Shakeups rattle pillars of news media landscape
New leader at NY Times, abrupt shutdown of CNN+ reflect turbulent era
Significant developments at two of America’s best known and, arguably, most influential news media outlets marked a milestone for both of them and their global brands.
One was long anticipated; the other, a shocking surprise.
First, The New York Times announced a change at the top with the appointment of new Executive Editor Joseph Khan, who will take over from Dean Baquet in June.
Second, the new owners of CNN pulled the plug on its brand new streaming venture CNN+ after less than a month of operations.
In different ways, both of these announcements reflect a rapidly changing news media landscape in the US and globally. They evoked a huge response in the journalism profession – and far beyond.
Both The Times and CNN have significant influence on the news agenda in the US and abroad. News producers and consumers will undoubtedly be affected.
Precisely how, though, remains to be seen.
As a long-time subscriber to The Times and habitual viewer of CNN, I feel a personal stake in their decisions. Perhaps you do too.
Full disclosure requires noting that I spent decades in the journalism profession and am probably more critical than most. But, I can’t help but express my disappointment with both venerated organizations in recent years for vastly different reasons.
In its April 19 announcement Joe Kahn is named next Executive Editor of The New York Times the paper noted that its pick – current Managing Editor Joe Kahn – had a long and distinguished record as a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent and editor who “helped steer the newspaper into the digital era.”
In the announcement, publisher, A.G. Sulzberger was effusive in his praise for his new pick.
“For many people, especially those who have worked alongside Joe — a brilliant journalist and a brave and principled leader — this announcement will come as no surprise,” Mr. Sulzberger wrote in a note to the Times staff. “Joe brings impeccable news judgment, a sophisticated understanding of the forces shaping the world and a long track record of helping journalists produce their most ambitious and courageous work.”
I would not argue with these sentiments and admire the performance of The Times in most respects during what has been a turbulent time for the institution, its readers, the country and the world.
It has navigated the transition from a print to digital business as well as – if not better than – most publications. The Times also has adapted well in many ways to the rapidly evolving political landscape in the US where the former president, in an echo of Joseph Stalin, called it (and its cohort) the “enemy of the people.”
I do have a few minor quibbles with my favorite newspaper, in particular the decision to do away with the entire copy desk, which has resulted in a noticeable increase in minor, irritating errors both in print and online.
But in one vitally important area, I would give it a failing grade: it’s inability to effectively address a core issue bedeviling media large and small in this era of fake news: ‘objectivity’ and false equivalence.
This issue also caught the attention of Mathew Ingram at the Columbia Journalism Review in his April 20 article New editor at the Times faces the same old questions who wrote: “The commitment of the Times and other newspapers to the principle of objectivity has come under fire in recent years.
“[Publisher] Sulzberger acknowledged as much in his note to Times staff on Tuesday, when he said that ‘some will interpret this promotion as a sign of confidence in our current path,’ and then added emphatically, ‘That’s true. Under Dean and Joe, the Times has grown stronger in virtually every way.’
“Whether those strengths include the ability to put aside a doctrinaire approach to objectivity and consider the threats to democracy on its doorstep remains to be seen.”
What Ingram was alluding to – “objectivity” in the news – is not an easy problem. On the contrary, it is enormously complicated.
‘False equivalence’ does NOT equal ‘fairness’
From my first day as a journalism student throughout my decades in the profession the notion of objectivity or “fair reporting” was drummed into us incessantly.
For many years it had a widely agreed-upon meaning: a fair account of any story must include both sides (or ALL sides) of the issue. If we were to be impartial (or ‘fair’) we were required to positively solicit views from opposing players and present them neutrally without revealing our own inclinations (which were reserved for opinion articles, not news stories).
That served the profession well for decades when most controversial issues were debated by both sides using provable facts and good-faith arguments.
Over the last decade, however, this position has become increasingly untenable. It is undeniable that as the body politic has become more polarized, one faction has discarded truth (and fact) for what, charitably, became known as “alternative facts” – in reality, untruth or just flat-out lies.
The traditional notion of objectivity or fairness would require us to present both truth and untruth neutrally, leaving it for the reader to decide whom to believe.
This is the core dilemma of false equivalence: truth can not and should not be given the same weight as untruth. The two are qualitatively different: one we value and promote, the other we devalue and demote.
If it were only that simple: it’s not.
One solution tried by The New York Times – and many lesser news outlets – is to constantly insert disclaimers when quoting untruths in their stories. This makes for clumsy, distracting prose and can easily be overlooked by casual readers.
Furthermore, it tends to promote untruths and spread them far beyond what they warrant (especially when they appear in headlines which are quickly shared on social media feeds). The public square is already overflowing with untruths and half-truths and total falsehoods; repeating them, even if labelling them clearly as not true, serves only to spread them further.
You can see the conundrum.
Ignoring the false facts and statements risks being labeled “unfair.” Presenting them neutrally alongside truth makes the problem worse.
This same point was highlighted by the editor of the CJR Kyle Pope in an April 19 article Doubling down at the Times who wrote: “The only drama around Baquet’s departure has centered on who will replace him, in arguably the most important job in the American press, and what that says about how the newspaper and its leadership view the state of journalism in the US.
“The residue of the Trump years, and fears that the former president will return for another campaign, have put the Times in the bull’s-eye of the journalistic debates over objectivity and both-sides coverage, which have led many legacy news operations to wonder whether traditional approaches to journalism apply at a time of high concern for the fate of American democracy.
“In picking Joe Kahn, the Times’ managing editor, to replace Baquet, the newspaper is signaling that it has no plans to rethink its approach.”
Is The Times’ approach working? I fear not. It is still using the antiquated notion of fairness way too often, presenting lies as equivalent to truth when they are nowhere near deserving of similar treatment.
The Times can do better. It must.
Meanwhile, the shocking announcement of the sudden demise of CNN’s brand new streaming service was reported by CNN Business (and many others, including The New York Times) on April 21, just a few weeks after its much ballyhooed launch.
In its announcement CNN+ will shut down at the end of April the network reported: “CNN+, the streaming service that was hyped as one of the most significant developments in the history of CNN, will shut down on April 30, just one month after it launched.”
The company reportedly had already invested $300 million in the venture.
CNN+ customers "will receive prorated refunds of subscription fees," the company said.
The decision was made by new management after CNN's former parent company, WarnerMedia, merged with Discovery to form Warner Bros. Discovery earlier in April.
This was not the first bad news for the storied network with its global reach. It recently had been rocked by some unwelcome personnel problems in its most senior ranks.
On Feb. 2, its longtime chief executive Jeff Zucker, a news industry titan, resigned suddenly after acknowledging his relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s chief marketing officer and a senior vice president.
This came after Zucker last year had fired prime time host Andrew Cuomo, one of CNN’s biggest stars, who had been secretly advising his brother, Chris, the New York governor forced out by his own scandals.
In an email to staff, Zucker referenced his handling of the Cuomo affair: “As part of the investigation into Chris Cuomo’s tenure at CNN, I was asked about a consensual relationship with my closest colleague, someone I have worked with for more than 20 years,” Zucker wrote. “I acknowledged the relationship evolved in recent years. I was required to disclose it when it began but I didn’t. I was wrong.
“As a result, I am resigning today,” he said.
It was clear Zucker had a major credibility problem. There was never any doubt he could survive in a news organization where credibility is an existential issue.
Which raises anew the question about the network’s future.
Its new owners’ rush to dump the streaming service – an expensive debacle that cost millions – is a blot on both previous management’s record and the new team.
Discovery's streaming boss J.B. Perrette said in a statement that the outgoing team’s vision for CNN+ was different to that of the new owners, known as Warner Bros. Discovery.
Its new CEO David Zaslav is planning to house all of the company's brands under one streaming service. Some CNN+ programming may eventually live on through that service. Other programming will shift to CNN's main television network.
In an ironic (but unrelated) twist to the CNN+ debacle, on the same day the the shutdown was announced, streaming giant Netflix saw its stock plunge more than 30% after it reported its fist subscriber decline in more than a decade.
This was a timely lesson in how competitive the streaming space has become. Netflix has been joined by giants Disney and Apple, and several smaller players. A reckoning is inevitable.
Perhaps Warner Bros. Discovery was smarter than outsiders acknowledge in deciding CNN+ was not viable as a stand-alone entity in the current environment. History may judge them to have been clever to cut their losses while they were still manageable and focus on the future.
While the new Warner Bros. Discovery will easily absorb its multi-million dollar loss over its streaming service, CNN as a brand is unlikely to suffer or even change much in the foreseeable future.
Less is certain about the change at The New York Times. As an outsider, I have limited insight to form valuable conclusions. So this is one time I will bow to someone with far superior knowledge – the media columnist for the Washington Post Margaret Sullivan who previously worked as Public Editor for The New York Times while Kahn was also there.
She gets the last word in her April 24 article Joe Kahn can be a great New York Times editor.
“I know [Joe Kahn] to be a thoughtful, smart and accomplished newsman and a person of judgment and integrity.
“Just as important, he has a quality that can make all the difference in whether he rises to the challenge of this hinge moment in U.S. and world history: He’s open to criticism.
“The immense influence of the Times on the entire media world is a huge responsibility. Kahn is more likely to meet this crucial moment than anyone else who could have been chosen.”
Let’s hope this optimism is justified.
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