CNN is embarking on what it characterizes as a major new initiative in investigative reporting as executives pull together accomplished reporters into a single unit and promise to hire at least a dozen more.
"CNN needs to be an organization that breaks news, not just an organization that covers breaking news or talks about breaking news on television," Andrew Morse, the executive vice president of editorial for CNN/U.S. and general manager of CNN digital worldwide, told NPR. "There's no better way to do that than to invest in investigative reporting."
The legendary investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and James Steele, both Pulitzer Prize winners, will serve as contributing editors to advise the team on their work and executives on hiring.
"A lot of news divisions, newspapers and online projects say they want to do this," said Steele, who remains a contributing writer at Vanity Fair. "The message is really clear: This reporting is important to this institution. We really want to have an impact in this area."
"These news organizations that have huge budgets have not devoted historically the kinds of resources to investigative reporting that they are capable of," said Bernstein, who has been a contributor and commentator at CNN for the past three years. "With this, CNN is making a statement that it is capable of doing this kind of work and devoting the kind of resources to it that this deserves. Hopefully, other networks will do the same. It's good for journalism and it's good for the people of the country."
According to several people involved in its planning, CNN's effort was in the works before the November elections. Morse said the planning started more than a year ago.
Yet executives at many news organizations say the dawning of the Trump era has created a distinct challenge because of the White House's aggressive and hostile stance toward the press. The New York Times, the Washington Post and Politico have expanded the size of the teams they are assigning to cover the new administration. As a fundraiser, the not-for-profit investigative outfit ProPublica is selling T-shirts with the caption "We're not shutting up" — a reference to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon's admonition that the press should do just that.
In CNN's case, the network has found itself both covering the new administration and being the target of rhetorical attacks from it.
Trump was incensed by CNN's breaking news of a dossier filled with unsubstantiated claims about past salacious activity on Trump's part in Russia and the prospect that Vladimir Putin's intelligence agencies would be able to use that against him. CNN reported that U.S. intelligence officials took the dossier so seriously that they briefed both then-President Barack Obama and then-President-elect Trump on its contents.
Trump called CNN "fake news" and berated a CNN reporter at a press conference just days before the inauguration, refusing to take questions from him.
Anchor Jake Tapper has been shut out by the administration since helping to break the dossier story along with Bernstein and two other colleagues. No White House officials have appeared on Tapper's Sunday public affairs show, State of the Union, in the two weeks since the story was first posted and broadcast by CNN.
"This effort is not a response to the administration in Washington, but it's certainly well-timed," Morse said. "It's very important for us to do good, solid independent work at a time like this."
The network intends to add more investigative reporters to key areas such as politics, financial news, health care, justice, the environment, consumer advocacy and race. Morse promises they will be "experienced and skilled reporters who will be held away from the fray — not in the everyday news mix."
Among those current CNN journalists who will be drawn into the new unit are Sarah Ganim, a young reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize covering the child abuse scandal that embroiled the Penn State football program; Drew Griffin, who made headlines with stories on waitlists at the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers; and the reporting team of Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, who cover financial matters for CNN. The unit will also include the K-File, a group of reporters and fact checkers who most recently showed rampant plagiarism by a journalist who was set to join the Trump administration. The journalist, Monica Crowley, withdrew after the team's reports and subsequent ones by Politico making similar findings about her doctoral thesis.
CNN is creating a digital home that will unify its investigative reporting and will refashion reports for all platforms.
"You can watch CNN and go extended periods of time without seeing a full package of a story," said media analyst Merrill Brown, a past editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com. "What you see is conversation rather than real packages. People need to get into the business of telling real stories again. ... It's exciting to hear that CNN is expanding what it wants to do in this regard."
"It's not about being digital first, which I think is already an antiquated way of thinking," Morse said. "It's not about just feeding the TV beast. It's about being a truly 21st century media company that breaks news and programs it and distributes it everywhere."