CNN’s a beacon in dark times

Published 1:55 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2017

by Peter Funt

The Cable News Network has never quite lived up to its slogan as “The most trusted name in news” –– due largely to the public’s dismal view of journalism in general coupled with CNN’s own unforced errors. Yet, among today’s news options, CNN has become invaluable.

Founded in 1980 by the unlikely news visionary Ted Turner, CNN reached a low point a few years ago in both content and ratings. Fortunately, the 2016 presidential campaign brought many viewers back into the fold, a boost shared by numerous news organizations. Now, thanks in part to the turmoil of the Trump administration, CNN has managed to craft itself into must-see TV.

CNN’s rejuvenation remains a work in progress, but for encouraging signs one need look no further than the ambitious “town halls” –– such as one recently with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi –– and live presidential-style debates. The first of these, pitting Bernie Sanders against Ted Cruz on the topic of healthcare, was an artful and informative TV creation, achieving high ratings.

CNN’s two main competitors, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, have each staked out clear political positions, with FNC on the right and MSNBC on the left. For CNN, that should have been like leaving the basketball lane wide open for a seven-footer to drive to the hoop.

Yet, at the start of this decade, CNN somehow managed to become dull, uninspired and at times unreliable. The fixer was Jeff Zucker, who took over at CNN five years ago after a lengthy career at NBC, where he had mixed results as an entertainment programmer and little meaningful experience in news.

Many, myself included, still worry about how much non-news content Zucker will foist on CNN’s audience. This month, CNN launched an eight-part examination of humor titled “The History of Comedy,” filled with easy-to-come-by clips that are entertaining but hardly newsworthy.

This is the kind of high profile feature programming that Zucker hopes will draw new viewers to CNN. He has repeatedly assured critics that such fare will be immediately interrupted if important news occurs.

Cable news outlets, like newspapers, face a challenge in pleasing a public that is connected 24/7 to digital feeds and instant video. It is an audience that seems to feel it knows everything about everything that’s important –– even if it doesn’t.

During the Obama administration CNN found itself in limbo, with a generally likable president and a dearth of scandal. The Trump administration is quickly changing that. Thanks to Trump, there’s a growing audience for journalists who take the president to task in an objective way, without the sour grapes stomped nightly at MSNBC.

CNN has developed a compelling evening lineup, with Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper and the surprisingly engaging Don Lemon. Reporters such as Dana Bash and Jim Acosta have lifted the presentation, as have commentators Gloria Borger, David Axelrod and Van Jones.

The channel remains saddled with paid political apologists such as the insufferable conservative Jeffrey Lord and the equally obnoxious liberal Paul Begala. But adding the articulate conservative Rick Santorum, and giving centrist Michael Smerconish his own weekend show have bolstered the lineup.

The biggest surprise is Lemon, who at first was branded by some as being out of his depth when moderating discussions on a wide range of complicated subjects. But Lemon has grown into the role, and his soft-spoken approach is a tonic for late-evening viewers, who increasingly find themselves stressed by the day’s developments.

When Donald Trump doesn’t like what he sees on CNN he calls it “fake.” Other viewers, however, should be grateful that the channel has managed at this critical time to get real.

PETER FUNT can be reached at He is a writer and speaker. His book, “Cautiously Optimistic,” is available at and