Commenting on the status of the invaded nation's capital, the U.S. secretary of defense said that the "best reporting" he had seen "was on CNN."

Lloyd Austin on Kyiv? Could have been, considering how Clarissa Ward and her colleagues risked Russian shells alongside Ukrainians in order to give on-the-ground context to the conflict that would soon devolve into full-scale war.

But it was actually Dick Cheney, defense secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, praising the intrepid reporting from Bernard Shaw and his colleagues in Baghdad during the opening salvos of the Gulf War.

Such was the perception of CNN 31 years ago, when it wasn't part of the partisanship shaping so much of today's national discourse.

Based on recent statements, new leaders at CNN seems to want to return to those days. More like the CNN of old — or new, given its comprehensive coverage of Ukraine. Less in-studio punditry and more in-the-field reporting; more Christiane Amanpour vs. Chris Cuomo-style programming.

To set CNN apart from "advocacy networks," it should focus on the facts, David Zaslav, the CEO and president of CNN's new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, reportedly said at a company meeting. John Malone, a longtime media executive who is a Warner Bros. Discovery board member, was even blunter in an interview with CNBC in November. "I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing," Malone said.

As its Ukraine coverage confirmed, CNN has journalists, and good ones. But like every entity in the saturated media landscape, it needs to decide its niche.

Which CNN decidedly did last week — not only with its enduring emphasis on Ukraine coverage on its flagship network, but also by pulling the plug on its fledgling streaming service, CNN+, the highly hyped, $300 million investment that attracted big news names but small audiences. Launched just a month ago in an already flooded streaming market, CNN+ will fade to black on Saturday.

While the reversal reflects the fundamentals of the media business — ratings and revenue rule — it also offers an opportunity to recommit to the fundamentals of journalism. Just like the New York Times did last week when it named Joseph F. Kahn, a Pulitzer-Prize winning foreign correspondent, as its next executive editor. While Kahn has recently been focused on and been integral to the Times' internet strategies, hard-nosed journalism seems hardwired in his professional DNA. Beyond being a Beijing-based reporter, Kahn led the international desk — the type of journalism that the Times and only a few other entities have the resources to accomplish.

Besides an emphasis on such coverage, Kahn told the Times in an interview that among his top priorities was securing public trust "in a time of polarization and partisanship." He added that "we don't know where the political zeitgeist will move over time. Rather than chase that, we want to commit and recommit to being independent."

Kahn's predecessor, Dean Baquet (who led his Times team to 18 Pulitzer Prizes), also emphasized the need for independence — and independent thinking. As part of that effort, he recently pressed for a "reset" in reporters' use of Twitter. It wasn't a ban, Baquet said, but "we also just want to help people modulate it."

Elon Musk hopes his reset of Twitter isn't a usage modulation. Instead, by promising fewer content constraints he hopes time (and as a result advertising investment) spent on the service increases.

That's a goal that all three organizations — CNN, the New York Times and Twitter (as well as the Star Tribune and every media organization) — share. Views on how to achieve that are increasingly divergent, however.

CNN and the Times are trying to appeal to the broadest base possible through news coverage that isn't dismissed outright by half the country who believe (and have been told) that they're part and parcel of the partisanship that's so sharp today. (That will take some convincing among their many critics.)

Twitter, conversely, is trying to appeal to broadest base possible in part by cultivating the conservative-liberal, blue-red, left-right divide. That's why so many conservatives cheered Musk muscling past initial objections to buy the service for $44 billion.

Twitter's new owner has promised "free speech," which he defined (in a tweet, naturally) as "that which matches the law." From the Founders of the country to the founders of Twitter, nearly everyone (certainly journalists) has always championed free speech. But much that is legal can still be harmful, which Musk proved himself on Wednesday when he tweeted criticism of Twitter's top attorney, Vijaya Gadde, to his more than 86 million followers.

Musk's mockery was retweeted by thousands of his acolytes, and soon Gadde's account was awash in insults, including some sexist and some directed at her Indian heritage.

"What's going on? You're making an executive at the company you just bought the target of harassment and threats," tweeted former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo.

Legal free speech? Gadde, among other attorneys, would likely concur. But is it right? Costolo, and countless others, would likely say no. But Musk seems to want to leave that up to Twitter users. Although in Twitter's business model the marketplace of ideas also needs the marketing of goods and services from advertisers, which may recoil from an even more toxic Twitter. That may make monetizing the social media site more difficult.

Pushed by the public, calls for Twitter and all social media sites to better police their content is a constant congressional concern. Eroding or ending the restrictions that have been put in place in response to the pressure may cheer some but chill others, including influential users who may leave the site.

Some, however, may join or rejoin. Although not the person who most defined and was most defined by Twitter, former President Donald Trump, who was suspended from the site after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He said he'll stick to Truth Social, the site he launched to capitalize on his and other conservatives' belief in social media's bias.

But like Parler, Gettr, Gab and other sites created for conservatives, Truth is flailing, failing to lure users to a pool of like-minded thinkers when what many seek is the cultural cauldron of Twitter, which Musk sees as a "town square" but for others is more boxing ring.

The objective for all three is audience aggregation. Aggravation is part of the package, Musk seems to believe, while the leaders of CNN and the Times seem to sense more levelheaded reporting, not rhetoric, is the best method.

How the new direction of Twitter or the renewed direction of CNN and the New York Times is received will tell a lot about where media is headed. And that in turn will say a lot about where our democracy is headed.

At the employee-meeting appeal for CNN to focus on the facts, Zaslav reportedly added this thought: "If we can get that," Zaslav said, "we can have a civilized society. And without it, if it all becomes advocacy, we don't have a civilized society."