If CNN’s year has been defined by wall-to-wall Trump coverage and pressure from its critics, the network’s past two weeks have been defined by what CNN wants to be known for: on-the-ground, around-the-clock updates about a major news event.
After a summer of self-doubt and bad headlines, CNN sources say they now feel vindicated as correspondents, producers, and star anchors cover Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and their aftermaths. They describe a rejuvenated newsroom enjoying reporting on a huge, non-political story (one that, importantly, still secures big ratings) — even if the political story of President Trump’s every action could return at any moment, and likely will.
“It hasn't taken all the heat off of us, but it's definitely helped dial back the ‘fake news’ rhetoric from our critics,” said one CNN reporter.
“This is what we do,” said CNN executive vice president Andrew Morse, who runs the network’s news gathering as well as the digital business. “When something important happens in the world, people tune to CNN.”
From the twisted perspective of the news business, where bad news in real life can be good news for coverage, the storms couldn’t have come at a better time for CNN. The cable network has spent the summer pushing back on critics after dealing with a series of unforced errors, namely the high-profile retraction of a Trump-Russia story and the subsequent exits of three well-known staffers.
CNN’s dramatic few months before the storms certainly drew the attention of AT&T, which is preparing to finalize its takeover of the network’s parent company, Time Warner. CNN President Jeff Zucker has been dogged during the past few months by stories predicting his ouster — accounts that President Donald Trump has personally egged on and CNN insiders have rebuked as planted by their enemies.
CNN sources say they are happy to have the storm coverage front and center as AT&T considers the network’s organizational future.
“We’re showing what we do when the new bosses are watching,” said one CNN reporter. “They certainly pay attention to the fuckup, so hopefully they pay attention when the network deploys its resources.”
Since the two storms first grabbed the spotlight, media criticism has also been uncharacteristically absent from the Trump’s Twitter feed and public statements. There are, of course, exceptions. Trump made an aside about the media not going “into the winds” of Hurricane Harvey and remarked during a joint press conference that that he was “happy to know” the emir of Kuwait also had problems with the media.
And on Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted that it was “fascinating to watch people writing books and major articles about me and yet they know nothing about me & have zero access,” a possible reference to a new book from NBC News’ Katy Tur. But Trump hasn’t tweeted about CNN specifically since Aug. 7, when he criticized the network alongside ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, and Washington Post. That was after a handful of tweets in June and July targeting CNN specifically and mentioning “big management changes.”
CNN’s storm coverage has not been completely without criticism. A woman became upset with a CNN correspondent on camera for trying to interview her shortly after she was rescued, an uncomfortable exchange that was shared and picked up widely, revisiting the complicated dynamics of telling the story of a news event and when that can become (or be seen as) exploitation.
“We got hit a little bit for our live shots,” said another CNN reporter. “Covering this around the clock is our sweet spot and sort of reaffirms something I think all of us have been doubting lately — whether people still turn to us in times like this. I think everyone is happy to be off politics all the time for a while.”
It has also helped matters that the political news environment has been, relatively speaking, slightly quieter during the storms, save for the debt-ceiling deal and incremental Trump-Russia scoops.
But already on Tuesday, CNN’s coverage began to feel more political and less weather-related, as programs discussed stories like the Wall Street Journal’s scoop that some of Trump’s lawyers over the summer wanted Jared Kushner to step down as senior White House adviser. You can’t expect weather events, but you can expect the Trump story to dominate the rest of the year.
“It might as well be 2005 on CNN,” said one of the CNN reporters. “This won’t last.”