Over the past few weeks, we’ve received emails from readers asking whether or not CNN’s AllSides Media Bias Rating™ is still Left amid high-profile leadership and staffing changes at the news network, which is reportedly working on becoming more objective, and perhaps less partisan. We’ve also received questions about Politico (Lean Left bias), as its new leader has stated a desire to make the outlet nonpartisan.
After the resignation of CNN president Jeff Zucker in February 2022, Chris Licht was named his successor. In the months since, there have been a number of high-profile departures of liberal news anchors and reporters from the network — including media reporter Brian Stetler, whose show “Reliable Sources” was canceled, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, and White House correspondent John Harwood, whom the New York Post (Lean Right bias) referred to as “a fierce critic of former President Donald Trump.” There’s been much media speculation that the network is attempting to curb its polarizing tone and commit to more objective news reporting; a June Axios (Center bias) report that stated CNN was “evaluating whether personalities and programming that grew polarizing during the Trump era can adapt to the network's new priority to be less partisan.”
Meanwhile at Politico, a lengthy feature about Politico’s new owner Mathias Döpfner in The Washington Post (Lean Left bias) quoted him as saying, "We want to prove that being nonpartisan is actually the more successful positioning.” However, the Post highlighted an email in which Döpfner signaled support for President Trump. This invited much speculation about his stewardship of Politico’s journalism.
We write about the changes at CNN and the buzz around Döpfner in detail below, but first, let’s answer the question — have CNN or Politico’s AllSides Media Bias Ratings™ changed?
Have CNN or Politico’s AllSides Media Bias Ratings™ Changed?
We still rate CNN as Left, and Politico as Lean Left, where they appear on the latest version of the AllSides Media Bias Chart™. AllSides assesses content, not ownership, leadership, or staffing changes. Speculation that a leader or reporter is left, center, or right doesn’t impact our rating of them or the outlet they write for, unless we see such bias actually reflected in their work.
We will conduct a review of CNN’s online news content in the coming weeks. However, we recently reviewed Politico’s content in May and June 2022 (about a year after the leadership change). We conducted both an Editorial Review and a Blind Bias Survey. While the survey returned a Center rating for Politico, an Editorial Review conducted by a balanced group of AllSides reviewers determined its content is Lean Left overall. More on that here.
We are committed to reevaluating content over time, since bias at any given news outlet is not static. (Consider how Newsweek recently shifted from a Left to Center rating, or how USA Today went from Center to Lean Left.)
Remember that AllSides rates online content only, not TV news content. We will be monitoring CNN and Politico’s online content as we always have done, using our multiple patented methods, including Blind Bias Surveys of Americans and expert Editorial Reviews, but we do not currently rate cable news programs. This is something we hope to do in the future (your support as a Sustaining Member can help us to get there). Many of the staff changes at CNN seem to be happening primarily on the cable news side, and it’s possible CNN’s online news will reflect these changes as well. We will monitor CNN’s online news output as usual and will adjust our media bias rating if the data indicates a shift.
We arrive at our media bias ratings by looking at content only, not ownership, stated intent, speculation about where content may go in the future, nor the political leanings of leadership. Although we transparently provide ownership information on our source pages for our readers, we do not believe that an individual’s personal political bias makes it totally impossible for them to report or lead a newsroom fairly. While it may have some impact, the scope of that impact is within the realm of speculation. This is why we believe our rating system is most reliable — it is not influenced by our own personal, subjective assumptions. Anyone who assumes that the bias of an owner has a little or a lot of impact is making an unsubstantiated, personal judgment — that is why we review only content.
If editorial changes implemented by Licht and the removal of Stetler, Toobin, and Harwood significantly shift CNN’s overall online news content, that is something that will be reflected in the AllSides Media Bias Rating™ for the network.
CNN’s recent changes do seem to suggest the network is serious about shifting its tone and partisan leanings. We will keep a close eye on both of these outlets. Be sure you’re signed up for our newsletter to be the first to know of any changes to the AllSides Media Bias Chart™ and ratings.
How CNN Changed: Reactions from the Press and Public
So, what exactly is happening at CNN?
Shortly after Licht became chairman and CEO of CNN in February, he reportedly sent an internal memo to CNN employees in which he lamented that “sadly too many people have lost trust in the news media. I think we can be a beacon in regaining that trust by being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics in journalism: fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘group-think’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints. First and foremost, we should and we will be advocates for truth.”
The rest of the media has been buzzing with CNN’s changes. ABC News (Lean Left bias) framed Stetler’s firing as evidence CNN “is trying to inject more balance into its programming and become less radioactive to Republicans. How and whether that can be accomplished remains a mystery.” The Washington Post (Lean Left) called Harwood’s exit “the latest evidence of a shift to a less politically charged tone under new leader Chris Licht.” Some, such as Vanity Fair (Lean Left bias), pointed to fears that the network will not just veer into politically neutral or balanced territory, but actually become right-wing: “The abrupt exits of Brian Stelter and John Harwood have unnerved staffers, who want clarity from newish CEO Chris Licht, and rattled viewers, who fear CNN is veering right.”
There’s been much media finger-pointing and mudslinging going on around the moves, too. The Editor in Chief of The Daily Beast (Left bias) reported on speculation that Stetler’s firing was a move “made to appease John Malone, a right-leaning billionaire, close friend of the Murdoch family, and key Warner Bros. Discovery board member who has made it well-known that he would like CNN to be more ‘centrist’—whatever that means.” (CNN is a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
In an email to The New York Times (Lean Left), Malone denied this, reportedly stating he had “nothing to do with” Stetler’s firing. Back in November, Malone told CNBC that "I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”
Some tied Harwood’s departure to commentary he made on air just before announcing his leave. In the 10 am hour on Friday, Sept. 2, Harwood stated that President Joe Biden was correct to give a speech in which he blamed so-called MAGA Republicans as a threat to democracy. “We’re 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,” Harwood said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election.” Just two hours later, Harwood posted on Twitter that he was leaving the network. It’s unclear if he was fired or if he resigned.
Some social media users had intense reactions to the changes, and #BoycottCNN became a Twitter hashtag. In some users’ eyes, CNN’s moves to seemingly tone down partisanship make the network inherently right-wing – an angle that also earned media attention. Democratic operative Jon Cooper called the network “right-wing propaganda,” and Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at Media Matters for America (Left bias) was quoted by The Hill (Center) as saying, “The message coming out … is that this is part of a deliberate effort to get rid of people at CNN who are seen as too critical of Donald Trump and Fox News.”
The criticism was so widespread that, in a statement to The Hill, a CNN spokesperson said, “CNN is not shifting from left to right or pursuing a centrist position. We are entirely focused on our core strength and mission — objective journalism, presented in a fair and compelling way. We will continue to acknowledge different worldviews and experiences. We will always stand up for democracy and call out lies — regardless of their origin. That is not centrism, that is journalism.”
Politico Controversy: Is the Owner Right-Wing?
The Washington Post reported that they obtained an email sent by Döpfner, who purchased Politico for $1 billion last year, to close executives just before the Nov. 2020 election. In the email, he stated, “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?”
The Post reports that Döpfner initially denied he sent the email, but when shown a printout of the text, he said, “That is me. That could be.”
The report drew critics to make comparisons to CNN and ask questions about whether his beliefs impact Politico’s news content.
"Politico’s new German owner asked colleagues to pray for Trump’s reelection. Now he wants US media to be 'nonpartisan'. Looks like the new @CNN has company," University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry Sabato tweeted.
"So Politico is owned by a lying Trump supporter in Germany? How should/can readers factor that in to what they read in Politico?" MSNBC host Lawrence O'Donnell asked.
"Mathias Döpfner, the new, far-right owner of Politico urged his employees to pray for Donald Trump's reelection and then lied about it when confronted by a journalist. How soon until his dishonesty and extreme views filter into Politico's journalism?" The Young Turks correspondent Matthew Sheffield tweeted.
For its part, The Washington Post reported, “Despite his 2020 email to colleagues, which he describes as flippant, Döpfner insists he has never been a supporter of Trump. In an interview with The Post, he describes his own views as eclectic, calling himself a ‘non-Jewish Zionist’ with ‘small-L liberal’ tendencies, deeply concerned about racism and homophobia. He also worries about what he sees as cancel culture, and in private conversations, friends say, he gripes about identity politics.”
AllSides’ take: Our rating for Politico is Lean Left based on numerous recent reviews of its content. We have no concrete evidence that Döpfner’s political views are currently influencing news content produced by Politico. While it’s certainly true that ownership can impact news content, it is very hard, if not impossible, to objectively prove this. It’s also entirely possible that a liberal news editor can oversee neutral news content, or a conservative editor can oversee liberal content, etc. This is why AllSides assesses content only, and does not take into account the political views of leadership or ownership when providing our 1,400+ media bias ratings.
Viewers Desire Balanced, Objective News
The staff changes at CNN and the hand-wringing over Döpfner’s political views both seem to signal the watchful eye America has on news companies claiming to aspire to nonpartisanship.
For CNN’s part, the changes could have to do with falling profits and viewership — which in turn could be tied to Americans’ desire for more balanced, objective news. In early August, The New York Times reported that CNN “is on a pace to drop below $1 billion in profit for the first time in years, according to people familiar with its operations, amid steep declines in TV viewership.” Could it be that heavy partisanship is a losing strategy with viewers?
We at AllSides have continually highlighted data that shows audiences desire news without a political bent — 78% of Americans say they want this, according to Pew Research data. In addition, out of 46 countries, the U.S. ranks last in news trust — only 26% of Americans say they trust the news most of the time. We believe inherent political bias in the news can erode trust.
At the same time, we believe it’s important for some news outlets to offer a liberal view and some to offer a conservative view. There is a place for liberal and conserative news organizations in our landscape, and we appreciate and celebrate media outlets that are transparent about their biases. However, in recent years there has been a lack of national media outlets offering objective, balanced news — outlets that either show no political bias at all and just give the facts, or those that offer an equal measure of left and right perspectives.
RELATED: Should You Only Read Outlets AllSides Rates as Center? (Hint: no!)
AllSides has responded to this polarized landscape with our media bias ratings and balanced newsfeed, which is designed to transparently show different perspectives. We also offer services to news media companies that wish to be less politically partisan; our Media Bias Audits and consulting help news organizations to understand their bias and achieve more objectivity and balance in their news coverage.
AllSides will carefully monitor CNN and Politico’s content for any shifts. In our partisan landscape, we applaud any media outlet that strives toward objectivity. But the simple fact that an outlet says they are objective is not enough. We believe our methodologies are the best at measuring bias of online news content, and we will continue to apply these methods to all news outlets.
Julie Mastrine is AllSides’ Director of Marketing and Media Bias Ratings. She has a Lean Right bias.
This blog was reviewed by Henry A. Brechter, AllSides Managing Editor (Center bias), CEO John Gable (Lean Right bias), and Andrew Weinzierl, Research Manager and Data Journalist (Lean Left bias).