This Week in the Mayonnaise Clinic: Has CNN Gone Astray?
Plus: more on abortion, supply-side solutions, and some news about the Very Serious podcast.
Welcome to the Mayonnaise Clinic! Before I get to this week’s mail, I want to give a quick update on the Very Serious podcast.
As you may have noticed, we’ve been on hiatus for a few weeks with the Very Serious podcast. That’s partly because we’ve been taking time to think about exactly what the podcast should be. But it will be back soon, with some changes, including better editorial integration with the newsletter, now that the audio is flowing through the Substack platform and literally embedded in the emails and posts.
More importantly, the podcast is coming back very soon.
I’ll be talking tomorrow with Gabriel Debenedetti, national correspondent for New York Magazine. Gabe’s forthcoming book, The Long Alliance, is about Joe Biden’s strong — yet complex and sometimes fraught — relationship with Barack Obama, and how it’s evolved through their nearly 20 years of political partnership. If you have questions for him, please send those to me at firstname.lastname@example.org by Thursday morning, or you can leave a comment below.
And next week, I’ll be talking with Ben Dreyfuss, author of Calm Down (née Good Faith). Ben has lately taken up offering hilarious-yet-appropriate advice — much better than the advice that comes from the mainstream advice columns — and I encourage you to send in any questions you’d like him (and me) to opine on. We might revisit some of the questions I’ve answered since the beginning of the year, especially if Ben has different advice to offer.
Now, to the jar:
I'm curious about your thoughts on CNN's post-Jeff Zucker shift in strategy, both in concept and execution.
On its face, I'm totally in favor of news organizations cracking down on the moralizing, self-importance, and lighting-your-hair-on-fire attitude journalists enjoyed during the Trump administration. A focus on sober reporting and hard news would be welcome in TV news.
But it feels like — so far — the network has been simply adding more Trumpish-aligned punditry to the scale in an effort to seem less partisan. Do you think this is the case, or is it more of Twitter freaking out and elevating dumb clips that would have been on the network regardless of the change? Do you think they can pull off a shift that brings in viewers and improves the product?
Cable news is for idiots, so I’m not going to subject myself to hours and hours of watching it to evaluate whether the average political positioning of a CNN guest has changed. But I think the circulation of the particular Francesca Chambers clip you cite as supposed evidence of a Trumpy shift at CNN is weaksauce — and boy have I been seeing a lot of apoplectic liberals share it on Twitter. (Jesus, people, will you get a hobby already?)
Chambers, who covers the White House for USA Today, has been a fixture on cable news for years, not just on CNN but also on MSNBC and Fox News. That she made an inane jump to “optics” when asked about Trump bringing the aunt of Timothy Hale-Cusanelli on stage at a Pennsylvania rally — Hale-Cusanelli is the January 6 riot convict who praised Hitler and posed with a Hitler mustache (in order to be “ironic”, he says, of course) — does not say anything about CNN changing. It just reflects that cable news political panel discussions have always consisted of replacement-level-or-lower armchair political strategizing and posturing — there are hours and hours and hours of time to fill, and they have been filled with this crap my entire adult life. (By the way, Sara Fay and I wrote back in January about how to book an actually good political conversation panel, based on our experience at Left, Right & Center.)
Chambers is not (so far as I know) a Trumper or even a conservative, but it’s not like the network was a Trump-free zone in recent years. Even as it sought to appeal to resistance Democrats, CNN always sought drama and argument, much more even than MSNBC, which simply has people on to agree with each other. CNN has had Rick Santorum as a contributor for years. So the idea that a comment you don’t like from a reporter like Chambers — who doesn’t even work for CNN and doesn’t take orders from higher-ups there about what to say — is indicative of a shift toward Trumpy commentary is just incorrect.
It is true that CNN has recently parted ways with a couple of its personalities who were most inclined toward aimlessly bloviating about how terrible Donald Trump is. But my hope and expectation for post-Zucker CNN isn’t that it will have similar panels with the political center of gravity shifted rightward. It’s that it will devote less time to aimless bloviation about politics in general, and more time to straightforward news coverage. That shift will take some time to implement. And my expectation is it will cause ratings to go down. Because of the internet, people don’t need to watch the news to learn the news, which is the reason the networks drifted toward panels of people arguing. This format appeals, for whatever reason, to a small but devoted category of politics obsessives who will watch hours of it on end. (Again, if that’s you, I urge you to read a book.)
But I think Chris Licht, CNN’s new chairman and CEO, is still correct that a less political brand will be a good move for the business, even if ratings fall. CNN mostly makes money from carriage fees, not from advertising, and it needs to safeguard its position as the cable news channel normies demand on their cable packages for the handful of days a year that news they care about is breaking. (And when that happens, CNN is the best channel to watch, because it has the largest newsgathering budget and a large team of very talented journalists, and is the best performer at covering an event like a war or natural disaster.) Every other day of the year, the normies can ignore CNN, and they won’t see the ads on the channel, but their cable system will still be paying a handsome fee to Warner Brothers Discovery for the privilege of carrying it.
Jacob has a follow-up question on abortion:
I have heard you and others say that Democrats should force Republicans to make tough choices with regard to a nationwide abortion restrictions. Why can’t Republicans do the same thing, if they win control of one house of Congress?
There are tough votes Republicans could make Democrats take on abortion — indeed, they have a history of doing this, by bringing up proposals to prohibit certain late-term abortions. Polls generally show voters favor these restrictions, depending on exactly how they are constructed.
But I’m not sure how much political mileage Republicans will get out of that, since we’re starting to see an asymmetry of intensity on abortion.