Tag: chris licht
Chris Licht

Fired CNN Chief Chris Licht Did Exactly What His Network Bosses Wanted

Ousted CNN chief executive Chris Licht did exactly what his bosses wanted, ideologically repositioning the network in hopes of attracting Republican viewers. Now the network’s ratings are in the toilet, its reputation is damaged, and Licht is out after a devastating profile in The Atlantic — but there’s little reason to expect the situation to change.

Licht’s run at CNN ended on Wednesday after only 13 months. David Zaslav, the chief executive of CNN’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, reportedly told staff at a meeting announcing the change that Licht “poured his heart and soul into this job” but that ultimately “for a number of reasons things didn’t work out.” Media accounts of Licht’s dismissal invariably point to the impact of a brutal Atlanticprofile published on Friday, which triggered a newsroom revolt.

In that Atlantic profile, staff writer Tim Alberta detailed “the meltdown at CNN” under Licht, who comes across as an underprepared and ineffectual network president, trying to undertake a doomed mission he does not seem to fully understand. Alberta writes:

When he took the helm of CNN, in May 2022, Licht had promised a reset with Republican voters—and with their leader. He had swaggered into the job, telling his employees that the network 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. These assertions thrust Licht into a two-front war: fighting to win back Republicans who had written off the network while also fighting to win over his own journalists, many of whom believed that their new boss was scapegoating them to appease his new boss, David Zaslav, who’d hired Licht with a decree to move CNN toward the ideological center.

Zaslav’s desire to remake CNN by moving it toward the ideological right is shared by John Malone, a major Republican donor and Warner Bros. Discovery board member who has said he would like the network to be more like Fox News.

Their shared approach, as implemented by Licht, damaged CNN’s reputation by giving the right what it wanted. Licht fired harsh critics of former President Donald Trump, cozied up to Republican leaders, and made clear that he wanted a return to “both sides” journalism.

His work culminated with last month’s live town hall with Trump, who steamrolled CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins with lies and called her a “nasty person” on-air, as the live audience of his supporters cheered. The event drew devastating reviews from journalists inside CNN and out — but Licht staunchly defended it to his staff, and indeed, it seemed entirely in keeping with Zaslav’s vision for the network.

This version of CNN isn’t just journalistically indefensible — it has also failed to attract an audience. In theory, catering to Republicans was supposed to lure viewers away from more right-wing outlets. In reality, there isn’t an audience for Fox Light: CNN’s viewership withered under Licht as viewers switched to MSNBC or away from cable news altogether. Zaslav and Malone don’t seem to care — they just want CNN to meet their ideological demands.

And that’s why Licht’s departure won’t end CNN’s problems. His successor may be canny enough not to put their office on a separate floor from CNN’s journalists, or to treat a reporter writing a profile like a personal therapist. But that person will likely get the same demands from Zaslav and Malone to move the network toward the right and away from the truth, and try to follow them.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

Donald Trump

CNN'S Disastrous Trump Town Hall Was Exactly What Network Bosses Want

CNN’s predictably calamitous town hall with former President Donald Trump is the natural extension of the ideological vision cultivated by the network’s leaders.

You can tell that’s the case because even as the network’s journalists are describing the event as “awful” and “one of the worst hours I’ve ever seen on our air,” CNN CEO Chris Licht is singing its praises, reportedly telling his staff that “America was served very well by what we did last night."

My colleague John Whitehouse documented last night’s atrocities for MSNBC.com:

Some are trying to blame CNN’s Kaitlan Collins, who moderated the event. There were some glaring Trump lies that she didn’t correct. But on the whole, it’s impossible to deny that she tried to some degree, and that it wasn’t close to enough. Her colleague Jake Tapper gamely tried to clean up immediately after the event, before admitting that there wasn’t enough time in the night to fact-check every false statement Trump made. The format forced Collins to try to interrupt Trump with various fact checks, which only turned him and the audience more against her as the night went on. It culminated with Trump calling Collins “a nasty person” — to big applause from the audience.

In a statement, a CNN spokesperson defended Collins as “a world-class journalist” who “asked tough, fair and revealing questions ... and fact-checked President Trump in real time.” Yet primary fault for the disaster lies not with Collins, but with basic errors CNN made well before the town hall aired — decisions that guaranteed to push things beyond a breaking point. It’s no coincidence that Fox News and conservatives loved this event: It was, literally, classic Republican propaganda that Fox News co-founder Roger Ailes, who died in 2017, likely would have applauded.

The town hall debacle brings back disturbing memories of CNN’s coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign. Under Jeff Zucker — who had previously overseen Trump’s NBC reality show The Apprentice — the network’s spectacle-obsessed, horse race-focused treatment helped lift Trump to the presidency. CNN’s new leaders seem to be returning to old practices as they seek to move the network to the political right. And that bodes ill for the quality of CNN’s coverage as the 2024 presidential election looms.

CNN regularly built its coverage of the 2016 race around obsessive promotion of Trump's rallies, which the network frequently aired live and unedited. The network also hired a stable of unhinged pro-Trump contributors whose lies frequently turned segments into trainwrecks, including former Trump campaign manager and walking ethics disaster Corey Lewandowski.

None of this was enough for Trump, who prefers his propaganda purer. He regularly denounced the network as “fake news” and threatened on the campaign trail to halt the merger between its then-parent company Time Warner and AT&T.

Following Trump’s election, out of guilt or duty or (most likely) pursuit of an audience, Zucker’s network pivoted. There was still plenty to criticize about the network’s coverage, particularly its nonstop platforming of dishonest pro-Trump pundits. But it also provided an outlet for journalists and commentators like Brianna Keilar, Jim Acosta, Brian Stelter, John Harwood, Chris Cuomo, and Don Lemon to take on Trump and his Fox News megaphone. The president responded with fury, and his denunciations of the network were followed with action: Trump’s Justice Department tried to halt the AT&T-Time Warner merger, he seems to have tried to broker a sale of CNN to Rupert Murdoch, and his White House spiked Acosta’s press pass.

These external attempts to bring CNN under MAGA control were unsuccessful. But a second try from within appears to have gotten the job done. Following a corporate spin-off and a merger in 2021 and 2022, CNN is now part of Warner Bros. Discovery. Those developments were overseen by David Zaslav, the company’s CEO, and John Malone, a right-wing billionaire who was Discovery’s largest shareholder and has a seat on the new conglomerate’s board.

Malone, a legendary media investor who chairs Liberty Media, is a self-described libertarian and former member of the Cato Institute’s board. A frequent donor to Republican candidates and causes, he chipped in $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration fund, tens of thousands of dollars to Trump’s 2020 campaign and political committees focused on his reelection, and even “contributed to Trump’s ‘Save America’ PAC, which funded the January 6 rally” at which Trump encouraged the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol, as my former colleague Parker Molloy reported.

Malone detailed his hopes for CNN in a November 2021 interview, as the corporate merger that would put him on the board of its parent company was underway. According to Malone, CNN needed to start emulating Fox News, which had spent the previous four years merging with Trump’s White House and serving as his right-wing propaganda organ.

“Fox News, in my opinion, has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to have news news — I mean some actual journalism — embedded in a program schedule of all opinions,” he explained. “And I think they’ve been relatively successful with that, with a service like Bret Baier, and Brit Hume before him, that tried to distinguish news from opinion.”

“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,” he added.

Malone has denied that he is “directly involved” in shaping CNN’s programming to that vision. But he doesn’t need to have a day-to-day role to influence the network. Licht, whom Zaslav hired as CEO of CNN last year after Zucker resigned over a relationship with a subordinate, seems to be operating from the same playbook.

Licht has engaged in a “strategy shift” geared at presenting “a new, more ideologically neutral CNN,” as The Washington Post put it. Stelter and Harwood lost their jobs while Keilar was demoted. Cuomo and Lemon are also out — albeit for much more credible reasons — with their prime-time slots now filled by coverage from the network’s anchors. These changes don't seem to be benefiting the business — CNN’s ratings have tanked under Licht — but he’s accomplishing Malone’s ideological goal.

Those decisions set the stage for Wednesday’s disaster. In a CNBC interview last week touting the town hall, Zaslav made clear that his network was deliberately avoiding the lessons of the past. “Republicans are on the air on CNN, Democrats are on the air. All voices should be heard on CNN,” he said. “We've got a great political season coming. This is a new CNN.”

That sounds a lot like the old 2016-vintage CNN. It’s clear that’s what Licht, Zaslav, and Malone want — a more compliant network that treats Trump like any other candidate, lets him make his case to viewers regardless of how frequently he lies, and gets attention that might generate ratings.

It’s the Trump Show all over again. And we know how that one ends.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

New CNN Boss Seeking ‘Ceasefire’ With Fox News

New CNN Boss Seeking ‘Ceasefire’ With Fox News

CNN hosts haven’t been shy about bashing Fox News, which has given them plenty of material to work with — whether it’s Laura Ingraham promoting the nonsense conspiracy theory that Antifa leftists attacked the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 or Tucker Carlson praising authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But according to Daily Beast reporters Lachlan Cartwright, Justin Baragona and Zachary Petrizzo, CNN is seeking a “truce with Fox News” under its new president, Chris Licht.

In a Source Material column published on March 8, the Beast reporters explain, “In recent years, CNN has become known for its forceful coverage of Fox News and its partisan talking heads who’ve played enormous roles in influencing former President Donald Trump and the right-wing media ecosystem that supports him. In turn, Fox News has returned the favor, often attacking CNN stars — sometimes with potshots about their physical appearances.”

But Licht, according to Cartwright, Baragona and Petrizzo, is seeking more reporting and less commentary at CNN — and less commentary means less Fox News-bashing.

“New CNN honcho Chris Licht doesn’t actually start until May, but ever the savvy ‘operator,’ he has already begun backchanneling with key figures, including agents and reporters, and, according to two insiders familiar with the matter, making it known to Fox News that he is working towards a cease-fire on his network’s aggressive coverage of them,” the Beast journalists report. “On Sunday, (March 6), there were notably no mentions of Fox News on CNN’s marquee media show, ‘Reliable Sources,’ hosted by Brian Stelter, who last year, penned a New York Times Best Seller titled ‘Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.’”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to according to Cartwright, Baragona and Petrizzo, has underscored CNN’s expertise when it comes to hard news reporting — and Licht wants CNN to move more in that direction.

“According to two people familiar with the situation, the former ‘Late Show’ boss — who has been described to Source Material as an intense ‘social climber’ by several people who’ve watched his star rise over the years — will work to tone down the often opinionated and emotional reporting from stars like Jim Acosta, Brianna Keilar, and especially Don Lemon, who currently hosts the network’s ratings-deficient 10 p.m. to midnight programming. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated CNN’s prowess — rivaled only by that of the BBC — for hard-news-gathering during major news events. Under Licht, expect to see more boots-on-the-ground reporting and fewer partisan panels with talking heads like former Trump staffer Alyssa Farah.”

Indeed, Clarissa Ward’s hard news reporting for CNN from Ukrainian cities during the Ukraine/Russia conflict has been stellar.

Since his departure from Fox News, Chris Wallace has been part of the CNN+ team — and the Beast journalists report that Wallace’s name is “being floated internally” at CNN “to take the key 9 p.m. slot” formerly occupied by Chris Cuomo.

“Licht may look externally to make a splashy new hire,” according to Cartwright, Baragona and Petrizzo. “One name that continues to pop up is Brian Williams, who revived his career at MSNBC before exiting last year and is looking for one final act, according to two people familiar with his thinking. It would be quite the comeback for Williams, who has always had his sights set on a nighttime talk show — and who better to orchestrate such a move than Licht, who reworked Stephen Colbert’s show and took it to first place in the late-night ratings.”

Reprinted with permission from Alternet