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Thirst Traps

CNN, Politico Want to Give Authoritarianism a Fair Shake

Are these outlets truly ignorant of the threats facing our democracy, or are they looking to profit from its fall?

Robyn Beck/Getty Images

On Friday, CNN’s John Harwood appeared on-screen to do what he often does—provide reporting and analysis of the day’s events. In this case, Harwood’s focus was a speech given by Joe Biden about the threat to democracy posed by Donald Trump and his many allies within the Republican Party.

“The core point [Biden] made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true,” Harwood intoned. “Now, that’s something that’s not easy for us, as journalists, to say. We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue.”

“Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election and other things as well,” he continued. “And a significant portion—or a sufficient portion—of the constituency that they’re leading attacked the Capitol on January 6. Violently.”

Not long after, Harwood announced he was no longer with the network.

While Harwood knew his seemingly sudden departure was in the cards, it was a shock to everyone who wasn’t in the know. But the underlying matter is no longer a surprise: Harwood’s sacking is just the latest sign of a shift at CNN—and one that is being seen elsewhere in the media. With Donald Trump out of office, outlets are once again wooing Republicans, hoping to win back trust after years of relentless criticism. Naturally, this is a futile exercise, one that hopelessly sweeps the recent history of the American right under the rug and foolishly sacrifices journalistic integrity in the dim hopes of winning converts from an authoritarian party that would demolish the free press given half a chance.

Last month, CNN abruptly canceled Reliable Sources, its long-running and popular Sunday show that focused on news analysis on the media, and let go of its host, Brian Stelter. Like Harwood, Stelter was known for acknowledging basic truths—and providing incisive commentary—on Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Stelter was, in particular, adept at eschewing the “both sides” approach to reporting that often distorts reality by pretending that both parties are more or less similar. Like Harwood, Stelter also had time left on his contract.

The message from both departures is clear: Things are changing at CNN. This has been expected for some time. Chris Licht took over the network in May, pledging to restore its place in the center of the American cable news ecosystem—that is to say between MSNBC and Fox News—and make the network less of a lightning rod for criticism from the right.

On his first day, Licht laid out his vision for the network, telling employees, “Sadly too many people have lost trust in the news media. I think we can be a beacon in regaining that trust by being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics in journalism: fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘groupthink,’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints. First and foremost, we should, and we will, be advocates for truth.” He has met with congressional Republicans in recent weeks, reaching out to see how he and the network can “win back” their “trust.”

Asking for charity and consideration from critics who operate in bad faith and seek the destruction of your industry is always a fool’s errand. But CNN may be sharing that burden with another group of fools at Politico. The Beltway-focused online publication could be heading in a similar direction despite the fact that it hasn’t faced the same withering criticism as CNN. Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of its new owner, Axel Springer, has said that he hopes his company will become “the leading digital publisher in democracies around the world.” But Döpfner thinks the best way of doing that is by being “nonpartisan.” His understanding of that term may be even more confused than the way it’s often fumblingly used: Döpfner specifically sees this as a “contrarian” approach to news. Considering the fact that most major American outlets already strive for some form of nonpartisanship or “objectivity,” this truly is a puzzling way of describing this mission.

But Döpfner isn’t just striving for nonpartisanship. He is also a fan of Trump himself. In 2020 he sent an email to executives asking, “Do we all want to get together for an hour in the morning on November 3 and pray that Donald Trump will again become President of the United States of America?” He at first strenuously denied the veracity of that email to The Washington Post but acknowledged it once it became clear the paper had a printout of it. He later defended Trump’s record on antitrust—particularly against Google—despite the fact that Trump did little but talk about the tech giant’s rapaciousness. “Döpfner went on to argue that Trump had made the right moves on five of what he deemed the six most important issues of the last half century—‘defending the free democracies’ against Russia and China, pushing NATO allies to up their contributions, ‘tax reforms,’ and Middle East peace efforts, as well as challenging tech monopolies—if falling short, he implied, on climate change,” wrote the Post’s Sarah Ellison. As with Trump taking on Google, citations are needed.

At CNN, efforts for more nonpartisanship largely seem to involve muzzling those who acknowledge the current state of the Republican Party, like Stelter—who was a frequent target of Fox News during the Trump era—and Harwood. As one CNN employee told The Washington Post, “People are freaked out. It almost feels like there’s a pattern. Is there a purge going on? They seem to be sending a message: ‘Watch what you say. Watch what you do.’”

Given the current state of the GOP and its de facto leader, Donald Trump, that’s an abdication of duty, one that requires journalists to soft-sell, if not deny, the fact that election deniers are running as Republicans in more than half of the races in November elections, that the party continues to fund a nationwide voter-suppression operation, and that calls for political violence have been mainstreamed on the right. This is coddling, not journalism. Republicans don’t like it when they’re called out for extremism, but that’s too bad for them. For decades, the party has succeeded in working the refs—whining incessantly about media coverage—to manipulate how the press treats them. It’s worked remarkably well. Now, after a short spell in which some major media institutions acknowledged the growing danger of the GOP’s un-American ideas, the counterrevolution is on. The only question is whether these executives are too stupid to recognize the threat to democracy or if they’re making plans to thrive when and if it collapses.