Cable pioneer Malone wants opinion programming clearly labeled

Former TCI Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Malone appears during a discussion panel on November 26, 1998.
Former TCI Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Malone appears during a discussion panel on November 26, 1998. (Still frame courtesy C-SPAN, Graphic by The Desk)

John Malone rarely gives media interviews — but when he does, he usually has something to say.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a short, catch-up profile with the man known within the television industry as the “Cable Cowboy,” a relatively brief story based on a telephone interview with one of the most-influential men in the business.

During the interview, Malone opined on the state of cable news, expressing a desire for the country’s first 24-hour news channel CNN to move away from partisan and divisive opinion programming and return to its journalistic roots.

CNN, launched in the early 1980s by fellow television magnate Ted Turner, is owned by Warner Bros Discovery. Malone, through his company Liberty Media, owned a majority stake in the Discovery side of that portfolio and still has a significant financial interest in the combined company.

Since coming under new management, CNN has sought to execute on many of the initiatives that align with Malone’s desires, including a shift away from calling everything “breaking news,” a focus on hard news during daypart hours and reducing the amount of partisan programming on the network. Last week, news leaked that the channel would end its media watchdog program “Reliable Sources” after three decades; Brian Stelter, a former media blogger who joined CNN in 2013 to host the program, announced his resignation during the show’s last broadcast on Sunday.

Speculation swirled that Malone had something to do with Stelter’s resignation and the cancellation of the program. He denied this to the New York Times, but did say he wished cable news would move away from blurring the lines between divisive opinion programming and facts-first journalism.

“I do believe that these organizations have a duty to try and bring the country together a little bit, instead of trying to exploit differences endlessly,” Malone told the New York Times.

He said cable news platforms should offer different perspectives — in fact, he said, it was sort of their civic duty to do so. But he said such programming should be clearly labeled as opinion, and offered up the following anecdote to illustrate his point:

“[Malone] told a joke about a cowboy who writes a letter to his grocer complaining about a mixed-up delivery. The coffee is good, the cowboy said. And the rat droppings in it might be OK, too, he added, ‘but please send them in separate containers.'”

For much of the last 12 years, politics and opinion has been something of a staple in the television news industry. Seemingly overnight, every journalist in America became a beltway reporter once New York businessman Donald Trump declared his candidacy for U.S. President. Leslie Moonves, the head of CBS, predicted that Trump’s presidency would be “bad for America, but damn good for CBS.” He was only half right: It would be good for CBS, but it would also be good for NBC, ABC, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC and just about every cable news and streaming upstart that followed his election win.

In a post-Trump world, things are different. Television ratings across the three major cable news brands have dropped, though the Fox News Channel still reigns supreme among them. CNN’s ratings spiral was met with a shake-up among its executive ranks — due in part to internal and external scandals, but also the byproduct of two major media companies coming together as one.

With apparently nothing left to lose, Malone thinks there’s real value in CNN taking a middle-of-the-road approach to news, one that potential advertisers might find attractive as they seek out non-partisan platforms. If his prediction comes true, it won’t happen over the short-term — it’ll be a long haul.