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After the Thompson Manifesto

Mark Thompson
Thompson’s mission statement contains a tacit affirmation that the economics of cable news are eroding. The days when an up-and-coming on-air talent might hope to renegotiate their contract every three years until arriving at a high-seven- or even eight-figure anchor salary are gone. Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
January 19, 2024

On Thursday, CNN C.E.O. Mark Thompson opened the network’s 9 a.m. editorial call with one final nod to “CNN’s Future,” the 2,300-word appel aux armes that he’d sent to employees a day earlier, calling on the company’s TV natives to abandon their complacency, recapture their swagger, and prioritize digital growth. As Jerry Maguire might have noted, Thompson’s document was a mission statement, not a memo, and the manifesto has been mostly well-received by his new charges, even if his thesis was a bit obvious—indeed, he probably articulated some version of this to David Zaslav months ago, before he got the job—and, more importantly, wanting for specific solutions. In any event, Thompson has at least pointed the tanker in the right direction, reorienting a 44-year-old, 24/7 linear news network around a new digital mission, and re-enlisting its innovative digital product chief, Alex MacCallum, to help navigate the course. At the top of the morning meeting, Thompson reiterated his commitment to this new vision and promised more conversations about the still ambiguous plans in the days to come.

Alas, network veterans had more pressing and sublunary matters on the brain: namely, the nearly decade-old predicament regarding the journalistically appropriate posture toward Trump. Since Thompson’s arrival in October, CNN had once again started airing the former president’s campaign rallies and courthouse press conferences, a marked departure from the network’s often defiant refusal to amplify his falsehoods. As recently as last summer, Jake Tapper had declared that CNN wouldn’t take Trump’s courthouse remarks live “because, frankly, he says a lot of things that are not true, and sometimes potentially dangerous.” This, of course, was a course correction from the heady days of 2016 when CNN, rightly or wrongly, leaned into the cultural phenomenon of a phony billionaire mounting a long-shot campaign for president.