Open Memo to new CNN Chief Ken Jautz: how CNN can find an audience, make more money and do some good

Fox has conservative viewers locked up, and MSNBC has long since stolen CNN’s mantle as home for liberals (though, FYI, we conservatives still view CNN brass as barely-disguised Democrats and a bit too kind to foreign despots). But there is still a way for you to rebuild the network if making money is more important to you than advancing a progressive agenda.

To hold your existing audience while grabbing significant chunks from other networks (including but not limited to Fox and MSNBC), you must become the network that systematically, throughout your schedule, day in and day out, exposes the excesses and failures of both the Democratic and Republican parties. You must become a network that truly embraces the concept of the Fourth Estate, where you use your first amendment protections to keep a watch on government at all levels and tell the truth to the American people about what is really going on and what is merely political theater.

Such a network would build a sophisticated audience from across the political spectrum. Tea Party supporters would love its anti-Establishment messaging. Conservatives would love its exposing, rather than fawning over, things that government does. Liberals would love its shining bright lights on how politicians often collude with big, powerful interests to further enrich and empower themselves at the expense of regular folks.

What you should require of all your programming is that it no longer follow the tired conventions of the “Mainstream Media,” or even Fox, in taking political talking points at face value, covering political photo ops as real news, or allowing the political parties to frame the terms of debate on issues of importance.

Let’s take a concrete example to help explain how revolutionary and refreshing this would be in practice. A new CNN covering campaign finance reform would acknowledge that campaign finance reform is always designed primarily to entrench incumbents, and secondarily to try to weaken the opposing political party. What’s more, all coverage of McCain-Feingold, the DISCLOSE Act, and other limits on core political speech would start from a reading of the first amendment. Remember that one? “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech….” The political class has an absurdly massive conflict of interest in campaign finance issues that is not curable. When the media takes campaign finance reform seriously it makes thinking people less likely to take the media seriously.

In short, a successful CNN would treat the government as an adversary to be monitored, rather than a warm friend up to which your correspondents kiss. And I don’t mean take an adversarial posture against America—no, too many of us wonder about that already with you “Mainstream Media” people—just adversarial to our government. Adversarial to concentrated power, on behalf of the American people.

Your guiding principle should be that of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Now there’s a thematic underpinning that could get everyone from Ralph Nader liberals to independents to Tea Party regulars to Rush Limbaugh conservatives tuned in.

No one believes Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, when push comes to shove, would say anything that threatens the Democratic Party. (Full disclosure: I am going on hearsay for that sentence because I watch Fox News, leaving Brent Bozell’s invaluable organization to monitor MSNBC for me.)

Similarly, many conservatives quietly noted in recent years that Fox kept its pro-Bush mindset even after the wheels were coming off and many of us grew disenchanted. Fox might have served all of us better if there had been more incredulous reporting along the lines of Shep Smith’s famous anger on Fox when reporting from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. (Take note: his current Fox contract expires next year.) Fox would do itself some good to call out the GOP more often, especially after Republicans take back control of Congress in a few weeks.

That leaves a major opening for a network that would treat all parties and politicians with skepticism, regardless of the party in power. Rather than a puff piece on the First Lady or President’s kids, a piece on how First Ladies are carefully deployed to target specific constituencies with faux-authentic family disclosures.

Rather than a he said-she said about the latest emergency supplemental spending bill, a piece exposing how both parties use “emergency” spending to avoid even their own, weak efforts at controlling deficit spending.

Rather than a story on how many Americans will be harmed if a government program is not expanded, a report on how government agencies routinely cook the books to justify their own existence.

A CNN that took its role as Fourth Estate Watchdog seriously would quickly build an audience from the Left, Center and Right. And given the profound fiscal challenges the nation faces over the coming years, this new CNN would be in a growth market. Does anyone really think Americans’ anger is going to subside any time soon? Federal interest on the debt is already 20% of tax receipts, and will pass $500 billion annually in a few years. Does anyone truly doubt a news network that executed as a consistent, unfawning critic of government, politicians, judges and other powerful interests would not be massively popular?

Imagine a network that covered America not from the standpoint of ‘Are GOP or Democratic policies better,’ but one that asked instead: Is America stronger or weaker today than it was 25 years ago and what credit or blame do our nation’s Leaders deserve for that?

CNN does not have enough room on the shrinking Left to steal back from MSNBC your lost Democratic viewers. Even at the high water mark of Obamism, only one in five Americans self-identified as liberal; the potential audience is too small.

Similarly, the idea that CNN could credibly or quickly establish itself as an alternative conservative voice to Fox is unrealistic. The potential audience size would make that an attractive option, but it is so contrary to CNN’s history (and probably that of so many of your employees), it is not a serious option.

But your recent history has been about trying to stake out Sgt. Joe Friday territory: Just the facts, Ma’am. And MSNBC has through its aggressive liberal activism freed you somewhat from the taint that has made conservatives suspicious of you. (You even hired Erick Erickson!) If nothing else, you are still the default channel in most rest stop food courts across our interstate highway system. It’s a start.

Could CNN producers, writers and bookers pull off rebranding CNN as one built upon the First Amendment, the Fourth Estate, and Lord Acton’s distrust of concentrated power? Well, a bunch would probably have to be canned. The rest would get the message and actually like to have a significant audience again.

Hire a few religious folks to sit in the newsroom. Make your staff read Kausfiles and George Will (but nothing else at Newsweak) and RedState and Instapundit and a few liberal sites willing to criticize Democrats. Ban the reading of New York Times and Washington Post editorials by your staff, as their owners have clung bitterly to their left-wing agitprop, even after technology emancipated their once-captive readers; they can teach you nothing about growing an audience.

If you did this, MSNBC and Fox would not be able to respond. There is no way MSNBC would become critical of the Obama Administration in the run-up to 2012 (barring a serious primary challenge from the Left), giving you at least two years to lock up the intelligent segment of the Left that is tired of Democratic power harnessed to protect the likes of Wall Street bankers and “Big Ethanol.” Similarly, since so many Fox viewers are hungry for victory in 2012—and are so afraid of the damage that would be done by Obama’s policies continuing—they would not countenance Fox becoming too critical of the GOP heading into 2012. There again, you have time to pick off segments of their audience aligned with the Tea Parties or otherwise disenchanted by the gap between the GOP’s rhetoric and actions. Throw in your existing audience plus some newcomers to cable news intrigued by the buzz about a network now explicitly acting as a government watchdog, and suddenly CNN is back from the dead.

Fairly or not, MSNBC and Fox are, in the minds of the viewing public, closely associated with specific political parties, at a time when public support for those parties is at unprecedented lows that will likely persist. Why not tap into the roughly two-thirds of Americans dissatisfied with both parties? Isn’t there a media company other than Fox that wants to win ratings wars anymore?