk about it without sounding like racists and colonialists. 

The CNN misstep is easy enough to remedy: don’t run ads in the middle of breaking news coverage, and make sure your transitions actually aren’t tone deaf when it’s time to pay the bills. As always for CNN, huge news events are an opportunity to attract a big audience, but usually at the cost of not running many ads. 

Reporting on news is expensive generally, and covering breaking news in wartime is not only wildly expensive and difficult but hugely dangerous to the journalists on the ground, not to mention other humans.  

For his part, boss-to-be David Zaslav sent a couple of important signals about CNN’s future in the past fews days, though he didn’t have much to say about old buddy Jeff Zucker, or what happens next with CNN or CNN Plus now that Zucker and his flame, former Chief Marketing Officer Allison Gollust, are gone. 

Their abrupt departures after their now-too-close relationship became public a few weeks ago left the organization in disarray, especially around Zucker’s favorite project, subscription streaming service CNN Plus, supposedly set to launch late this month. 

Some verbal discretion on Zaslav’s part was prudent; after all, the unlikely $43 billion merger between his little Discovery Communications and giant WarnerMedia appears on track, but the deal isn’t yet done. 

Accordingly, when asked directly about the role of news in a merged company, he demurred, saying no plans had been made. But then Zaslav launched into a heartening endorsement of CNN’s coverage during the invasion’s early hours. 

“I’ve been watching a lot of CNN,” he said. “This is where you see the difference between a news service that has real, meaningful resources globally, news-gathering resources — the biggest and largest group of global journalists of any media company, maybe with the exception of the BBC.”

Zaslav went on to say, “There’s no news organization in the world that looks like CNN, that can do what CNN does. It becomes very clear as you go around the world and you look at other news channels, where people are sitting behind desks and giving their opinion about what’s going on, there’s a news network with people on the ground with journalists in bulletproof vests and helmets that are doing what journalists do best, which is fight to tell the truth in dangerous places so that we all can be safe and assess what’s going on in the world.”

Indeed, it would be interesting to see Tucker Carlson, who had asked earlier, “Why shouldn’t I root for Russia? Which I am,” strapping on the flak jacket and using his presumably excellent Kremlin relationship to cover the invasion up close, presumably from some secure, undisclosed location in Donetsk or even 25 kilometers north of Kyiv. Probably not going happen. 

Regardless of Carlson’s latest evolving position on his Russia friends, Zaslav’s strong endorsement of CNN is in rather pointed contrast to comments that Zaslav’s own puppet master John Malone made some months ago: “I 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.” 

Tell that to CNN journalists in flak jackets and helmets showing video of dead children, shelled buildings and still smoking burned-out tanks. I’m sure it would be “unique and refreshing” for them.

In his minor defense, Malone also said in November that dumping CNN after the merger would be “the coward’s way out.”  

Accordingly, this week, Zaslav clarified another key issue: who will lead CNN and the merged company’s other news operations now that Zucker is gone, naming Chris Licht — a veteran producer of shows like CBS This Morning, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and MSNBC’s Morning Joe – as chairman and CEO of the newly renamed CNN Global. 

It’s too soon to know if CNN’s boots-on-the-ground-everywhere approach to covering the war will translate into viewership and ratings. It’s certainly burnishing the network’s reputation (other than the Appleby’s gaffe) in early days.  

How that translates into CNN’s ongoing identity, direction and viewership in coming months, after the merger, and after the CNN Plus launch, is much harder to predict. 

Even before the Zucker/Gollust/Chris Cuomo departures, the network was struggling to figure out a new identity amid plummeting post-election ratings. The sharp ideological edge that had animated CNN audiences may not work going forward, even as U.S. mid-term elections heat up. 

But triangulating to the middle, as some suggest it should do compared to competitors Fox News and MSNBC, has its challenges too. As progressive former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower liked to put it, there’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos. Whether that’s a viable place for post-merger CNN will be something to watch.

David Bloom of Words & Deeds Media is a Santa Monica, Calif.-based writer, podcaster, and consultant focused on the transformative collision of technology, media and entertainment. Bloom is a senior contributor to numerous publications, and producer/host of the Bloom in Tech podcast. He has taught digital media at USC School of Cinematic Arts, and guest lectures regularly at numerous other universities. Bloom formerly worked for Variety, Deadline (opens in new tab), Red Herring, and the Los Angeles Daily News, among other publications; was VP of corporate communications at MGM; and was associate dean and chief communications officer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Bloom graduated with honors from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.