Has CNN Lost Its Way…or Lost Its Mind?
Bob Oltmanns, APR, Fellow PRSA
First a disclaimer. I’m old school.
There, I said it. Out loud. In print.
But more than that, I’ve also been a parent, an above-average consumer of news, a lifelong student and critic of the news business, a friend of many journalists whose work and passion I’ve long admired, and…wait for it…a viewer of CNN.
Like many people of my generation, I became addicted to CNN’s 24-hour news coverage during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, commonly referred to as the “first Persian Gulf War.” As fate would have it, I happened to be in CNN’s offices in Atlanta just days before the coalition invasion began and was completely awestruck by the various meetings being held throughout the building that gave a glimpse into what was going to be the first cable TV news war in history. My meeting was with the news director, who was giving us a briefing on CNN’s planned war coverage. As we sat around a large conference table, he sat facing a wall of television monitors, each one tuned to a competing network so that he could monitor breaking news in real time while we talked. As a news junkie, it made my head spin.
Coincidentally, while we were sitting in CNN’s offices, a kid by the name of Anderson Cooper was just starting his career as a fact-checker for Channel One, which produces news segments to be broadcast in schools around the country. He was 24 at the time, working in his first real job, with nothing to suggest that he would become an international TV news icon. But let’s come back to that later.
Anyway, back to the Gulf War. When the shooting started, CNN was there first, reporting live from a hotel room in Baghdad were veteran journalists John Holliman and Peter Arnett, whose skill and composure in describing guided missile strikes outside their window made them instant celebrities. Back at the anchor desk in Washington, was the then-face of CNN, Bernard Shaw. A veteran of national political coverage, Shaw was one of the first on-air personalities hired by the fledgling news network and helped to give CNN the gravitas it needed to compete with its big rivals, CBS, NBC, and ABC. Backing up Shaw, Arnett, and Holliman were rising superstars like Wolf Blitzer and Christiane Amanpour, who provide the chops in CNN’s brand of news coverage to this day.
CNN literally dodged bombs and bullets to bring us the news with fearlessness. I’ve always admired their commitment to go out into the world, however dangerous, and report the news back to their viewers. In the years since, the journalism talent that CNN has attracted has been second to none, and all those attacks of “fake news” directed at CNN correspondents made my blood boil.
Which brings me back to Anderson Cooper.
Not a Good Look, Anderson
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a big Anderson Cooper fan. He’s a first-rate journalist and on-air personality. He’s done excellent work covering natural disasters and armed conflict around the world and seems equally at ease with presidents, prime ministers, flood victims, and refugees. He’s earned his stripes and fully deserves his newfound role as the 21st-century face of CNN.
But I have a big problem with him appearing drunk on national television.
If you didn’t see any of this train wreck, you can easily find it anywhere on YouTube, this clip should give you an idea of what you missed.
Public drunkenness is never OK. But there was Cooper, co-hosting CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage from Times Square with Andy Cohen, a celebrity talk-show host best known for, well, nothing in particular. Fortunately for Cooper and Cohen, it’s not a crime in New York City, but the days of Dean Martin and Foster Brooks have been over for 40 years. The standards of socially acceptable adult behavior in 2022 are decidedly different now.
As the evening and CNN’s NYE coverage wore on, the worse Cooper and Cohen got. It actually became uncomfortable to watch as Cooper’s condition noticeably worsened and Cohen, acting as agent provocateur, made sure that his star co-host was never without an empty glass. And in Cooper’s defense, Cohen’s drunken stupor went so far off the rails that Cooper did his best to reign him in several times during the evening, to no avail.
Taking a Dive for the Ratings
Apparently this schtick was a ratings hit in 2020, and with CNN expanding its business model to include entertainment and documentary programming, someone has made the decision that the face of the new CNN should be its rock-star journalist and #1 news anchor, no matter what the programming might be.
Watching this sake-fueled train wreck, my first thought was of Shaw, who if he had the stomach to watch any of this, had to be wondering how any presidential candidate would ever find Anderson Cooper to be a serious debate moderator ever again. It had to be hard enough for Shaw to endure former-President Donald Trump’s attacks on CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, but at least some of that acrimony comes with the turf on that beat. And Acosta himself had to be shaking his head, too, having endured four years of getting his teeth kicked in every day in the White House briefing room only to watch the face of CNN embarrass himself – and by extension, the CNN brand, itself – on their own network.
All this comes on the heels of CNN’s mishandling of the Chris Cuomo firing. Cuomo, who admitted to helping his brother, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo during allegations of sexual misconduct while in office, should have been fired by CNN back in May 2021, when the story first broke. After all, he was counseling his brother on media strategy while hosting CNN’s #1 rated program in prime time. This isn’t far from Sean Hannity’s counseling of Donald Trump while in office, but in the interest of time we’ll save that for another post. And did I mention Don Lemon’s drunken NYE performance? Oh, never mind.
Let’s just say for now that for whatever his faults, at least Hannity works sober.
What would the world be saying if instead of Anderson Cooper, it was NBC’s Lester Holt, CBS’s Norah O’Donnell, or ABC’s David Muir doing shots on national TV with a drunken co-host? Remember that NBC News sidelined and ultimately reassigned Brian Williams after it learned that he had embellished his reporting. That’s kids’ play compared to public intoxication on-air.
And Cohen’s way-over-the-line cheap shots at New York’s former mayor Bill DeBlasio and ABC-TV’s NYE coverage team, who were standing just a few feet away, made my jaw drop. But yet he’s already insisted that he intends to be back next year for more of this. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, the news events that we know are to unfold in 2022 and which will fall to Anderson Cooper to report, are too serious to trivialize. Covid-19 rages on. Democracy in America may hinge on the outcome of the mid-term elections. Gun violence. Wars. Natural disasters. Political and social upheaval. The times we live in demand serious attention and serious people to report on them. The world is depending on CNN to do what it has done so well for so long. The network needs to protect the internationally-respected brand that Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries built. And if Anderson Cooper is to be the face of CNN, we need him to be serious…and sober.
Let Andy Cohen get trashed next New Year’s on his own. Let Anderson Cooper bring us the news.
Bob Oltmanns is the president of OPR Group, LLC.