How CNN Went From Bad to Worse

How CNN Went From Bad to Worse

Chris Licht’s disastrous reign is governed by reactionary centrism.

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One way to make yourself look good is to keep pointing out the faults of your predecessor. Like Elon Musk at Twitter, CNN’s CEO Chris Licht loves to denigrate the previous management of his company. With both Musk and Licht, this is clearly an attempt at covering up their own failures.

In February 2022, Licht was brought into replace Jeff Zucker, who was turfed as CEO over an alleged affair with a subordinate. But there is every reason to think that this infraction was merely a pretext in a larger political struggle at the network. Prior to Zucker’s forced resignation, the corporate overlords at Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company, had been pointedly critical of what they saw as the network’s liberal bias against Donald Trump. In late 2021, right-wing billionaire John Malone, a commanding voice on the Warner Bros. Discovery board, explicitly called on CNN to take lessons from Fox News (an ironic injunction considering that lawsuits over election denial would document major journalistic malpractice at Fox). In a lengthy and revelatory profile in The Atlantic of Licht’s tumultuous tenure at CNN, journalist Tim Alberta notes that Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav “told numerous people that he needed an outsider to revamp CNN’s journalistic practices because Republican politicians had told him they were no longer willing to come on the network.”

As Alberta’s profile makes clear, Licht was given a complex and even contradictory mission by his bosses. Ratings at CNN had been down since the end of the Trump presidency, so the network needed to attract more viewers. These viewers had to be of a particular sort: the Republican faithful that Trump had turned against CNN by labeling it fake news. So Licht saw it as his mission to tone down what he saw as the strident anti-Trump messaging of the Zucker years. Licht insists, though, that this goal is not just in the service of ratings but also of rebuilding public confidence in the media, thereby saving journalism.

The dilemma Licht faced is that he was tasked with both making CNN more like Fox News—and also with making it more trusted. That’s an impossible job. (For one thing, according to polling, Fox is one of the most hated brands in America).

In Licht’s defense, there’s plenty to criticize in Zucker’s regime. The problem is that Licht, embracing a stance of faux centrism that hides a reactionary agenda, criticizes Zucker for being excessively liberal. Zucker was in fact overwhelmingly interested in ratings. As I noted in a previous column, Zucker has fair claim to be one of the chief authors of Trump’s political career. Zucker had a long-standing business relationship with Trump going back to the creation of The Apprentice and knew the colorful real estate tycoon was good for ratings. Once Trump ran for office, he received unprecedented free media from CNN.

Zucker’s attitude to Trump was widely shared in elite media circles. It was best expressed in 2016 by then CBS head Les Moonves, who told a business conference that Trump’s run for the presidency “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Moonves added, “The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” Moonves later claimed that these comments were a joke.

After Trump was elected, he continued to be a profit source—but in a different way. At CNN, Zucker harnessed genuine popular outrage against Trump by making the network a haven for resistance voices, but almost always ones that were safely within the confines of elite centrist opinions. Thus the Russiagate narrative was elevated because it was a point of convergence for centrist Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Never Trump Republicans such as John McCain. When Trump’s handling of Covid became an issue, CNN dubiously upheld New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (whose brother was then a host at the network) as the voice for an alternative policy.

According to Alberta, Licht believes that CNN “had lost its way under former President Jeff Zucker, that their hostile approach to Trump had alienated a broader viewership that craved sober, fact-driven coverage.”

Licht also believes that CNN’s coverage of Covid under Zucker created a crisis of trust. Complaining to Alberta, Licht said, “COVID, COVID, COVID! Look at the case numbers! Look at this! Look at this! No context.”

According to Alberta, Licht believes there are “‘legitimate conversations’ to be had about the death toll attached to Covid-19. Perhaps some patients had been admitted to hospitals with life-threatening illnesses before the pandemic began, then died with a positive diagnosis.” (In point of fact, scholars who look at the current excess death rate compared to the pre-Covid era insist that Covid deaths continue to be undercounted. Obviously, the fact that people who have other diseases die more quickly in the Covid era is hardly proof that Covid isn’t bad).

So while there might be much to criticize in Zucker’s reign at CNN, Licht has taken a bad situation and made it much worse. Whether out of genuine conviction or out of a desire to please the plutocrats who own Warner Bros. Discovery, Licht has mastered the art of deploying centrist rhetoric for reactionary ends. About diversity, Licht says, “A Black person, a brown person, and an Asian woman that all graduated the same year from Harvard is not diversity.” This might be a fair point if he showed any concern for the excess of white men from Harvard at CNN.

Licht also told Alberta, “I think ‘Defund the police’ would’ve been covered differently if newsrooms were filled with people who had lived in public housing. They have a different relationship with their need with the police.” This claim flies in the face of a formidable body of social science evidence that poor people are more inclined to distrust the police than the well-to-do.

One of Licht’s earliest decisions at CNN was to instruct employees to downplay the January 6 committee hearings. This turned out to subvert his mandate to raise ratings. The public was intensely interested in the hearings and turned to rival MSNBC for news.

There’s a distinct ideology at work in Licht’s actions, a worldview that can be described as reactionary centrism. As Davidson College professor Isaac Bailey noted, the Atlantic profile of Licht reveals “the growing tendency of top news execs and editors to take on an anti-woke mindset while deluding themselves that they are the ones being ‘objective.’” Licht, like many in the elite, conflates his opposition to leftism with objectivity and balance.

Guided by this reactionary centrist vision, Licht engineered the disastrous Trump town hall of May 11, where the audience was packed with hooting MAGA-supporters and the former president was allowed to run roughshod over CNN host Kaitlan Collins.

Reporting on CNN morale after that event, Tim Alberta writes,

I had never witnessed a lower tide of confidence inside any company than in the week following the town hall at CNN. Some staffers held off-site meetings openly discussing the merits of quitting en masse. Many began reaching out to rival media organizations about job openings.

Licht and his critics share a desire to frame the question of CNN’s future as a contrast between two models: Licht or Zucker? But viewed from outside the frame of the mainstream media, the similarities between the two men outweigh the differences. Both were eager to promote Trump-centric news coverage for the sake of ratings. When Trump was in power, Zucker pursued elite approval by elevating voices that criticized the Republican standard-bearer for deviating from the narrow norms of the national security consensus. With Trump out of power, Licht is trying to gain elite approval by suggesting that some liberal anti-Trumpism was strident. Both men operate within the narrow ideological confines of the establishment media whose demands they balance in their pursuit of ratings. As long as CNN is a corporate-run for-profit media company, there’s not much that can be expected of it. The CEO might be Licht or it might be Zucker, but whoever has the title will have to work within the tight parameters set by the Warner Bros. Discovery board.

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