Never mind the ratings slide; focus instead on the fabulous journalism.
“Our mission, our mandate, is to deliver the best journalism in the world,” declared Jonathan Klein, the president of CNN U.S., on stage Tuesday morning at the Time Warner Center. “Firsthand reporting, incisive analysis, no bias, no agenda. That puts us, in the world of cable news, in a category of one…Our traditional competitors”—that is, the ones who are drawing more viewers—“have abandoned the field.”
“One of things we want to make sure the public knows is that we’re more than one domestic network, and we’re healthy and we’re growing.
It was an arguably risky sales pitch for the CNN suits to be test-marketing on advertisers and trade reporters—few of whom fell off a turnip truck on their way to the so-called Newsmaker Breakfast to hype CNN’s various enterprises as a wildly successful, multiplatform media juggernaut.
The original, once-dominant 24/7 cable news operation has lagged for a long time far, far behind the ratings powerhouse Fox News Channel and more recently, in early morning and prime time, even behind the formerly anemic MSNBC.
“Thank you to the media for all the great coverage we’ve had in the last few months,” Jim Walton, the president of CNN Worldwide and Klein’s boss, joked at one point—a bit of gallows humor that prompted a mirthless laugh.
Yet Walton, too, stayed relentlessly on message. “We’re the only credible, nonpartisan voice left—and that matters,” he said. “Every one of our brands is successful both collectively and individually.”
So what inspiring new ideas was CNN U.S. unfurling to stanch the bleeding, pump up the volume, and rekindle the loyalty of departed viewers? Klein didn’t really say, though he reminisced about CNN’s distinguished history of innovation: “We were the first to integrate Twitter into our newsgathering and programming, the Magic Touch screen wall for John King…the high-voltage election coverage which set a new standard and blew away the competition and enthralled audiences all over the world.”
“Of course we’ve got to evolve—and we will continue to evolve our programming and newsgathering approaches,” Klein said. “We will continue to push the envelope, but we will never abandon our core faith in being the sole nonpartisan cable network in this country.”
It was time to bring on “The Best Political Team on Television”—Anderson Cooper moderating a sedate discussion of political process and polling numbers, with Wolf Blitzer, John King, Candy Crowley, and David Gergen channeling Beltway truisms. Far from pushing the envelope, the whole overlong spectacle pushed its luck, dangerously approaching the sort of talking-head horde that peddles yesterday’s conventional wisdom tomorrow—briefly enlivened by a snarky exchange between Mary Matalin and Roland Martin. Cooper quipped: “That’s our new slogan, by the way: ‘You punch me, I’ll cut you.’”
In other presentations, there were a couple of backward glances at CNN’s admirable coverage of the war in Afghanistan and the Haiti earthquake, a big-screen tour of CNN.com’s recent redesign, and—perhaps jarringly, given the previous emphasis on straitlaced journalism—a down and dirty panel discussion of Tiger Woods’ mistresses and John Edwards’ sexual peccadilloes, Sandra Bullock and the jilted wives club, starring Joy Behar, Nancy Grace, and Jane Velez-Mitchell, hosts on HLN, the big ratings success in the CNN corporate family.
Velez-Mitchell mentioned not once but twice that she is a recovering alcoholic. Grace prescribed “chemical castration” for Bullock’s straying husband. As for Tiger, “I would send him a dozen roses for putting my show on the map,” Behar said.
After the festivities, Jim Walton tried to explain the point of it all. “There’s a lot of focus on the performance of CNN U.S. prime time,” he told me, “and one of things we want to make sure the public knows is that we’re more than one domestic network, and we’re healthy and we’re growing. We have millions more viewers today than we’ve ever had in our history. We’re growing our profits each year. So it’s a good, strong, healthy, vibrant company.”
Walton went on: “We just finished 2009 with our sixth consecutive year where we grew our profits, year over year, by more than 10 percent. There are very few businesses that can say that, even fewer news businesses. On top of that we ended 2009 with more employees than we started with. The same thing was true in ’08. Same thing was true in ’07.”
It’s hard for an ink-stained wretch not to root for a media company that is giving jobs to fellow workers in a distressed industry. Yet even though, as Walton says, CNN U.S. accounts for only 10 percent of the company’s worldwide revenues, it defines the image of the company as a whole.
I asked Walton if the whole “we’re journalists who chase news, not ratings” spin is working for him.
“Well, define ‘is it working?’” he parried before acknowledging the elephant in the room—the one getting ready to charge. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m satisfied with the ratings,” he said. “But then, I’m never satisfied with anything anyway, right? We’re always trying to do better.”
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.