As we head into 2022, the news is filled with uncertainties — when the pandemic ends and whether inflation ebbs, to name just a few.
The same is true in the business of news, as the past year saw disruption, what with the surprise departures of a number of news personalities and the prospect of more in the coming year, while all of the networks are trying to beef up their streaming offerings in anticipation of an eventual shift in live TV viewing habits.
Here are ten things to watch out for in the coming year:
To start off the year, almost all the networks are planning extensive coverage and retrospectives of the first anniversary of the siege on the U.S. Capitol. CNN is planning a live event from National Statuary Hall, one of the portions of the complex that was swarmed by rioters. This will be followed by ongoing coverage of one of the bigger stories of the year from D.C.: the investigation by the January 6th Committee and its potential ramifications and inevitable backlash on the right. While the probe will shed light on the extent to which Donald Trump and his allies were involved in the planning of the events that led to the attack, it’s also triggered a constitutional clash, as the former president has asked to weigh in on his effort to assert executive privilege over records and other documents.
NBC’s Olympics Coverage
The Winter Games will take place February 4-20 in Beijing, but it’s against a backdrop of international outrage at China over its human rights record, including abuses against Uyghur ethnic minorities that U.S. officials characterize as genocide. This has led to a diplomatic boycott of the Games, though the U.S. team will continue to participate. All of this places pressure on telecast rights-holder NBCUniversal to avoid abetting China in presenting the event as a kind of nationalistic pageant, as the network will face scrutiny over how it covers the Games and the international protests against the Beijing regime. Bob Costas, once the longtime Olympics anchor for NBC, recently shared his own experiences of what happened when he spoke out, as well as what has happened to other outlets. “This is tricky terrain now for NBC and for other Americans. We don’t know what sort of peril anyone might be in if they speak forthrightly,” said Costas, pointing to examples of how China has shut off feeds of coverage. “They brook no criticism, they double down and they threaten consequences.”
The network has tried before to establish an online news venture, but CNN+ is by far the most ambitious: With shows from Chris Wallace, Katie Hunt, Anderson Cooper and others, CNN’s launch of its own streaming subscription platform, planned in the first quarter, undoubtedly will be the most anticipated of all debuts in the coming year, as it sets out to be more than just a farm team for its traditional network. But CNN is also a bit late to the game in offering a news service with its own unique content, and there are plenty of questions as to how many viewers will want to fork over extra after already having so many subscriptions to other platforms. The service also is a potential finale to Jeff Zucker’s era at the network, with no word yet on his role after the WarnerMedia-Discovery deal is complete. He had previously planned to depart at the end of this year, but later agreed to stay until the deal closed.
Brian Williams, Chris Cuomo and Rachel Maddow
The year saw disruption in the lineup of star cable news hosts, with Brian Williams making the surprise decision not to renew his contract at MSNBC, and Chris Cuomo fired following revelations of the extent to which he advised his brother, then-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, as he faced sexual harassment allegations. Williams has not said what he plans to do next, but he’s indicated that it’s not retirement. Cuomo’s future is uncertain, as he reportedly has weighed legal options. Both leave two gaping holes for MSNBC and CNN to fill in their nighttime lineups. But the biggest change could be coming to Rachel Maddow’s show. While she signed a new contract with NBCUniversal last summer, she reportedly wants to venture out of the five-night-a-week grind into other projects, which could include the network’s streaming platforms. So far, MSNBC has insisted that her show remains as it is. Others to watch: Gayle King, co-host of CBS Mornings, and Norah O’Donnell, co-anchor of CBS Evening News, both of whom are reportedly coming up for contract renewals.
White House Press Secretary
Jen Psaki brought back the daily press briefings in her role as President Joe Biden’s press secretary and, in general, normalcy to the briefing room, but she also very early on said that she didn’t expect to stay in the job throughout the term and would step aside after a little over a year. Whether or not she follows through with it, her comments very quickly created plenty of interest in who would be a potential successor. Karine Jean-Pierre, the deputy press secretary, already steps in to do briefings and gaggles when Psaki is off, so she would be a prime candidate. But the criticism directed at the White House, from pundits like David Gergen, has at times focused on areas like communication and messaging, which is sort of a go-to refrain when poll numbers are sagging, and it wouldn’t be completely out of the ordinary for a figure outside the president’s team to step into the role. During Barack Obama’s first term, Robert Gibbs stepped down and was succeeded by Jay Carney, who had been working for Biden when he was Vice President, while Donald Trump tapped pundit/campaign spokesperson Kaleigh McEnany to fill the role amid the tumult of 2020.
There will be more cable news controversy in 2022, and Tucker Carlson likely will be at the center of a lot of it. As the top personality on cable, Carlson also has established a following that capitalizes on grievance and government distrust. He’s triggered words of protest and condemnation by groups like the Anti Defamation League, and his Fox Nation documentary Patriot Purge reportedly stirred the news side to the point that two of its personalities aired their objections to Fox execs. During the past year, though, the furor over his comments seem to have only bolstered his standing on the right and at Fox News, and the network gave him an even higher profile with another show on its Fox Nation streaming service. What to watch: Whether the network selects a permanent opinion host as Carlson’s lead-in at 7 p.m. ET.
Smartmatic and Dominion
The two election systems companies sued Fox News for billions, along with other outlets including One America News Network and Newsmax, claiming they were defamed by the platform that the outlets gave to 2020 election conspiracy theories. While a trial in any of the cases could be a ways off, the next year should see how far the two companies go in advancing their legal claims. So far, a judge has rejected Fox News’ effort to dismiss the Dominion lawsuit, and we’re still awaiting word on the fate of Smartmatic’s case against the network. While the lawsuit is significant in scope, it also could define just how far news outlets can go in spotlighting wild and unfounded conspiracy theories, even when they are those advanced by the then-President and his allies. Fox News has argued that it was reporting on a story undoubtedly in the public interest, while Dominion and Smartmatic contend that such claims were given a platform on the air, repeated by network personalities and their guests even after the outlets were warned of their falsity.
Coming off the viewer highs of 2020, audiences tuned out of news in general, in what is likely a combination of fatigue or merely the absence of a nationwide competitive presidential race. Expect news networks to pull out all the stops to generate interest in the midterm elections, something that may be helped by the entry of celebrity and well-known candidates (like Dr. Oz, Stacey Abrams and Beto O’Rourke) along with the overall consequential nature of the race: Democrats face an uphill battle to retain a majority. In fact, it’s more likely than not that the House will flip to Republican control, and the GOP also has a good shot at the Senate. Underlying all of this is whether Democrats make any headway in advancing voting rights legislation, something that appears to hinge on whether the party unites to alter or do away with the filibuster.
Local News Struggles
In the meantime, the pandemic has been, in many ways, devastating to local news outlets, as working digital business models remain elusive and Facebook and Google soak up ad dollars. It’s not just smaller- and medium-sized cities that have seen the effects of the scaling back. The past year saw hedge fund Alden Capital, known for its aggressive cost cutting, buy up Tribune Company, owner of the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and the New York Daily News. The Build Back Better Act includes tax breaks for outlets who hire local news reporters, but as we saw in the closing weeks of this year, the fate of the legislation is in major doubt. What’s lost is not just quality coverage of local issues and accountability journalism, but even a sense of proportion and perspective. Stephen Waldman, chair of the Rebuild Local News coalition, tweeted, “In 2021, we learned about the rise of misinformation and – separately – about the collapse of local news. 2022 must be the year we see the connection between the two trends – that a key solution to combating misinformation and polarization IS strengthening local news.”
White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner
After a two-year absence, the White House Correspondents’ Association is planning to return its annual dinner to D.C.’s social agenda, with a date of April 30 set for the Washington Hilton. For years, the dinner has been the subject of endless scrutiny and criticism over the spectacle of reporters partying with their sources, but the dinner has gone on, even during the Trump years, when he refused to attend. President Joe Biden has returned to traditions and attended this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he did the WHCA dinner as well. The variable continues to be Covid, with the latest variant forcing a bit of a rethink of all sorts of public events in the coming weeks.