On Friday evening, Ken Jautz ’75 found himself in familiar territory: speaking to a packed crowd of students, faculty and guests in an ILR auditorium.
Jautz, the executive vice president of CNN, returned to campus to recount his career in media and speak about CNNs’ experience covering an election cycle which has drawn critiques of the mainsteam media.
One Night in Berlin
Jautz centered his lecture on a single night from his time reporting for the Associated Press in Berlin during the 1980s. Jautz said that, in his time in Germany, he produced some of the most consuming and fulfilling work of his three decade career. He listed three lessons he drew from the experience — take risks, be persistent and break out of your comfort zone.
These lessons stem from a dramatic event that he experienced while working in Germany. Jautz said he was present when the press secretary of the East German Communist Party, Guenter Schabowski, announced that the East German Communist party would allow citizens to apply for visas to travel beyond the Berlin Wall.
Working as a CNN producer in East Germany, Jautz said he covered Schabowski’s fluster and the confusion resulting from announcement when, confronted by Western journalists, he confirmed to press that the changes are “effective immediately.” Schabowski later relented that much of the conference was a “foul-up” and some of the information he gave was inaccurate, according to The Independent.
When questioned immediately afterwards by his superiors in America as to what was to happen next, Jautz predicted that, within an hour, the city would be filled with activity, as citizens, once “prisoners of their own country,” embraced freedom. However, Jautz was incorrect and the network covered the Berlin Wall after traveling over an hour away from the conference, to find nothing.
When questioned later as to what upcoming coverage should entail, Jautz this time predicted that the bureaucrats would remain silent for several days before the story culminated in any action or excitement from the people. That evening, Jautz said he was surprised again as over a million visitors came to destroy the Berlin Wall.
Jautz said he reviled this as a “potentially career-ending mistake,” and evidence of his inability to predict the actions of the German people. Faced with this crushing lesson, however, Jautz said he did not give up, but rose forward, taking more risks and learning from his failures to rise up in CNN and eventually work his way to his current position.
Students said Jautz struck them as introspective and engaging. He was “interesting and hopeful,” Nick Hernandez ’19 said after the speech. “He made me feel better about my first semester here.”
He said the seminal lesson from his experiences is — everybody fails, so one must take risks anyway.
Projecting the Prospects of a Country’s Future
As Jautz works to showcase the 2016 election, students inquired as to how he feels about his network’s current coverage of this unprecedented election cycle and national polarization.
“I was interested in what he had to say, especially in a time when CNN and other media outlets are under the same media scrutiny,” Hernandez said.
Jautz said that at this particular time in the election cycle, the focus of CNN is on presenting newsworthy facts that support substantiated, credible evidence.
“The biggest danger is the echo-chamber,” he said, alluding to the partisan coverage across the line, from MSNBC to Fox News that allows viewers to only hear viewpoints that reverberate desired claims back to them.
While highlighting the advantages that new media has in regards to updating the public immediately and providing additional outlets for information, Jautz warned that this change could result in a world where people refuse to embrace or even acknowledge “opposing notions.”
Still, Jautz was quick to admit that he has several regrets on how his network has covered the election cycle.
“We did not take the Trump candidacy seriously enough,” he said in regards to the candidates’ populist spring from original non-factor to current party nominee, a statement echoed by CNN’s president on Friday night when he stated that airing so many Trump rallies was a “mistake,” according to The Hill.
This mistake, however, Jautz said was “rectified,” once Trump became the frontrunner, and he said he now stands behind CNN’s tendency to report mostly on Trump.
Jautz said he recognizes the challenges that come with the unprecedented sentiments in the electorate. As an analogy, he stated that if one took 10 random CNN viewers, they would find a handful of opinions, a minority of which claiming the network is anti-Democratic, another minority declaring it anti-Republican, and the rest potentially holding a belief that mainstream media has an agenda. Therefore, if anyone claims the network has a bias, on any side, he would simply respond “no kidding.”
As audience members asked questions that implied CNN has a liberal bias, Jautz responded by saying that those who stray among the conservative side often yearn for “alt-right” media, citing news sources such as Breitbart and Drudge Report as their preferred sources of information, outlets which have been accused of deep-rooted racism and sexism, according to The New York Times.
This claim was disputed most heavily by others following the talk. Thomas Hartman ’19, a supporter of neither candidate, took issue with many of these claims.
“As somebody who neither supports Trump nor Clinton, I’m offended by the assertion that conservatives prefer to only watch news networks deemed racist,” Hartman said. “We are a party that supports everybody’s rise to the top regardless of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, creed, or other characteristics.”
To some, the networks’ message of objectivity, compared with its event coverage, has been viewed as a type of pointillism which creates a design that cannot be discerned from its intent: Hartman says, “Fox News and CNN have both avoided objectivity. CNN’s hand-picking of sexual assault claims and Fox News’ purposeful selection of strictly WikiLeaks hacks show a clear deviation from objective reporting.”
Jautz responds to claims of favoritism and a lack of trust by citing the fact that Trump’s overwhelming air time, though currently causing a rift in trust within viewers, is significantly less than the proportion which Romney received compared to Obama in 2012, and even further less than the proportional coverage which Bush received compared to Al Gore in 2000.
Within an era of “false equivalency,” Jautz maintains that CNN’s aim throughout this election cycle is to be a beacon of truth which viewers can comfortably rely on for transparent information.