CNN’s Platforming Problem

By Mark Jacob  

What’s the difference between platforming and journalism?

Platforming is when you give someone a voice on your media outlet. Journalism is when you try to discover and deliver facts. Platforming and journalism are different things.

CNN does not seem to understand this. And when CNN ousted CEO Chris Licht this week, there was no indication that the network had learned the difference. CNN still seems determined to give everyone a platform even liars and aim for a mythical center that, for all practical purposes, steers the network to the right.

In a recent profile in the Atlantic that may have led to Licht’s departure, he expressed the company line that news outlets had lost their way in covering Donald Trump.

“I think [Trump] changed the rules of the game, and the media was a little caught off guard and put a jersey on and got into the game as a way of dealing with it,” he said.

At CNN, he said, “that jersey cannot go back on.”

This is the approach that CNN’s leadership apparently wants the media as a bystander or referee, not a player. But that assumes it’s a contest between Republicans and Democrats and between left and right. What if the contest is actually between lies and truth? Isn’t the news media a player in that contest? Aren’t journalists in the truth game?

Apparently not, according to CNN. A major news network is simply a flashier version of those cable access channels that show your town’s city council meeting from start to finish from fixed cameras without commentary. Those kinds of broadcasts don’t tell you whether the mayor’s brother-in-law owns the business seeking a road maintenance contract, or whether a zoning change will help a council member’s top campaign donor.

It’s platforming when you let people on the air and broadcast what they say with few or no checks. Some news organizations see that as fairness, but its fairness to the politicians, not to the public.

It’s not journalism. Real journalists put people on their platforms only if they think their appearance will bring the audience the truths they need in order to manage their lives and defend their democracy. Journalism is context, history, fact-checking. It’s value-added. It’s not being a bystander who is busy selling advertising and lets the newsmakers say whatever they want.

CNN is doing a lot of platforming these days. Its Trump town hall was a disaster. In effect, it was a Trump rally. Host Kaitlan Collins tried limited fact-checking but found only futility, given the format.

A later Nikki Haley town hall registered a 5 rather than a 10 on the lying scale,, inspiring New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel to naively praise Haley as “well-versed on policy issues” and showing a “reasoned manner.” Gabriel also noted that host Jake Tapper “did not veer into fact-checking,” as if Haley’s comments did not warrant it. But they did. Haley claimed that trans athletes caused teen girls’ suicidal thoughts, an utterly fact-free assertion. And in discussing the massacre of nine Black people at a Charleston church in 2015, Haley criticized the media because they “wanted to make it about race.” Haley failed to note that the shooter was an avowed white supremacist.

At CNN’s town hall with Mike Pence on Wednesday night, host Dana Bash found a few times to gently push back. That task was made easier by the fact that Pence is a less outrageous liar than Trump and relies more often on evasion, distraction and misleading statements.

Perhaps the most newsworthy moment was when Bash pressed Pence on his ridiculous assertion that “no one’s above the law” but that Trump shouldn’t be charged because of “unique circumstances.” Which means Pence thinks Trump is above the law.

And Bash did bring in the facts when Pence claimed Democrats want abortion up to the time of birth. She noted that the Roe vs. Wade ruling that Democrats supported provided an abortion right up to the time of a fetus’ viability, not birth. (Only after the town hall did CNN point out that Pence lied when he said he had “always” supported abortion-ban exceptions in cases of rape, incest or danger to life of the mother. This kind of belated fact-checking points to a big problem with these live shows.)

As with most television news hosts, Bash rarely re-asked unanswered questions, and when she caught Pence taking liberties with the facts, she made the case quickly and moved on without sharpening the point. Bash didn’t want to seem adversarial. She didn’t want to put on an opposing jersey. CNN is trying to fact-check just enough to maintain some level of credibility but not so much that it ticks off the politicians. CNN needs the candidates to show up. Like so much decision-making in national political coverage, it’s about access.

Problem is, when you depend on politicians to help you produce your show, they have you over a barrel. The town hall host and the politician may not be wearing the same jersey, but they’re co-stars in the same show.

Journalists need to wear a jersey, but it’s not a Republican jersey or a Democratic jersey. Journalists need to remember they’re working for the public. They need to wear a truth jersey.

Mark Jacob, a former metro editor at the Chicago Tribune and co-author of eight books, is a consultant for Courier Newsroom.