Early this month, new CNN chairman Walter Isaacson met with top Republican lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to discuss how to improve relations between the cable news network and conservative Republicans.
According to a report in Roll Call magazine (8/6/01), Isaacson met with Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Rep. J.C. Watts (R- Okla.), Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). Isaacson also intends to meet with House Whip Tom DeLay (R.-Texas), who has ridiculed CNN as the "Clinton News Network" and the "Communist News Network," and has suggested a conservative boycott of the channel. Isaacson also sought meetings with White House officials.
While Isaacson claims he "definitely did not say, 'How do we attract the conservative viewer?,'" his account suggests that concerns about CNN's alleged bias against conservatives were preeminent: "I was trying to reach out to a lot of Republicans who feel that CNN has not been as open to covering Republicans, and I wanted to hear their concerns" (Roll Call, 8/6/01). One GOP aide told Roll Call that Isaacson "said, 'Give us some guidance on how to attract conservatives.' He said he 'wanted to change the culture' at CNN."
CNN's outreach effort is likely due to the ratings success of Fox News Channel. While still in fewer homes than CNN, Fox draws nearly the same number of viewers on average, and Fox shows like the O'Reilly Factor regularly beat their CNN competition in the ratings. It should be remembered, however, that CNN and Fox combined reach a tiny percentage of U.S. TV viewers.
But Fox News Channel's clear appeal to a conservative audience has apparently convinced some at CNN-- including the new chief--that CNN must not be accommodating enough to conservatives. In fact, CNN may even be thinking about producing a Rush Limbaugh television program (USA Today, 8/13/01), another sign that the network's plan seems to involve amplifying conservative voices on the channel.
Of course, there has never been any shortage of conservative hosts and commentators on CNN, including people like Bob Novak, Kate O'Beirne, Tucker Carlson, Mary Matalin, John Sununu and Lynne Cheney--not to mention Pat Buchanan, who launched three presidential campaigns from his perch at CNN.
Charges about liberal media bias are nothing new: Republicans have long complained about the supposed left-wing bias of the mainstream media, and CNN has been one of the targets of this criticism over the years. At times, Republican strategists have explained the tactical wisdom of accusing media of liberal bias. As Republican Party chair Rich Bond said (Washington Post, 8/20/92), "There is some strategy to it. I'm a coach of kids' basketball and Little League teams. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is 'work the refs.' Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."
Actually proving the charge, though, is much more difficult than making it. FAIR's recent study of Fox News Channel, for example, included a comparative analysis of CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports. On that program's one-on-one interview segment, FAIR found a slight tilt towards Republican guests--about a 4-3 ratio.
It's normal, and even commendable, for journalists to meet with people affected by news coverage to hear their concerns about bias. But CNN seeking out the advice of senior government officials in shaping its news coverage is another matter entirely. Powerful politicians should be the subject of media coverage, not partners in producing it.
ACTION: Please contact CNN and voice your concerns about the network's pandering to conservative politicians and their groundless concerns about liberal bias at CNN. Demand that CNN maintain a journalistic relationship to Washington politicians as subjects of news coverage and not as collaborators in reshaping a more conservative-friendly media outlet.
CONTACT: Eason Jordan, CNN
Chief News Executive and President, Newsgathering