CNN is taking some of its coverage of politics off the TV screen and putting it into a special live forum.
The AT&T-owned cable-news network is set to launch “Citizen by CNN,” a day-long conference slated to be held Monday, October 22, at the Time Warner Center in Manhattan. While some of the panels and interviews set to be featured will likely show up on the company’s flagship cable network, says Sam Feist, a CNN senior vice president who serves as Washington Bureau Chief, the wider intent is for the conference to burnish CNN’s ability to present non-partisan coverage of politics and issues that matter to viewers. The looming midterm elections in November lend new relevance to such an event, he adds.
“We are the news organization, the cable-news channel, that doesn’t pick sides. We play it down the middle and we are focused on news and coverage that matters,” says Feist in an interview, acknowledging that this sort of gathering “is something that is relatively new for CNN to do.” Should “Citizen” do well, says Feist, CNN could look to expand further into other kinds of conferences.
Many media companies are dipping toes in these waters. Viacom has launched live events and concerts based on content from its Comedy Central and Nickelodeon cable networks, as has AT&T’s Adult Swim. Digital-media outlets like BuzzFeed and Refinery29 have also experimented with concepts that bring people together. The media outlets often hope the consumers they gather will pass along news and video of the events via social media, hooking the interest of a broader base of potential customers. In some cases, advertisers hitch along for the ride, betting the audience will look upon their participation as part of the show. There are also bigger convocations, like the Atlantic Media Festival or the Aspen Ideas Festival, that often generate stories from other news outlets.
CNN will be the sole sponsor of “Citizen,” which will be an invite-only affair. CNN’s Feist says the crowd will consist largely of hand-picked “influentials” from the worlds of business, politics and the media.
Much of the content for the day has already been determined. Jared Kushner, President Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, and Van Jones (above, pictured) will take part in a discussion about prison reform and working across party lines. Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi is expected to talk about the coming midterm elections and the fight to control the house with CNN’s Dana Bash. Gloria Borger will moderate a discussion called” The President, the Presidency and the Law” with former Trump attorney Ty Cobb and former Clinton White House counsel Jack Quinn. Fareed Zakaria will discuss the state of current politics with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Jamie Gangel will moderate a conversation with investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. John King will give a preview of the election landscape with his signature “Magic Wall.” And former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg will deliver closing remarks.
Other participants are expected to be named at a later date. People looking for information about “Citizen by CNN” can find it at CNN.com/citizen-by-CNN.
“Midterm elections are always important events, where there are usually significant changes in the makeup of Congress,” says Feist. “We thought this was a really good time to lean in to the midterm elections, to do an event sponsored by CNN that involved some of the key players and brought together people from across the political spectrum and people in our audience to hear from them.”
“Citizen” is reminiscent of some of the primetime “town halls” CNN regularly broadcasts that mix politicians and government officials with a live audience in a discussion of issues in the headlines. But Feist notes the content at the conference is not likely to appear immediately in CNN TV chyrons and tickers. CNN Digital may cover parts of the conference, he says, but the exchange between Kushner and Jones will probably surface in the Saturday-evening program Jones hosts for CNN at a later date. CNN does expect to share certain moments from the festival on TV, he adds.
CNN staffers have been discussing the conference idea since the summer, says Feist. “It became even more clear to us that this midterm election was generating extraordinary interest among our audience and throughout the country,” he says.