Aaron Brown Talks About… “CNN’s Struggle” & The Competition From Fox

By Brian 

Part two of four

When former NewsNight anchor Aaron Brown talks about CNN’s response to the competition from Fox News Channel, he frames it in terms of “huge mistakes,” emphasizing the word huge.

In a wide-ranging interview with TVNewser, Brown described the eleven-year battle between Fox News Channel and CNN:

“On the one hand, you have this very disciplined, ratings-directed news organization, or whatever they are… On the other hand, you have an organization that is trying to figure out if it can be all things to all people. Can it be an opinion network, can it be a tabloid-driven network, can it be a serious news organization? It used to be a serious news organization.

It’s hard to be all those things. It’s really hard to be all those things.

You end up being none of them.”

Brown thinks Paula Zahn‘s show is symbolic. “Whatever competence she has, and whatever skills her producers have, it wasn’t clear to me what the program was,” Brown said. “It has never had a clear definition. In some ways, I believe the network is [similar].”

Brown said he noticed an “incredibly dismissive attitude” toward Fox when he arrived at CNN in 2001.

“It ran through every part of the organization, top to bottom. It wasn’t just bosses, everybody had it. I thought then, and I said then in meetings, that this is a huge mistake. And it was. That’s the truth of it. It was,” he said. “And I think in many ways the organization continues to pay for it.”

Brown continued: “Fox is an incredibly disciplined organization. CNN is much less disciplined. It’s part of the reason why CNN’s a better journalism organization. It doesn’t have the kind of top-down discipline that Fox has.

But in a competitive race, Fox knows exactly what its audience wants. It’s been one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in television: no matter what the story is, no matter what the circumstances are, if it’s not what the audience wants, they will walk away from the story.”

He cites examples.

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, Fox’s reporting was terrific, Brown said. He specifically mentioned Shep Smith‘s reports. And then…

“In my mind, when it became clear that the story had become the incompetence of the administration, that did not fit their view, so they walked away. They pulled troops out,” Brown said.

He also cited the death of the Pope.

“They did a really nice job for a while, but there weren’t two sides,” Brown said. “They couldn’t get a good O’Reilly shouting match… So they just walked away from it, which was fine for me, because we were doing great with it.”

He summarizes “CNN’s struggle” like this: “how do you find eyeballs that compete with the eyeballs that show up at Fox every day and hang out for a very long time?”

Almost two years after Brown’s departure, CNN still hasn’t figured it out.