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Before Burnett was anchoring early prime on CNN, and before she was a staple of CNBC’s dayside lineup, she worked as Willow Bay’s assistant on the CNN financial program Moneyline. That was when the channel’s New York studios were at 5 Penn Plaza, above Penn Station and across the street from Madison Square Garden, years before it would move to Columbus Circle, and eventually its new headquarters at Hudson Yards.
“When I came back [in 2011] they had my address as my address from when I was 22, and it was really hard to excise from the system,” Burnett recalls.
The unexpected glitch serves as something of a metaphor for Burnett, as she celebrates 10 years anchoring the cable news channel’s 7 p.m. hour, Erin Burnett Outfront. It underscores how Burnett has seen CNN adapt to a changing TV and news landscape. It was also a return to the place that started her journalism career.
“CNN has changed massively,” Burnett says.
“We were a breaking news utility, and we were good at that,” she adds. “But now we are breaking news network, and when there isn’t breaking news, people are still there, because the network stands for something. What I believe it stands for is analysis, calling out the truth and not being afraid to hold people to account.”
Burnett has leaned into that perspective, using the somewhat unusual time slot she occupies to bring together hard news, newsy interviews, and smart analysis. It all stems from that 7 p.m. hour, which comes after the dayside lineup, when news is often background noise in offices, but before later in the evening, when news programs have to find ways to compete with more sports and entertainment fare.
“People are still eating, or putting families to bed,” Burnett says. “There is a lot of action happening in people’s houses at that time, as opposed to a captive audience that is there to watch an hour-long interview.”
CNN’s competitors have in recent years leaned into opinion in the hour, with MSNBC tapping Joy Reid to take over the time slot last year, and Fox News using a rotating cast of guest hosts this year.
It has paid off in terms of viewership. In the key adults 25-54 demo last quarter, Erin Burnett Outfront was CNN’s third most-watched show, behind only AC360 and Cuomo Prime Time, according to Nielsen. Burnett’s show also topped Reid in the demo, though Fox News maintained its vise grip on cable news ratings overall.
Burnett isn’t an opinion host, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a point of view.
“We think of [the show] as being very much driven by analysis and interviews. And that analysis can and often does mean saying when something is or isn’t,” she says. “It is calling out the truth for what it is. I know that in the political environment we live, there is a fine line between fact and being political in a lot of people’s minds. It is not an easy world to be in. We try to focus on analysis and on fact. And that means calling people out.”
That could be calling out “bullshit” from some top Republicans and Fox News hosts for pushing anti-vaccine messages, or questioning Biden’s White House communications director Kate Bedingfield over the administration’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
But it could also be news-making interviews with people like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who outlined the potential disaster of failing to raise the debt limit last week (Congress would ultimately extend the limit into December).
But few stories have more resonance with Burnett than the ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One particular moment that sticks out to Burnett is her interview with Maura Lewinger in April of 2020. Lewinger’s husband, Joe, passed away from the virus, and she spoke to Burnett about the loss.
“As a journalist, sometimes we cover things, and a big part of the job is finding stories and having empathy and being there to tell the story,” Burnett says. “But a bigger part of it is that you yourself, that is you, and it is not out there for everybody to see. And I think in this you realize that you are just a person.”
“There was no going home,” she adds. “This was overwhelming and emotionally gutting in a way that sometimes happens with things that we cover, but where you do go home.”
It all comes back to the reason Burnett wanted to be a journalist in the first place: To keep people informed, and to provide a service to viewers looking for guidance and a sense of stability even in deeply uncertain times. The stories that emerged amid the pandemic are textbook examples.
“I have changed as a person. And I think everybody has changed as a person, and I think that impacts how I will do my job in the future,” Burnett says. “If there was ever a time that what we did really and truly mattered, it was then. There were moments when it felt like we were really providing something that was really helpful to a lot of people.”
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