With former NBC chief Jeff Zucker now in charge at CNN, the network reportedly has big changes planned.
The overhaul presents an opportunity for CNN to reverse a decline in environmental coverage that one former top environmental producer at the network blames on an obsession with beating Fox News.
Peter Dykstra, who oversaw the CNN environmental beat from 1995 to 2008, recalled top CNN executives describing environmental stories as "elite issues or liberal issues" that would not draw a Fox News crowd.
"For the last 10 years, CNN has been battered by competition, primarily by Fox. They have incurred huge losses in ratings to Fox and like just about anyone in cable television, they have altered their programming far more in the direction of entertainment and amusement as opposed to information with redeeming value. That of course does not bode well for covering science," Dykstra said in a recent interview. "CNN has looked obsessively at how many viewers they've lost to Fox."
Dykstra spent 1991 to 2008 on the environmental beat at CNN, except for a short stint on the military desk in 2002, serving as executive producer for environmental and science coverage from 1995 to 2008. He was laid off in 2008 when the environmental unit was shut down, he said.
A former board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists, Dykstra has been publisher of Environmental Health News for the past two years, previously working at the Pew Charitable Trust after leaving CNN.
"The biggest issue is that what we covered were perceived to be either elite issues or liberal issues that were of little value if your goal in life is to compete head to head with Fox News," Dykstra recalled about his CNN days. "You do not need science and technology to compete with Fox."
Ironically, a recent report at the Project for Improved Environmental Coverage ranked Fox News 9th out of 30 national news outlets in the amount of environmental stories, with CNN ranked near the bottom at 25th. The report noted, however, that "Fox's environmental coverage has often been documented and criticized for being biased and misleading."
Dykstra said that former CNN President Jonathan Klein, who served in that role from 2004 to 2010, was one of several executives who called for a reduction in environmental coverage in order to compete with Fox, even though he believed climate change existed.
"I will give him credit for looking me in the eye and telling me to my face, and he was not the only CNN boss who did this, that he did not consider science and environment coverage to be a high priority," Dykstra said of Klein, later adding, "It never was hostility, it was more an attitude of 'that doesn't work for us, that doesn't help us beat Fox.' There was very little if any political push back. In fact, Jon Klein, I recall him saying in editorial meetings on more than one occasion 'it's obvious that this is for real, it just didn't necessarily have a place in CNN's coverage.'"
At times like this, it sure would be great if the Washington Post's media critic wasn't getting paid on the side by CNN.
Last week, CNN's Lou Dobbs abruptly resigned (or, if you prefer, "resigned") his job as perhaps the cable channel's most famous anchor. In the wake of the resignation/"resignation," CNN President Jonathan Klein continued his pattern of bizarre and often contradictory statements about Dobbs. But Howard Kurtz, who earns what we can only assume is a handsome salary from his side job as host of CNN's Reliable Sources, continues to give Klein a pass.
It all started over the summer, when Lou Dobbs was hyping the crazy Birther conspiracy theories about Barack Obama's birth certificate. After this nonsense went on for a while, Klein sent around a memo to CNN employees declaring the story "dead," adding "anyone who still is not convinced doesn't really have a legitimate beef." But Lou Dobbs didn't consider it dead, and he kept on flogging it.
That's when things got interesting. CNN President Klein, who had previously declared the story "dead," flip-flopped, calling Dobbs' treatment of the topic "legitimate" and blasting Dobbs' critics as "people with a partisan point of view from one extreme or another."
One of the critics of Dobbs' relentless hyping of the Birther conspiracy theories had been Howard Kurtz. And Kurtz had mentioned Klein's memo on Reliable Sources. But, oddly, he never mentioned criticized CNN's president for endorsing Dobbs coverage -- in fact, he never even mentioned Klein's flip-flop.
Nor Kurtz ever mention that Klein's descriptions of Dobbs' Birther reporting were inaccurate.
Nor has Kurtz noted the obvious falsity of Klein's repeated claims that Dobbs had removed opinion from his broadcasts this year and begun doing straight news broadcasts. Klein has been pushing that line since the Spring, at least, and continues to do so in the wake of Dobbs' departure from CNN:
CNN President Jon Klein said the decision grew out of weeks of discussion with Dobbs after he had directed the anchor several months ago to rein in some of his more controversial opinions.
"We both came to the conclusion that the mission of the network was different from the mission he wanted to pursue," Klein said. "He was very friendly and engaging about it. . . . A few months ago, Lou removed opinion from his show for the most part, in an earnest effort to live up to the mission of the network. It occurred to him that was not what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He came to us and we agreed. . . . 'Lou Dobbs Tonight' was increasingly standing apart from the network."
Again: that is obviously false, as a few brief moments watching Lou Dobbs Tonight (or browsing Media Matters' extensive Dobbs archives) would have made clear. But Howard Kurtz has never mentioned that the president of CNN was making obviously false claims about the content of one of its most famous programs. On Reliable Sources yesterday, Kurtz noted "CNN president Jon Klein said that he had asked Dobbs several months ago to take the opinion off his program and Dobbs had largely complied." But he politely avoided assessing the truthfulness of Klein's statement.
It's hard to believe the nation's most prominent media critic would ignore Klein's defense of Dobbs' Birther reporting, and his repeated false statements about the content of Dobbs' broadcasts -- until you remember that CNN probably pays Kurtz more than the Washington Post does.
When Washington Post ombudsman wrote a few weeks ago about the "inescapable conflict" of interest represented by Kurtz' dual employment at CNN and the Washington Post, Kurtz responded:
"My track record makes clear that I've been as aggressive toward CNN -- and The Washington Post, for that matter -- as I would be if I didn't host a weekly program there."
That was obviously false at the time. Kurtz's continuing kid-glove treatment of his CNN boss drives that falsity home even more.
Here's CNN president Jon Klein shrugging off his cable channel's lousy ratings:
Excellent journalism is what we are focused on. We refuse to do the things that might get us a quick number or cater to the extremes that would alienate our core viewers.
And here's CNN's Lou Dobbs.
And no, Klein isn't somehow unaware of Dobbs' existence. Over the summer, when Dobbs was hyping Birther conspiracy theories, Klein leapt to Dobbs' defense. Oh, and earlier this year, Klein said Dobbs does a relatively straight newscast. Right.
The New York Times reports:
Instead of being simply a draw for Hispanic viewers, CNN's four-hour documentary, "Latino in America," turned into a political rallying cry for activist groups who are calling on the cable news channel to fire Lou Dobbs, a veteran anchor with well-known views on immigration.
Isabel Garcia, a civil rights lawyer who was featured in "Latino in America" and organized an anti-Dobbs protest in Tucson on Wednesday, said that CNN edited her comments about the anchor out of an interview.
During the taped interview Wednesday, she said she made several unprompted comments about Mr. Dobbs.
She said she called Mr. Arpaio and Mr. Dobbs "the two most dangerous men to our communities," and said that "because of them, our communities are being terrorized in a real way." She also asserted that CNN was "promoting lies and hate about our community" by broadcasting Mr. Dobbs's program. The comments were not included when the interview was shown Wednesday night.
"They heavily deleted what I did get to say," she said.
Ben Armbruster of Think Progress notes:
This isn't the first time CNN has circled the wagons around Dobbs. Earlier this year, Dobbs was one of the most prominent mainstream media figures pushing the conspiracy theory that President Obama may not have been born in the U.S. Dobbs repeatedly called on Obama to "produce a birth certificate" and said it's "unfortunate" that the birthers have been "dismissed." Despite Dobbs' hysteria and playing on "escalating white fear," CNN president Jonathan Klein downplayed Dobbs' antics, claiming the CNN anchor was merely reporting on the birther "phenomenon" and had simply asked why "some people doubt" Obama's citizenship.
Unlike the Times, The Washington Post has not yet reported on CNN's decision to edit out Garcia's criticism of Dobbs. But the Post employs Howard Kurtz, the nation's most prominent media critic, so I'm sure they're on the case and will soon run a comprehensive report.
Yes, it's true Kurtz has a conflict of interest in that he also works for CNN. And he's pulled his punches when dealing with CNN and Dobbs in the past, refusing to criticize -- or even mention -- CNN president Jonathan Klein's defense of Dobbs' Birther nonsense.
But surely someone at the Post has had a good long talk with Kurtz about his conflict of interest, and he won't let it get in the way of his coverage of CNN and Dobbs this time, right? I mean, it can't be the case that the Washington Post doesn't mind one of their star reporters taking a pass on stories that are embarrassing to a company he's assigned to cover -- while also being paid by that company. Can it?