The event that is a presidential State of the Union address was also an event last night for CNN, a troubled cable news network under new leadership and in the process of a major makeover. As Politico's Dylan Byers points out, last night marked the debut of CNN's new president, Jeff Zucker, and his high-profile personnel changes. Byers does a good job of laying out the contrasts we saw between the old and new, but overall I'm probably more optimistic than he is.
What trumped all else is the fact that the changes Zucker has already made proved very successful. Newly-installed from ABC News, Jake Tapper and Chris Cuomo were a breath of fresh air. Tapper reported live from the Capitol; Cuomo anchored from the studio. Both were crisp, sharp, and infused the night with energetic intelligence.
Cuomo was especially good before the speech, as he challenged the assumptions of panelists Gloria Borger, David Gergen, etc. Last night marked the first time I've seen a member of the mainstream media question Obama's claims about deficit reduction, and if you can really dent the deficit through taxing the wealthy. If this is a sign of things to come, Cuomo can't take over Soledad O'Brien's morning slot fast enough.
Tapper's best moment came post-speech while interviewing NRA president David Keene. Tapper (with some help from congressional correspondent Dana Bash) asked a number of tough questions, but did so without getting argumentative, playing gotcha, or attempting to trip him up with cheap emotional appeals. Whether you agree with Keene or not, he was challenged and then given a fair opportunity to have his say instead of being treated like Hitler resurrected.
The bad news for CNN is that the new blood made CNN's veterans look like mummies. The night's energy cratered whenever Borger, Gergen, Van Jones, John King, Wolf Blitzer and all the other old familiar faces took over. After all these years (in some cases decades), I know what this group is going to say before they do. I'm not looking for forced surprises or staged controversy, but some fresh insights would be nice.
Zucker needs to find new talking heads yesterday.
These are minor quibbles, but some of Zucker's changes didn’t work. The new studio is a little stark and the Punch and Judy show with Jennifer Granholm and Newt Gingrich was forced and awkward. This might be my political prejudices showing, but Granholm's latest metamorphosis into a goofily eccentric, aren't-I-adorable, Left-wing talking point-machine shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an intellect like Gingrich's. I don’t want to see Gingrich "spar." He has one of the most fascinating minds in politics. Let a player play.
Airing my biggest complaint, though, is probably an act of barking at the moon. During these high-profile political events, as I flip across a half-dozen networks supposedly in competition with one another, I can't help but chuckle over the wild coincidence of them all talking about the exact same topics. And so it was with CNN: guns, immigration, the GOP's Hispanic issues and yadda to the yadda.
As I've said before, if CNN wants to immediately stand apart, it's time to step off the Narrative Plantation. Instead of taking the Narrative bait Obama tossed out by closing his show on guns and immigration, why not talk about the issues polls show American care about most, like the economy?
Politics aside, this hive-minded mentality across the media spectrum is unforgivably dull. If CNN wants to attract new viewers, you need more than new faces. You need new and different stories.
Imagine every network broadcasting a different remake of "A Star Is Born," and you start to get a sense at the absurdity of this ongoing phenomenon.
Again, though, I am optimistic. Whatever Zucker has in mind has yet to play itself out. But so far so good.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC