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Do Americans really want “unbiased” news?

CNN and the Messenger both say they’re chasing the middle. Uh-oh.

Former President Donald Trump sitting onstage, showing the interviewer a piece of paper.
Former President Donald Trump participates in a CNN town hall with Kaitlin Collins on May 10.
Peter Kafka covers media and technology, and their intersection, at Vox. Many of his stories can be found in his Kafka on Media newsletter, and he also hosts the Recode Media podcast.

Item 1: Last week, the Messenger, a news operation run by the team that built and sold the Hill, launched to plenty of jeers from critics, while inside the company, staff complained that the site wasn’t ready for primetime. Within days, one of its top editors quit in frustration.

Item 2: Executives at CNN spent much of last week defending the network’s decision to air a “town hall” interview with former President Trump, while some of its 4,000 employees told reporters that morale at the news network was dismal. And Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s much-lauded international correspondent, criticized her employer publicly in a speech to the Columbia Journalism School.

Two very different news organizations with two very different problems. But they have two common threads.

The first is that both are trying to secure territory in a hostile economic environment. The Messenger is launching just as previous attempts to make digital news work at scale are throwing in the towel; CNN is trying to rebrand when the engine that has made cable TV news profitable, if not popular, is sputtering.

Just as worrisome: Both companies are trying to position themselves as an antidote to “biased media,” and promise to deliver down-the-middle news. The problem is there’s not much evidence that people are clamoring for that, which makes it hard to envision a light at the end of the tunnel for either company.

A quick recap: The Messenger has been a source of fascination in media circles for months, in large part because the company has been hiring journalists at a rapid clip (rare at any time, but ultra-rare in the 2023 news market) and paying above-market rates (ditto).

Messenger owner Jimmy Finkelstein also raised eyebrows by waxing on about the good old days when families would gather around the TV set to watch 60 Minutes or wait eagerly for new issues of print magazines.

But the Messenger’s main pitch to readers is that it will deliver “impartial and objective news,” as its editor Dan Wakeford put it (twice in one paragraph) in his welcome note. Just to hammer it home, on launch day the site published the results of a poll, conducted by one of its investors, that announced that “American voters want a new media source that’s free from journalists’ personal biases.” Convenient timing!

Meanwhile, CNN is attempting a full retool under new owners and new management. AT&T sold the network, along with the rest of the company that used to be called WarnerMedia, to Discovery Inc. a year ago, and Discovery boss David Zaslav installed TV producer Chris Licht to run the operation, replacing Jeff Zucker, who had run CNN for nine years.

Under Licht, CNN has promised to move away from what he described as liberal opinioneering, arguing that “too many people have lost trust in the news media.” As I’ve noted, that argument syncs with one previously expressed by John Malone, the conservative cable baron who sits on the Warner Bros. Discovery board, and has held up Fox News as a model for a TV news network.

I’m not 100 percent sure either news outlet actually believes that Americans truly want just-the-facts, down-the-middle news, despite their protestations.

A quick scan of the Messenger gives you the sense that it’s really an attempt to create a competitor to the Daily Mail, the UK tabloid that reaches a huge audience with its can-you-believe-that stories; if you’re in the market for news about former reality star Honey Boo Boo and her family, the Messenger has you covered. (Messenger journalists tell me that the site launched in bare-bones form, and that they’ll eventually have more substantive stuff on the site to balance out the likes of “Arkansas Inmate Escapes Twice in 24 Hours, Steals Guard’s Car.”)

And as CNN is overhauling much of its programming lineup, executives there believe the real upside could be its evening slate, where it thinks it can lure viewers who want entertainment, not up-to-the-minute news. Hence upcoming shows like King Charles, a talkfest hosted by former NBA star Charles Barkley and CBS host Gayle King.

Meanwhile, Zaslav spelled out one constituency he thinks really does want unbiased news, or at least the perception that it’s unbiased: “Advertisers are interested in CNN again,” he said at the MoffettNathanson investor conference last week, defending the Trump event and other changes the network had made. “They don’t want to be part of an advocacy network.”

But for argument’s sake, let’s take both the Messenger and CNN at their word: Americans are clamoring for bias-free news. Because if that’s what they truly believe, I think they’ll have a hard time proving it out, for a couple of reasons.

The first is that Americans simply don’t consume a lot of news, period. The audiences for news delivered by newspapers and TV sets have been in decline for years, and the drops preceded the internet era for some time, though the digital era sped up the pace.

CNN, which pioneered the always-on cable TV news network model when it launched in 1980, quickly realized that viewers would tune in when something truly spectacular was happening — say, a war between the US and Iraq — but generally tuned out between conflagrations.

One way to solve that problem: Position yourself as an advocacy network for liberals or conservatives, as Fox News and MSNBC have done. Another, practiced by Zucker prior to Trump’s ascent: Turn minor, tabloid-y stories — the kind the Messenger might feature on its homepage — into multi-day events, like the saga of the “poop cruise” in 2013, or the mystery of the vanished Malaysian airliner in 2014.

And yes, Americans’ interest in news spiked dramatically during the Trump and coronavirus era. But when Trump left and the country returned, mostly, to pre-pandemic life, that interest fell off, too. And waiting around for another calamity to re-spike that interest isn’t a real strategy: If you want to bring eyeballs back to your news site, you’re probably going to have to find something that doesn’t really have much to do with news.

The other problem with the “Americans want unbiased news” argument is a truth-in-labeling problem. It’s not that “Americans” think news is biased; it’s people who lean Republican. Democrats, by and large, think the news they get from existing outlets is reasonably trustworthy, as this helpful YouGov poll — which replicates a similar one conducted a year ago — spells out. It’s Republicans who distrust almost all outlets that aren’t explicitly aimed at them, like NewsMax. And even the Messenger’s own poll that purports to show a hunger for unbiased news underscores this: 55 percent of Democrats think coverage of their own party is fair — but only 19 percent of Republicans said the same.

Fox News, of course, figured this out from the get-go: That’s why their “fair and balanced” pitch actually means “news you’ll like if you’re on the right side of the political spectrum.” And that’s not what CNN and the Messenger say they’re selling. But if they’re not doing that, who’s buying?

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