What corporate media executives mean when they talk about "objectivity"
Chris Licht, a veteran television producer, became the CEO of CNN in May. He immediately made clear that he wants the network's programming to become more "objective." But what does that mean?
We got a clue on Tuesday when Licht made one of his first major hires. Licht announced he had brought on John Miller to be CNN's Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst. “John will help deliver on CNN’s commitment to tackle complex issues while presenting audiences with independent, objective news and meaningful analysis across platforms,” Licht said.
Miller has years of experience in law enforcement, intelligence, and journalism. He has made a career shuttling between roles in government and journalism. For nearly a decade before signing with CNN, Miller was the Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence & Counterterrorism with the New York Police Department (NYPD). Miller has gained valuable connections and insight in government roles. But he is not, in any meaningful sense, "objective" on law enforcement or intelligence issues.
During a New York City Council meeting in March 2022, while Miller was still with the NYPD, Miller testified that there was "no evidence" that the NYPD ever spied on Muslims in mosques after 9/11. Miller made the statement after Shahana Hanif, a member of the council, asked Miller if the NYPD was prepared to fully disclose the surveillance program and issue an apology to the Muslim community.
Miller's statement was objectively false. In 2012, the Associated Press "won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting… for stories revealing that the New York Police Department — headed by Commissioner Raymond Kelly — had built an aggressive domestic intelligence program after the Sept. 11 attacks that put Muslim businesses, mosques and student groups under scrutiny." The articles documented how the NYPD "systematically spied on Muslim neighborhoods, listened in on sermons, infiltrated colleges and photographed law-abiding residents."
Eric Adams, the current mayor of New York City and a former law enforcement officer, said it was "wrong" for Miller to deny the existence of the program and "wrong" for the NYPD to have conducted the spying operation targeting Muslims.
Hanif called on Miller to be investigated for perjury. In a statement to Popular Information, Hanif said she was disturbed by CNN's decision to hire Miller:
The nearly decade-long surveillance, harassment, and intimidation of the New York City Muslim community under the post-9/11 surveillance program has left deep scars, some of which have yet to heal. Knowing this full well, John Miller had the audacity to lie under oath about the nature of this program to my face… John Miller would rather double down on years of lies than simply admit that the NYPD made mistakes and caused irreparable harm. Someone like John Miller should not be in public service nor should they be given a platform on a mainstream cable news network.
Miller has also been accused of taking covering up government misdeeds in his role as a journalist. In 2013, as a reporter for CBS News, Miller reported a segment on the National Security Agency's surveillance of American citizens. The New York Times' media columnist, the late David Carr, described the segment as "a friendly infomercial for the agency." The piece included lengthy interviews with NSA Director Keith Alexander, but Miller failed to challenge him on fundamental questions, including why Alexander "said in 2012 the United States doesn’t hold data on its citizens." Ryan Lizza, who is currently Chief Washington Correspondent for Politico and a CNN political analyst, called Miller's 2013 NSA segment "embarrassing."
Carr said that Miller had too many conflicts to do high-profile reporting on law enforcement and intelligence matters. "On what planet is it fine for someone like Mr. Miller, a former federal law enforcement official, to be the one to do a big segment on a major government security agency?" Carr asked.
After leaving the NYPD but before joining CNN, Miller appeared on a New York radio show and said the state's bail reform laws "'set us back a decade' by dropping an 'atom bomb' on the criminal justice system." Bail reform sought to limit the number of people incarcerated simply because they lacked the funds to post cash bail. Miller's position matches the arguments advanced by some law enforcement officials and some politicians, but it is not an objective fact. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice, for example, found "no evidence… that bail reform drove recent increases in violence."
Miller is an accomplished journalist who once scored an interview with Osama Bin Laden. So perhaps it makes sense for CNN to hire him. But hiring Miller does not make CNN more objective — it promotes a specific ideological perspective.
The people who are no longer welcome at CNN
Licht has recently purged two high-profile journalists: chief media correspondent Brian Stelter and White House correspondent John Harwood. CNN has not formally explained the reason that Stelter and Harwood were let go. But both Stelter and Harwood were among the reporters at CNN who called out former President Trump's lies clearly.
In his final appearance on CNN last Friday, Harwood called Trump a "dishonest demagogue." He described Biden's argument that Trump and his hardcore supporters are a threat to democracy as "true." Harwood then defended his approach as consistent with the traditions of journalism:
We are brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements.
Stelter was similarly outspoken about Trump and his media enablers on Fox News. Hosting the final episode of CNN's Reliable Sources, Stelter argued his coverage was not partisan:
I know it’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces.
Stelter, in particular, was a frequent target of Trump supporters. CNN staffers believe, according to a report in the Washington Post, that Licht is "starting his tenure by casting out voices that had often been critical of former president Donald Trump and his allies, in an effort to present a new, more ideologically neutral CNN." Licht also reportedly "has told CNN staff that he hopes to see more Republican politicians making guest appearances."
The new boss at Politico
Another corporate media executive publicly pushing for a more objective and "nonpartisan" approach is Mathias Döpfner, the CEO and part owner of Axel Springer, the German company that recently bought Politico for $1 billion.
A new report in the Washington Post, however, reveals that Döpfner wrote an email to Axel Springer executives in 2020 suggesting that they all pray that Trump gets reelected. "Do we all want to get together for an hour in the morning on November 3 and pray that Donald Trump will again become President of the United States of America?” Döpfner wrote. The email "went on to argue that Trump had made the right moves on five of what he deemed the six most important issues of the last half century." Döpfner ended his email by asserting that “[n]o American administration in the last 50 years has done more.”
Döpfner initially told the Washington Post that the email "doesn’t exist," "has never been sent," and "has never been even imagined." After being shown a printout of the email, Döpfner said he might have sent it as "an ironic, provocative statement in the circle of people that hate Donald Trump."
Axel Springer's most profitable publication is Bild, a "right-leaning tabloid" that is the best-selling newspaper in Europe. It is "known to hype inflammatory and spurious stories, such as the later-debunked one about a supposed North African sex mob in Frankfurt" and rants against "woke jargon."