What Is CNN For? (Samantha Bee Edition)

The comedian offers some thoughts on how to make the cable news network great again.


It is extremely easy to make fun of CNN. All those shouty octoconvos. That over-reliance on ALL-CAPS CHYRONS sharing NEWS THAT IS FOR THE MOST PART EXTREMELY UN-CAPS-WORTHY. That time it confused Faith Evans with Faith Hill. Et cetera. The easy mockery is a case of great power bringing great—and, often, dashed—expectations: CNN, after all, frames itself as a nonpartisan news source, the place you’d go, all apologies to the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, when you’d prefer not so much to live in the comfort of your bubble as to have that bubble productively punctured. It’s smart branding that comes, implicitly, with a hefty journalistic challenge: CNN, presenting itself as it does as The Most Trusted Name in News, takes on much of the freight of the current debates about objectivity and biases and alternative facts and what-is-Truth-actually. It’s not easy to be Trusted.

So it was noteworthy that Samantha Bee, who is quickly becoming one of the foremost of the comedic public intellectuals, did what is almost unthinkable in late-night comedy: Bee, on Wednesday … praised CNN. And the even more noteworthy thing? She praised CNN, specifically, on the basis of its willingness to go beyond objectivity and nonpartisanship and bubble-busting. On Tuesday, Bee declared, CNN had A Good Day. And the network had its Good Day specifically because, she suggested, it was willing to give up some of its more straight-ahead stuff in favor of juicy, aggressive, and civic-minded argument.

Exhibit A, Bee suggested, was Jake Tapper’s combative interview with the Trump administration’s most celebrated truth-spinner, Kellyanne Conway. (As Bee summed it up: “After briefly banning Kellyanne Conway for being a flaxen-haired foundation of lies, CNN let her back in the gates—straight into Jake Tapper’s cage. And they haven’t fed him this week.”) Bee then aired a montage of the many times Tapper called out the falsehoods perpetuated by the administration, offering viewers a bullet-like spray of “false, false, falsehoods, false.” She accompanied it with a picture of a hungry tiger. Her in-studio audience, at this, wildly cheered.

And, then, Exhibit B: CNN’s airing of audio of the court arguments about the Trump administration’s controversial immigration bans. (Bee, in a moment of seriousness: “Honestly, I have always wanted to live in a country where people listened to and live-tweeted important court cases about civil liberties.”)

And, finally, Exhibit C: the live-aired debate in which Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders argued the merits of the Affordable Care Act. Bee, first, made fun of the time-travel-back-to-2016 framing of the debate (“It’s like Jeff Zucker looked at his election ratings and said, ‘Hey, what if it was election all the time?’”). And then she made fun of its content (“The socialist and the Slytherin played all their greatest hits.”).

But then, ultimately: Bee approved of CNN’s “We Can Still Have Debate Nights Even Though the Election Is Totally Over” experiment. The Sanders-Cruz meet-up, chock full of nerdery and policy, was yet one more time, Bee suggested, that CNN had distinguished itself by airing content with civic value. “This event that we expected to be a pointless train wreck,” she said, “actually ended up being a semi-thoughtful debate on the merits and flaws of America’s healthcare system.”

But it was also one more time, she implied, that CNN had gone beyond the rote reporting of the news, with all its shouty chyrons, to define what “news” means more broadly: holding power to account (Tapper’s false, false, falsity-falsefalsefalse). Airing an unsexy but judicially (and morally) significant court argument. Airing an unsexy but politically (and morally) significant debate.

Bee’s argument was, in its own way, fairly fraught; it suggested that CNN is at its best—and even, perhaps, that it is indeed only good—when it emphasizes passion, and argument. Her praising of CNN suggested how crucial punditry has become as an element of even the most straightforward of news reporting. It was an argument firmly in the tradition of Bee’s former colleague, Jon Stewart; it was also an argument that has become increasingly common, as even the most nominally “objective” of news sources abandon “That’s the Way It Is” for “This Is How We See It.”

“That’s the way it is” was, of course, fraught in its own way. Its traditions led, often, to false balance and he-said-she-said framings of reality—not to mention, on CNN, octo-convos that were conceived, down partisan lines, as essentially two quarto-convos. American politics, of course, is much more complicated—much more lively—than facile red/blue divides would make it seem.

CNN is aware of this. It is, like many of its fellow journalistic outlets, currently in the process of analyzing the role it will play as American politics and institutions adjust to the new presidential administration. Bee is suggesting one means of adjustment: a network that tries to remain The Most Trusted Name in News specifically by taking stands rather than avoiding them, and by helping to turn “the public” into, much more meaningfully, “a public”—a civic body on top of a demographic one. She is praising the network for airing the kind of debates that can exist not just to entertain people, but to enlighten them.

“We were watching CNN,” Bee told her viewers, a note of wonder in her voice, “and not just in an airport bar with the sound off.” She shifted, at that point, to the second person. “We saw you serve the public interest for almost half a day,” Bee told CNN. “And, sure, it couldn’t last forever,” she added, as a picture of Don Lemon filled her screen. As she ended her segment, the image switched, once again, to a tiger. “We’re just hoping you wake up hungry tomorrow.”