“The Conversation About CNN Changed”: Network Leaves Drama Behind With Focus on War in Ukraine

Kiley has seen his share of dicey situations. But Ukraine has been especially perilous for the press, including several of Kiley’s former Sky News colleagues, who narrowly escaped a hail of Russian bullets early in the conflict. Kiley, like many in the field, was friends with Pierre Zakrzewski, the veteran Fox News cameraman killed when his vehicle came under fire outside Kyiv. A Ukrainian journalist working for Fox also died in the attack, which left correspondent Benjamin Hall seriously injured. At least seven journalists have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Speaking about the psychological impact of his chosen line of work, Kiley was matter-of-fact. “I suppose I’m rather British about it: It’s supposed to fuck you up,” he said. “But this is what we are there to do.”

Alex MarquardtCourtesy of CNN.

For all the reasons people hurl spitballs at CNN—its recent scandals; its oft anemic ratings; the number of Trump rallies it aired during the 2016 campaigns—it’s still a place that employs dozens of foreign correspondents who can be counted on to run into danger zones at a moment’s notice. It’s the channel you flip on whenever there’s a hurricane, or an insurrection in the nation’s capital, or the largest ground invasion in Europe since World War II. With CNN’s Ukraine coverage, its mettle has been proven at a crucial moment. Just weeks ago, it was an institution in turmoil, reeling from a series of interrelated controversies that led to the forced resignation of longtime president Jeff Zucker—not to mention speculation about what lies in store under Warner Bros. Discovery, which will become CNN’s owner any day. (The WarnerMedia–Discovery merger could close as early as Friday.) Now the narrative has quickly shifted: CNN is vital. CNN is a global powerhouse. No one can cover a calamity quite like CNN

The executives who will soon lord over CNN hit all of those notes in recent remarks about the network. “This is where you see the difference [with] a news service that has real and meaningful resources globally, news-gathering resources, the biggest and largest group of global journalists of any media company, maybe with the exception of the BBC,” incoming Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said on a call with Wall Street analysts. “I’ve watched in awe,” wrote incoming CNN CEO Chris Licht in a note to employees, “how you are covering the still-unfolding Ukraine story. It’s a great example of the power and impact of CNN.” 

Inside CNN, there must be a bit of whiplash. On February 1, no one would’ve believed that Zucker’s nine-year reign at the network was about to come crashing down, and few thought that a massive European war was imminent. “There’s no question that CNN was distracted for a moment before this war started. I mean, how could you not be,” said Michael Bass, one of three executives running CNN on an interim basis. “Even in the wake of a major distraction like we had, CNN didn’t miss a beat…. And I do think there was an appreciation within CNN that the conversation about CNN changed.” 

Alex MarquardtCourtesy of CNN.

That perhaps explains why I got a call from CNN a couple weeks ago offering to put me on the phone with a bunch of its correspondents. After an onslaught of difficult press and crisis P.R., there was now a positive story to tell. (On a similar note, the network sent out a ratings release last week highlighting certain viewership gains for the month of March over MSNBC, though not Fox News.)  

“It’s always difficult to compare conflicts, because every conflict is heartbreaking and tragic,” said Ward, whose stunning coverage of America’s botched Afghanistan withdrawal drew praise. “But I do think there was a shock factor with this one, simply because, despite what the U.S. intelligence community had been saying and what the White House had been saying, there were quite a few of us who genuinely, until the last minute, did not believe that this would happen, including most Ukrainians.” She described a “surreal moment” in a Mariupol market in the days before the invasion. “I was talking to this guy and I was like, ‘Do you think there’s gonna be a war?’ And he was like, ‘No, only Biden thinks that.’ I think about him a lot now, this man. Is he still there? Is he still alive?” 

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