CNN Tailspin: Chris Licht Out As CEO

CNN Tailspin: Chris Licht Out As CEO

CNN Tailspin: Chris Licht Out As CEO

Nobody is happy at CNN. The last couple of years have been a disaster, and now, CEO Chris Licht, who has only been around for a year, is officially out at the cable network.

Those who have been paying attention to the CNN shenanigans, especially since Covid, will remember that a year ago, the network was in shambles. CNN+ was a colossal failure. The Cuomo brothers clown act – a breach of journalism ethics at a minimum – had ended up taking out CEO Jeff Zucker when his years-long “open secret” affair with CNN executive vice president Allison Gollust was revealed to the public. Donald Trump had become the center of the network’s coverage, and with no Trump in office, CNN literally did not know what to do with themselves – except let Jeffrey Toobin back on air, because hey, jacking off during a Zoom meeting is not a big deal, and those who complain about it are the ones who should be silenced. So Zucker was out and Chris Licht was brought in, and the hope was that Licht would “right the ship” in both a literal and metaphorical sense. The network, especially the media personalities who had egos the size of the building, needed to be brought back down to earth, and the news coverage needed to balance out.

Licht began his tenure by attempting to clean house. Brian Stelter – whose entire job was apparently to watch Fox News – was let go. Layoffs ensued in an attempt to cut costs and “streamline” the business after the WarnerMedia and Discovery merger. Licht reassigned Don Lemon to his new morning show, which ended up being a disaster when Lemon decided to insult Nikki Haley while also not getting along with his co-hosts, Kaitlan Collins and Poppy Harlow. Lemon ended up being fired on the same day that Tucker Carlson was fired from Fox News, so almost no one noticed (except the staff who were rejoicing).

But through all of this, CNN was a network in search of an identity. For so long they had been “MSNBC-lite,” a slightly less left-leaning network with an unhealthy obsession with Donald Trump. Licht knew that they needed to balance their coverage, but had no sense of what would bring viewers back (he even flirted with the idea of having a comedy show at one point). Their own internal polling told them that their Covid coverage had killed their credibility with viewers, even as CNN had won awards for the same thing.

The network won multiple prizes for its coverage of Covid-19, including the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Cronkite/Jackson Prize, which was awarded to Dr. Sanjay Gupta for his coverage “correcting Covid-19 misinformation.”

Last year, CNN commissioned a survey examining viewer trust and the places where CNN was succeeding and falling short with viewers across the ideological spectrum. According to a partial copy of the report, which hasn’t been revealed before, CNN’s coverage of Covid-19 was the third leading cause of distrust in the network behind liberal bias and “the Chris Cuomo situation.”

Survey respondents of all ideological stripes criticized the network’s “overly dramatic and sensational” and “dire” reporting, the report said.”

But when Chris Licht pointed this out to CNN personalities, that made him the bad guy. After all, the point is to win awards from your peers, not to be scrupulously accurate when there’s a BAD ORANGE MAN out there who must be defeated. And here we get to the real crux of Chris Licht’s problem.

We don’t know what Licht’s vision was for the network, because he wasn’t sure what it was either. But he didn’t fire enough people. In order to become a “hard news” outfit again, multiple personalities would have had to go. There’s little justification for firing Brian Stelter and Don Lemon, but keeping Jim Acosta. Licht was either unwilling or unable to clean house, and so it became more like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. And then came the Donald Trump town hall on CNN, hosted by Kaitlan Collins. In a profile written by Tim Alberta and published in The Atlantic, Licht was all in on the Trump town hall.

The CNN newsroom had been stunned by the news of the May 10 town hall. Internally, questions about whether the network would platform Trump in the run-up to the 2024 campaign had felt very much unanswered. Almost no one—not even CNN’s leading talent, people who had long-standing relationships with Trump and his top aides—knew about the negotiations to host a town hall. When it was announced, Licht made a forceful argument to his employees about the merits of a live event. The campaign was under way; Trump was the front-runner and needed to be covered. Rather than giving him unfiltered access to their viewers via rallies, Licht said, CNN could control the presentation of Trump with its production decisions, its questioning, its live fact-checking. To varying degrees, his skeptics told me, they bought in.”

But anxieties grew as the town hall approached. Employees found it strange that none of the CNN anchors who’d interviewed Trump—Anderson Cooper, Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett, Wolf Blitzer, Chris Wallace—was invited to play a role in preparing for the event, whether by shaping questions, suggesting best practices, or simply advising Collins. Trump speculated on social media about the town hall turning into a disaster, prompting fears among executives that he might stage a stunt by walking off the set, which in turn prompted fears among staffers about what, exactly, the network would do to keep Trump on the set. In the final days before the event, concerns about the audience makeup spiked as Licht’s description of the crowd—“extra Trumpy”—wound its way through Slack channels and text-message threads.”

All of these concerns, it turned out, were warranted. Preparation was clearly an issue. Collins did an admirable job but was steamrolled by Trump in key moments; her questions, which came almost entirely from the candidate’s ideological left, served to effectively rally the room around him. Not that the room needed rallying: The crowd was overwhelmingly pro-Trump, and because CNN wanted an organic environment, it placed few restrictions on engagement. The ensuing rounds of whole-audience applause—I counted at least nine—disrupted Collins’s rhythm as an interviewer. So did the ill-timed bouts of laughter, such as when Trump mocked E. Jean Carroll, and the jeering that accompanied Collins’s mention of the Access Hollywood tape. By the end of the event, it was essentially indistinguishable from a MAGA rally. People throughout the room shouted, “I love you!” during commercial breaks and chanted “Four more years!” when the program ended.”

And the opinion of the CNN media personalities of the entire town hall was obvious. Anderson Cooper went on his own show to try and placate the audience in the strangest way possible.

Echoing some of the points that network CEO Chris Licht had made to CNN staff earlier Thursday, Cooper then attempted to pivot and spin why CNN felt it was important to cover Trump. “The man you were so disturbed to see and hear from last night, that man is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president. And according to polling, no other Republican is even close. That man you were so upset to hear from last night. He may be president of the United States in less than two years. And that audience that upset you, that’s a sampling of about half the country.”

He added, “If last night showed anything, it showed [Trump winning] can happen again. It is happening again. He hasn’t changed and he is running hard. You have every right to be outraged today and angry, and never watch this network again.”

Cooper then rather bizarrely put the onus back on the audience to not remain ignorant of people on the other side of the political divide and incredibly implied that some people were ignorant of Trump. “Do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite. If lies are allowed to go unchecked, as imperfect as our ability to check them is on a stage in real time, those lies continue and those lies spread,” he said.”

When one of CNN’s own top names says that the audience has every right to be so “angry” and “never watch” CNN again, that is a huge red flag. The divide between Licht and the big names had become obvious. They weren’t going to be reeled back in to be “hard news” people. They are partisans, and partisans who apparently missed Jeff Zucker, according to Tim Alberta:

The comparisons with Zucker were inevitable, and Licht hated them. Whereas the old boss was gregarious and warm, giving nicknames to employees and remembering their kids’ birthdays, Licht came across as taciturn, seemingly going out of his way to avoid human relationships. At a holiday dinner for his D.C.-based talent, Licht went around the private room at Café Milano, shook hands and spoke briefly with each of the journalists, then sat down and spent much of the dinner looking at his phone. Not only did he say nothing to address the group—as they all expected he would—but Licht barely interacted with the people seated near him. It became so awkward that guests began texting one another, wondering if there was some crisis unfolding with an international bureau. When a pair of them caught a glimpse of Licht’s phone, they could see that he was reading a critical story about him in Puck.”

With a staff nostalgic for the guy who was banging a subordinate, and who refused to be objective about Donald Trump, Chris Licht’s tenure was never going to be a long one unless he could present a clear vision and get buy-in from the talent. He did neither, and now he is officially out of a job. The on-air talent was pretty nonchalant about it, too.

What happens next will be up to Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who made the announcement to CNN staff this morning.

Unless Zaslav has another executive waiting in the wings who has a clear vision, CNN is just going to continue to limp onward with the proverbial inmates running the asylum – and now they have been emboldened. With Chris Licht out, they can again shed any pretense of objectivity. The loyal viewer base – all the Democrats in Congress and the White House staffers – may rejoice, but that’s not going to pay the bills if viewership keeps dropping. Will CNN maintain its self-indulgent status quo and stick to being the propaganda arm of the Democratic National Committee, or will Zaslav actually find someone with a backbone who is willing to fire people and try to save the network?

Either way, stock up on popcorn, because it is sure to be entertaining.

Featured image: original Victory Girls art by Darleen Click

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