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The frenzied question of “Will Chris Licht survive?” is on the minds of media pundits everywhere after a devastating, 16,000-word takedown of the CNN chief that ran in The Atlantic magazine on Friday.
That question is exactly what moves the gossip mill. It’s juicy. But it misses the point.
The actual question is: How should CNN cover the news? What is the path and mission for a defining media property that is central to the health of our democracy?
Or to put it most starkly: What is CNN?
As a nation, we no longer tune in to network evening news and there is no defining, trusted voice in broadcast in morning, evening or late night. Decision-makers and cognoscenti of all stripes watch cable news. Ratings leader Fox News Channel has proved itself to be an ethical trash heap of conspiracy and misinformation. MSNBC is definitively left-leaning and defined as a counterweight to Fox. CNN — well, there’s a lane available (and essential) for middle of the road reporting if the network can find it.
Thus far it hasn’t.
CNN made a lot of mistakes during the run-up to Trump’s presidency, and I put that at the feet of Jeff Zucker, who ran endless live coverage of Trump’s rallies. But I would argue that CNN had little choice during the Trump presidency other than to push back on the assault on democracy, journalism and government.
Now the challenge is how to define a lane that can be trusted, appeal to a wide audience and not cave to the Trump crowd that seems determined to damage our democratic institutions.
There was near-endless fodder to sift through in the piece that, amazingly, allowed reporter Tim Alberta near-unlimited access to Licht (PR chief Matt Dornic is surely regretting this decision): at an internal company all-hands led by Audie Cornish where reporters challenged the boss, backstage at the disastrous Trump town hall where Licht admitted to welcoming a Trumpy crowd, at the 6 a.m. workout in which the trainer turns out to be one of Licht’s key advisors.
How all of this was permitted — and continued even as bad was turning to worse for Licht since October when Alberta began reporting — is a mind-bender.
Top takeaways for those who don’t want to read the whole thing (although I do recommend it, it’s an amazing piece of journalism):
* Licht is living in a bunker mentality, but it’s not clear who’s advising him other than his trainer, Joe Maysonet.
* Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav is breathing down Licht’s neck constantly, despite all protests to the contrary, with a clear mandate to move CNN to the right — which in his mind means the center.
* The CNN newsroom is unclear on the mission, the road map or the programming tactics that will lead them forward. (Alberta: “Every employee I spoke with was asking some variation of the same question: Did Licht have any idea what he was doing?”)
* Big parts of the CNN newsroom are skeptical of Licht and his ability to lead them. Their trust was further damaged by the disastrous Trump town hall — with a few brave souls (Christiane Amanpour, Oliver Darcy) vocal in their criticism. (Licht’s response: “These are journalists, so there really isn’t anything you can say that will ease anxiety. You have to show them. So the whole purpose of today really is like, ‘Hey, there is a plan. This is what we’re going to be doing. This is how it’s going to involve you. This is the sense of purpose. This is the strategy.’”)
* Licht’s programming decisions haven’t produced ratings results, and have also not impressed with their creativity or originality.
So the guy is in trouble, that’s for sure. Up to now, WBD corporate has quietly repeated with mantra-like devotion that turning CNN around is going to take time, that Zaslav intends to give Licht that time and that they’re measuring performance in terms of years not months or weeks.
That’s changed. The appointment last week of Zaslav lieutenant David Leavy as the COO of CNN Global — making him responsible for business decisions — makes that very clear.
A Warner Bros. Discovery insider acknowledged that “not everything has gone right” in the past year, and that Leavy’s arrival was meant to “stabilize the situation” and allow the newsroom to focus on the journalism. They’ll have the chance to do that, and we’ll see what was learned with upcoming town halls with Nikki Haley and Mike Pence.
But the issue for me isn’t so much Licht, although his decisions in the past year haven’t particularly served him.
His pious pronouncements about the sanctity of “truth” (Quote: “Yes, I believe in absolute truth.”) and the need for fact-based journalism is noble and proper. He believes in the bedrock ethics traditional journalism — you tell your viewers the facts and let them decide — isn’t exactly quaint, it just isn’t enough.
The problem is — what would work? It’s unclear how to do mainstream, traditional journalism on cable news at this moment in time. If Licht hasn’t done it right, it’s not obvious that anyone else knows how to either.
The notion of Trump as the Republican nominee is daunting to any self-respecting journalist. And after the impeached former president ran roughshod over a well-prepared Kaitlan Collins, spewing lie after lie and insult after injury, it’s evident that he can’t be managed like any other on-air politician.
CNN insiders know that the brand’s value has always been in its ability to gather news. The network excels at that, and always has, and neither MSNBC nor Fox can lay a glove on CNN when it comes to a global news report.
How to turn that into an audience that exceeds Newsmax, much less Fox News, is the challenge.
Finding that “middle lane” in our age of fractured political discourse, with a distracted, politically divided, mistrustful audience — is the challenge.