Rick Lockridge: CNN before and after AOL – Part 1

This week I’m conversing with Rick Lockridge, a former CNN employee and current broadcast producer, about media manipulation and how our culture can recover from this malignant cancer known as corporate media. We also talk about his time at CNN and the infamously terrible AOL merger and what impact it had on the network. Because of the length of our correspondence, we’re breaking it up into several parts. This is the first part.

APRIL: When you first started working for CNN, did you have an overwhelming sense of ‘doing good’, and did you feel that the consensus at the network was to genuinely offer the public facts and truth?

RICK: That’s mostly right. I didn’t get into journalism to “do good,” exactly; it wasn’t an altruistic decision, it was a practical one. I wanted an interesting career and I knew I had the basic skills to do what I had seen other people do on-camera. However, as to the second part of your question: yes, I think there was a definite consensus among my co-workers that we were there to offer just the facts and no spin. There were not only strong institutional checks in place to guard against bias, there was a strong culture that was self-policing (with a couple of notable exceptions, which we can talk about at some point). 

This, sadly, is no longer the case, but at that time, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, CNN was still (as I put it then) something like a church for people who really believed in journalism. It’s a clumsy metaphor, maybe, but CNN back then was a place where you could play it straight without worrying about being edgy or “getting clicks” –and it was a GREAT place to work.

APRIL: A binary way of thinking is said to really hamstring critical assessment and become detrimental to reporting – do you think this approach has developed because of how American culture is structured and do you think we can ever escape it, or are people just so wired to sensationalist content that any attempt at nuance would be immediately rejected?

RICK: Journalism in 2019, as I write this, is a gigantic dumpster fire. Is it fair to blame Americans for tolerating it or should we blame the amoral ratings whores like CNN’s Jeff Zucker for promulgating it? Apportioning blame would be a tricky calculus; certainly both are complicit. But what I can tell you is that it wasn’t always this way and it sure as shit doesn’t have to be this way. Americans, once upon a time, did quite well on a diet of quite UN-sensational content delivered by Brokaw, Rather and Jennings, and the many men and too few women who were Americans’ main conduit to the news back then. Can we get back there? It’s not looking good right now, and yet I remain optimistic that it can, because I don’t think the status quo, awful as it is, is sustainable. At some point, like the drunk on a bender, we’ll hit rock bottom and have to check into a program, or….well, did anybody see the Nicholas Cage movie “Leaving Las Vegas?” Yeah, it could end badly. But I just don’t see it going on like this ad infinitum. What we have right now; what we tolerate, what we’re being fed–it’s too unhealthy, too nauseating…too unworthy of us as a people.

APRIL: I think there’s still some altruistic intention at the network, but new tools of amplification have made it a lot more difficult for cable networks to NOT manipulate their audiences. How do you think we can create clearer distinctions between media manipulation, strategic amplification, and responsible journalism, and do you think solidifying those distinctions would have any impact on the distribution (of information)?

RICK: That is a very good, very academic question, so of course I’m going to dumb it down a little bit for myself so I can actually take a crack at answering it. Does some “altruistic intention” still exist at CNN? Sure, but it’s swamped by the prevailing tide, which is selfish, deeply narcissistic, deeply cynical, utterly amoral. This comes from Jeff Zucker but is eagerly adopted and spread by self-aggrandizing troglodytes like Chris Cuomo, Don Lemon and others—even well-meaning and talented people like Anderson Cooper are Zucker’s enablers and co-conspirators. (Jake Tapper is a notable exception. I sometimes describe him as the Crash Davis on an otherwise bad minor-league baseball team, to use another movie reference. Jake is really good., He is just nose down, doing his thing. He can’t be blamed for his colleagues’ unethical conduct, but I am surprised he’s still there).

Have the new tools of amplification made it difficult to NOT manipulate audiences? I think that’s a really good question. Let me answer it this way: Twitter (and other social media, but especially Twitter) has distorted and perverted the news-gathering (and, importantly, the news-promoting) process to the point where both would be unrecognizable to a self-respecting journalist awaking from a 20-year coma.

Twitter is bad as a conveyance for news yet it has become an important (too important!) part of the machinery. And then—here’s the really important part— the geniuses who run our major outlets have stupidly decided to let their journalists become pundits and opinion-mongerers on Twitter, even as those folks are ostensibly reporting neutrally on the stories they’re Tweeting about. Now we have hackish, unprofessional behavior by so-called journalists on an ill-suited website that has enormous, disproportionate sway.

APRIL: You mentioned CNN had a strong self-policing culture earlier – did that change after the AOL merger when it became ‘all about numbers’? I read that Ted Turner never wanted to become a slave to ratings and obviously he lost controlling interest when he was diluted during the merge, but my point is – when the founder and visionary of CNN can’t even stomach watching it anymore – what does that say about the credibility of the network?&

RICK: The overall culture at CNN prior to the AOL takeover could be summed up like this: we are here for you 24/7; we understand that sometimes there is nothing much going on and during those times our programming can be, frankly, a little…boring. But when there is a big story and you really need us, we will be there for you and we will do a great job of getting the story for you and you will know you can trust us.”

That’s over now. Jeff Zucker and his equally amoral predecessors and cronies discarded this precious asset for the sake of their own self-advancement and/or corporate survival. Can you imagine the difficulties the few good reporters at CNN must have now when contacting sources or leads for stories? Can you see them, in your mind’s eye, visibly wincing as they have to mumble into the phone they’re calling from CNN?

The credibility and goodwill that CNN had built up over the years by taking this attitude (and under the leadership of Ted Turner, who understood its importance intuitively) was massive. It was a huge asset to me as a reporter. I could call anybody anywhere in the world and get them to talk to me or agree to have me fly to interview them because they TRUSTED the CNN brand. And they knew I would come in, play it straight, be fair, not embarrass them, not infuse the story with my own biases. That I would be a reporter worthy of the title.

APRIL: Speaking of biases.. what is your opinion on the dangers of a media culture that promotes viewing people through a hyper-partisan lens. Perhaps it’s not even a partisan issue but a consequence of a flawed corporate and class structure? 

RICK: If by “class structure” we can confine the discussion to the question: “does the media consider itself a privileged class that has the right to tell the unwashed masses what they should think?” then I would say the answer is, at this point in history, yes. We have come to that point. Our media didn’t always take such license, but it has now learned not only that it can — and most outlets have decided they must. They do promote viewing the news through a hyper-partisan lens because it sells–and because they’ve sold out.

Put it this way: if you feel like what you are doing, dirty as it is, is selling well–if only to a shrinking and unimpressive audience, such as CNN’s current audience–and if you are also unburdened by any sort of conscience or morality or feeling of responsibility to our republic–well, then, it is pretty easy to find yourself pouring kerosene on that dumpster fire rather than trying to put it out.

If the major media outlets in our country have, as I assert, abandoned all pretense of objectivity and truth-telling and have all joined one team or the other team (all the while proclaiming they’re still practicing actual journalism, which is a demonstrable lie), then we have such an enormous problem that I think we should focus on that and solve that instead of overthinking it and making it into some sort of corporate- or class-driven issue. What we have now is a raging, malignant cancer, and we should be thinking about chemo and surgery instead of pondering whether some environmental toxin or other might have caused the cancer in the first place.

Next time we’ll take a closer look at what killed the previously fair and balanced CNN and talk a little bit about the extraordinary visionary whose reputation survived the worst divorce in history.

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