Whether the destination is sunny Miami Beach or the snowy Midwest, the 51 million Americans taking to the skies this holiday season can count on something besides long security lines and cramped leg room: ubiquitous CNN talking heads on airport televisions.
For a quarter of a century, CNN has been the first name in airport news. Some 50 U.S. airports have contracts to show a mix of programming drawn from CNN and sister station HLN. The airports, with screens at more than 2,100 boarding gates, include several of the nation’s busiest hubs, such as New York’s JFK International, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco International and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
But as news outlets are increasingly seen as partisan tools in the age of Trump, some conservatives are renewing opposition to CNN’s outsized presence in airports and other public spaces, especially taxpayer-subsidized venues.
In airports and elsewhere, “CNN is the default cable news network hanging Big Brother-like on the wall for all to see and believe,” commentator Roger L. Simon wrote this month in a column for PJ Media. He argued that “allowing one network the privilege of dominating our public spaces is dangerous in the extreme, even if, as seems to be the case, the public has growing distrust of that network.”
Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the conservative Media Research Center, conceded that “if you’re running an airport, you don’t want to have to run 16 different channels.
“But certainly there are conservatives who get upset that they’re stuck with Wolf Blitzer at the baggage carousel,” he added.
Although CNN provided basic figures on the network’s airport presence, the CNN Airport Network did not respond to requests for comment about its operations or conservative complaints about CNN in general.
Such criticisms are supported by recent research. In 2014, a Pew study found that CNN’s audience skewed only slightly left of center, but this year a study by Harvard University’s non-partisan Shorenstein Center found that CNN (along with NBC) had the most consistently negative coverage of the Trump administration. During its first three months, 93 percent of CNN’s reporting was negative.
A Media Research Center report echoed those findings. In an analysis titled “CNN Is Completely Obsessed With Donald Trump — and Not in a Good Way,” the MRC found that over the course of a single day, CNN devoted 92 percent of news coverage to the Trump presidency, with 96 appearances by anti-Trump guests and panelists, against just seven by pro-Trump speakers.
That’s a lot of dumping on Trump. And while the president of the United States and the political shenanigans of Beltway insiders are news (up to a point), they’re far from the only news. That has led less political people to complain about the coverage, beyond the airport network's longstanding avoidance of negative aviation news like plane crashes.
Alton Ingram, 37, a South Plainfield, New Jersey, resident who travels frequently for his work at an insurance company, said the focus on Trump and general punditry made it difficult to find out anything substantial about other current events, like the recent California wildfires.
“They’re helping their cause with their people,” said Ingram. “A lot of people are left-leaning and don’t like Trump, so they play [anti-Trump news] 95 percent of the time.”
What drives him crazy about the situation, he said, isn’t watching CNN –- he already does that on his own – but the fact that the same on-screen pundits seem to follow him as he flies across the country.
CNN’s original parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, got the jump on the airport-television business in a less media-saturated time, the early 1990s, when Fox News was little more than a gleam in Rupert Murdoch’s eye and round-the-clock cable news had a lot to prove as a business proposition. It first tested the closed-circuit airport channel in 1991 in Atlanta, Chicago and Dallas. The CNN Airport Network has steadily grown since its official launch the following year.
Even if CNN’s constant presence can be a drag for air travelers, it’s a win for both the airports and the network: The former are paid by CNN and the latter rakes in ad revenue from the channel. In promotional materials, CNN Airport touts its captive flying audience as 40-ish, well-salaried, and “upscale and influential.” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that its hometown airport made a minimum of $90,000 from its 2014 contract with CNN.
Over the course of CNN’s 25-year dominance in the airport market, however, the news channel itself has evolved from its straighter news origins. Graham said the CNN of the early ’90s was a more staid version of its current self.
“We would find it the most boring of the four networks we watched,” said Graham. “If you watched the newscasts, it was pretty dry. … Nothing like it is today.”
Lately it’s so polarizing that former Colorado congressman and Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo encouraged a national anti-CNN movement as he launched a petition drive to “Get CNN Out of Denver International Airport.” Also this year, the network became a target of conservative undercover video outfit Project Veritas, which recorded a CNN producer calling Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway (above, with Anderson Cooper) an “awful woman” who “looks like she got hit by a shovel.” In the video, the producer also is heard calling American voters “stupid as sh--.”
But hue and cry aside, Silvio Canto Jr., a talk-radio host and blogger at the American Thinker, thinks the news channel has undermined its relevance with its Trump obsession. When Canto sees CNN on at the airport (or hotel, or coffee shop), he doesn’t see anybody else watching.
Ingram agreed. He said that while he has occasionally asked, to no avail, that the boarding-gate channel be changed to some other network such as ABC or Fox News, most of his fellow travelers seem to ignore whatever is playing.
Perhaps because CNN is such a fixture in the public background, any fallout from continuing conservative frustration doesn’t appear to have impacted CNN Airport, nor have recent controversies around CNN’s coverage. The majority of airports that responded to RealClearInvestigations’ requests for comment did not report an increase in recent traveler complaints about the in-airport programming.
While Greg Chin, communications director at Miami International, noted an uptick in written complaints beginning in October of last year, more typical was the experience of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Spokesman Perry Cooper said that the complaints they received weren’t specifically about CNN.
“Usually the only complaints are on Sunday when people want to see the Seahawks game,” he said.