What’s Wrong With CNN? (And What’s Right)

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CNN's Mark Whitaker explains why the network's non-partisan approach still makes sense — and what the network is changing as it copes with ratings lows

You know the knocks on CNN: Its ratings are down. Its reputation for breaking news took a hit last week with an embarrassing mistake about the Supreme Court's Obamacare ruling. Its nonpartisan approach to news denies it the built-in liberal audience of MSNBC and conservative audience of Fox News.

CNN doesn't deny any of it. And it's trying to improve. But it also sees some of its perceived weaknesses as strengths.

"We continue to do very well when there are big news stories," CNN Worldwide managing editor Mark Whitaker told TheWrap. "When there aren't, we still don't have enough programming that people come to, just for the programming. That's something that we continue to work on."

The oldest cable news network, which trails Fox News and to a lesser extent MSNBC, in May posted its worst primetime ratings in two decades. It can blame some of its ratings problems on a slow news cycle in which the Obamacare ruling was one of the few major stories.

Also read: Supreme Court Health Care Ruling Confuses CNN, Fox News

CNN, Fox and MSNBC were all down in primetime ratings in the most recent quarter — covering April through June — in the 25-54 age group most important to news advertisers. (See chart, left.) But CNN was down 40 percent, a percentage greater than Fox and MSNBC's percentage losses combined. (Fox, as usual, trounced its rivals in viewership.)

Some ratings falloff was to be expected from a 2011 second quarter that included such huge stories as Osama bin Laden's death. But CNN can't blame all of its recent problems on a slow news period. The losses highlighted the weakness of a primetime schedule that includes "Anderson Cooper 360," CNN's most-watched show in the key demo, and "Piers Morgan Tonight," its most-watched show in total viewers.

Now CNN is searching for the kind of Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow-sized personalities that can lure viewers even during a dry spell. It has made several recent lineup changes, including canceling the low-rated 6 p.m. show "John King U.S.A." and bringing in celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who will leave the Travel Channel to begin a CNN food and travel show in early 2013.

Also read: Anthony Bourdain Joins CNN for New Show

But those are relatively minor tweaks. A news executive at another network, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the network known for fast responses to breaking stories has been slow to respond to viewers' changing expectations for TV news.

"They're doing the same kind of coverage they've done since 1980. They've got their head in the sand: 'We're going to give you headlines all day long,'" the executive said. "The media revolution is taking place all around them, and they didn't change."

Viewers today can get their news from countless sources besides their televisions, the executive said, so networks need to do more than break news.

That's something of which Whitaker is keenly aware. He was brought in to CNN last year in part to help the network adapt. He joined the network after four years at NBC and eight as the editor of Newsweek.

Editing a weekly magazine required constantly finding new approaches to stories that had broken days before — the same challenge now facing CNN, but on a drastically accelerated timeline.

Also read: CNN Skids to 20-Year Monthly Ratings Low in Primetime

"CNN could not prosper by continuing to function as the place where people are learning about news for the first time," he said. "We absolutely have to be providing extra value for people who we assume are likely to already know what's been going on, or at least the headlines."

But CNN refuses to turn to what Whitaker calls "partisan" analysis — "or sometimes just ranting."

CNN's better-rated rivals deny that what they air in primetime is ranting. But Fox News and MSNBC do draw their largest audiences for opinionated shows like "The O'Reilly Factor" and "The Rachel Maddow Show."

Getty ImagesIn an election year, Whitaker (right) said, especially at this early stage in the presidential campaign, partisans are more likely to seek out shows that affirm their viewpoints. He said MSNBC and Fox are both benefitting from such partisan viewers, especially in primetime.

"Both of them are preaching to the choir," he said. "They're playing to a very narrow audience on the left and the right. Rather than challenge the beliefs of their audience, they're just feeding and reinforcing them."

Fox draws a distinction between its news coverage, which it says is non-partisan, and its talk shows, which lean conservative.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin, meanwhile, rejects the notion that people watch his network to hear what they already think.

"There's no question we have a view, but it's not about a viewpoint," he said. "What viewers want is really smart analysis. They want to connect with someone who they trust. Rachel Maddow does nine hours of preparation for her show. And then they come to trust her judgment and they connect. They listen to her and come to believe she's right." MSNBC's strength lies in providing that type of analysis, Griffin said, with a strong focus on politics.

CNN does include plenty of Democrats and Republicans — but its hosts, unlike Maddow or Fox's Sean Hannity, for example, interview their guests without openly agreeing or disagreeing with them.

And CNN hosts do take sides on nonpartisan issues. Anderson Cooper has waged a long campaign against bullying, a topic that has become especially pressing because of the recent suicides of bullied gay teens. (Cooper came out as gay this week.) Dr. Sanjay Gupta has aggressively reported on the risks of traumatic head injuries in youth sports. And CNN's "Freedom Project" has tried to expunge slavery across the globe.

"To be nonpartisan doesn't necessarily mean to be passionless," Whitaker said.

CNN doesn't just have journalistic motives for refusing to side with Democrats or Republicans.

Although it has fewer viewers, CNN can make the case to advertisers that it appeals to more swing and undecided viewers than Fox News or MSNBC. (Fox, meanwhile, has cited a recent Pew Research Center study that found it has a higher percentage of independent viewers.)

CNN's current personalities are also less risky for advertisers than divisive hosts like Glenn Beck, who shed advertisers during his time on Fox News. (He joined Fox from CNN's Headline News, where we was generally less contentious than he was on Fox.)

CNN's broader focus may also play better worldwide. The network stresses that for all its domestic ratings woes, it is only part of a global news empire that far exceeds that of Fox News or MSNBC. That empire includes CNN International and CNN Espanol, and reaches 259 million households abroad. It boasts that it is the top news provider in Europe and is the top English-language news outlet in the Middle East.

Getty ImagesThe network also points to CNN.com's 100 million video starts per year globally, one sign of the strength of CNN Digital, which has a whopping 73 million monthly unique visitors.

CNN's strong reputation for international reporting extends back to its coverage of the outbreak of the first Gulf War, which made household names of Wolf Blitzer (left), now the host of "The Situation Room," and Christiane Amanpour, who reports for both CNN and ABC.

Their coverage helped brand CNN as the place for breaking news. But that reputation suffered last week when the network — along with many others, including Fox News — initially misreported the Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, saying the court seemed to have struck it down.

"I was very disappointed," Whitaker said. "We pride ourselves on our reputation for thorough and accurate reporting, and in that case we got it wrong. We corrected it and we admitted our mistake — not everybody did — but it shouldn't have happened."

Was it a case of CNN trying to break the news too fast because of ratings pressure?

"I don't think that was the case," Whitaker said.

He added that it "wasn't one person's error, it was a matter of process," and that CNN is reviewing that entire process.

He also denied a recent New York Post report that he has clashed with Ken Jautz, the executive vice president of CNN responsible for U.S. coverage.

But he drew on an anecdote from CNN's international coverage to explain how the network's influence can't be measured merely in domestic TV ratings.

When rebels took over the Libyan city of Benghazi last year during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, at one point a crowd of celebrating townspeople looked up to see a CNN camera crew.

"And in unison, thousands of people started chanting 'CNN, CNN, CNN,'" he said. "People around the world really appreciate what we stand for, and what we do."