For Some Cable News Anchors, "Playing It Straight" Is Going Out Of Fashion

Carol Costello and S.E. Cupp - Split - Getty - H 2017
Left, courtesy of CNN; Right, Getty Images

Carol Costello and S.E. Cupp

The reaction to President Trump's comments about Charlottesville proved to be a touch point.

The first seven months of the Trump presidency have presented an almost daily challenge to cable news anchors: when the president says or does something that you find offensive or unbecoming of the office, how should you play it? Seemingly, more and more anchors have decided to just tell it like it is, even if it leaves them open to charges of impartiality.

The latest example occurred on Tuesday, when the president went off script and said that some of the alt-right and nationalist protesters in Charlottesville were "very fine people" and that both sides were to blame for the melee that left one woman dead.

CNN's Jake Tapper said that only "racists" and "white supremacists" praised Trump's comments. His colleague, Don Lemon, said he was saddened by Trump's comments. "This is a sad moment for the country," he said. "The president is ignorant of history, he does not know context, he should be ashamed of himself, he should go back to school and get an elementary education on how this country started." Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who has been willing to critique the president at times, said, "An American president has done nothing like that in generations, and today the pressure is on from all segments of our society."

Carol Costello, a 15-year veteran of CNN who started a new show on HLN on Monday after six months away from the news, said she's spent that time thinking about issues of trust and impartiality.

"I think we're at a place right now where most of America doesn't think there's any such thing as objectivity," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "I do think Americans want journalists to be fair. There's a difference, in my mind. I can be subjective and fair. I don't think it's possible for a human being to be totally objective."

Costello said she won't pull punches on her new show, Across America with Carol Costello. "When I hear things that are like, 'You've got to be kidding me,' of course I'm going to call them out," she said.

But, she said there's a line that journalists shouldn't cross. "I do think some journalists push it too far," she said. "And that doesn't inspire trust. You have to pick your battles."

Conservative political commentator S.E. Cupp, who is also joining the HLN lineup on Monday with the evening show S.E. Cupp Unfiltered, said the Trump presidency has made it challenging to play it down the middle.

"We have be able to acknowledge just how different this is," she said in an interview with THR on the morning of her launch. "I think it would be a worse disservice to whitewash and pretend this is business as usual. ... We are humans. To not react to some of the bigger news stories, the most surprising stories coming out of the times we live in, is asking too much."

Cupp, who has also worked for CNN and MSNBC, said her show will be a different kind of panel show that will focus less on Beltway politics and more on issues of concern to average Americans. "I think a lot of people are a little tired of some of the traditional cable news shows, with the yelling and the debating and the crazy talking points," she said.

Greta Van Susteren, a veteran of the big three cable news networks, had a dedicated segment at the end of her show that was labeled as opinion. "If you are going to give your opinion, it is simple: just call it an opinion," she told THR in an email. "Otherwise? Stick to the facts. Tell it like it is. And let the viewers decide themselves. Contrary to what many in the media might think, viewers are smart. They can decide for themselves."

CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta has attracted his share of detractors for his willingness to criticize the president, though he's also won over a lot of viewers that are looking for someone to do just that. He responded to Trump's much-criticized remarks on Tuesday by saying that they showed his true colors, but, he said, "I’m not sure they were red, white and blue."

Costello, who used to work next to Acosta at CNN's Washington, D.C. office, said "he's really smart and he's really dedicated and his heart is in the right place."

Cupp admitted that she's "biased" but said that CNN anchor Jake Tapper has been able to thread the needle impressively. "He is someone who has found a really good and intricate balance between sharing the straight story while also in some cases using humor to point out when a story is sort of unbelievable," she said.