Chris Licht Broke Journalism Rules—and CNN
The beleaguered network is turning off conservatives and liberals alike. Can new leaders save it?
SHOCKING NEWS. Boss with limited experience in running a giant journalism enterprise violates an iron rule of news reporting and ends up forced out.
What’s that rule? Never be the story. It’s not about you.
What’s another iron rule? When office politics, drama and competition ratchet up, step back, put your head down and do the work. Do. The. Work. All that’s important is the work.
Those are the rules I learned over decades of news reporting. The rules for entertainment and opinion journalism are different—in those cases, it is sometimes about you, and drama might be part of the deal. Which is why Chris Licht should never have gotten the job as CEO and chairman of CNN Worldwide.
Running shows for Stephen Colbert and Joe Scarborough is not the same as running an international cable news network that has proven time and again that it is an indispensable, fundamental part of the media ecosystem. That’s especially true during the biggest land war in Europe since the Second World War. And this fraught moment in American politics, when one of the two major parties and its leading 2024 candidate are proven threats to democracy, is not the time to install a naïve-sounding novice atop a major news network.
Licht may be leaving but in many ways, the damage is done, whether by him or others at CNN. John Harwood and Brian Stelter, who reported with clear eyes on the Republican party’s road to ruin, are gone. They were way too clear eyed and outspoken for the CNN brass about what’s been obvious for years—the GOP is a hostage to Donald Trump, Fox News, and their lies.
CNN+ is gone, killed off after just a month. CNBC said it was doomed due to “an unusual mix of corporate deal-making, leadership disagreement, unexpected resignations and legal restrictions.” Eliminating it seemed like a shortsighted decision given that streaming is the future of the industry and plans for “bundled” streaming would bury the pioneering cable network’s identity, history, and reputation. (Disclosure: I signed up early for CNN+ and was disappointed when it folded and my money was refunded.)
As for the morning-show implosion of Don Lemon, Kaitlan Collins, and Poppy Harlow, Licht’s athletic trainer—Joe Maysonet—had the best take on that. As Atlantic writer Tim Alberta sets it up in his unforgiving dissection of Licht and his tenure, “Maysonet mentioned some news from the sports world: The Brooklyn Nets, who had built their franchise around three all-star players, had just traded away the last of them, a catastrophic end to a once-promising experiment. ‘All that talent,’ Maysonet said, ‘but no chemistry.’”
Last month’s Trump town hall was a triumph for Trump and his lies and a debacle for journalism, as everyone has noted—a wholly predictable outcome, also as everyone has noted. So why didn’t Licht get that? Who could not have noticed the media’s mistakes made over the last eight years, starting with showing Trump’s rallies live and free of real-time fact checking? Who could have missed that moment in early 2016 when Leslie Moonves, then CEO of CBS, said all of these things about a GOP primary race he likened to a circus with bomb-throwing? “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.” And “Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.” And “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.”
THE FUN ENDED when the unthinkable happened—Trump won. All the dangers we could imagine came to pass, and much more. Moonves’s remarks should be cast in bronze in a journalism hall of infamy. They live on within the profession, but apparently Licht did not see them as a caution against unleashing an unfettered Trump on live TV.
And although Licht is on his way out, CNN now appears to be locked in to giving town halls to all Republican presidential aspirants, or at least the leading ones, however that’s defined. So far, Nikki Haley was up on June 4, Mike Pence had a turn Wednesday night, and aspiring Trump-slayer Chris Christie is on for Monday. Trump is someone “who never admits a mistake, who never admits fault, who always finds someone else and something else to blame for whatever goes wrong but finds every reason to take credit for anything that goes right. . . . And if we don’t have that conversation with you, we don’t deserve to ask for your vote,” Christie—the self-proclaimed “truth matters” candidate—told Republicans in announcing his campaign. He also compared Trump to Voldemort, the villain in the Harry Potter series (whom author J.K. Rowling has described as “a raging psychopath, devoid of the normal human responses to other people’s suffering”).
The former New Jersey governor’s history with Trump has been a series of dramatic hairpin turns, among them harsh criticism followed by an early endorsement that gave off a “nakedly opportunistic vibe,” as Politico put it this week in a humiliating account of Christie’s maneuvering. It didn’t help, of course. What stands out in the timeline is that Christie was named and forced out as Trump’s 2016 transition director, and in 2020 Trump pardoned Jared Kushner’s father Charles, who had been convicted in a corruption case Christie prosecuted as a U.S. attorney.
The May 10 Trump town hall and a couple of panels substituting hastily recruited Trump allies were supposed to build audience and prove that MAGA Republicans were welcome at CNN. It didn’t work. Trump drew 3.3 million viewers and made CNN the most-watched cable network of the night, but the following week CNN drew an average of 429,00 daily viewers Monday to Friday, the lowest since June 2015. Two days after the town hall, it even dipped below upstart Newsmax.
I don’t know how much CNN was counting on Haley to convey its message of “Welcome MAGA, mi casa es tu casa,” but the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador attracted just 563,000 viewers, 83 percent fewer than Trump.
Pence almost always pulls punches about his time as Trump’s understudy, even the part where Trump reportedly suggested his vice president deserved the rioters’ chants of “Hang Mike Pence” during the January 6th Capitol attack to keep Trump in power after his 2020 loss. He was still doing it at his town hall on Wednesday night—for instance, repeatedly saying that no one is above the law yet also that Trump should not be indicted. Pence has many of us trying to figure out why he is running. I don’t see him pulling CNN out of the ratings tank. [Update, June 9, 2023: Yahoo News reports that Pence’s CNN town hall brought in 632,000 viewers, “down 81% from network’s town hall with his former running mate Donald Trump.”]
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Christie could reverse the downward trend by promising and delivering a tough but entertaining hour of attacks on Trump. That would be a departure from the much-discussed MAGA-or-bust goal Licht and apparently Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav have been aiming for all these months, but it might also serve as a reality check and a reminder of another way forward: Facts, honesty, reporting, evidence—follow these wherever they lead.
To borrow a phrase from Christie, tell it like it is. And don’t talk constantly about creating a hospitable place for conservatives who love Trump. That’s not how to do journalism. It simply blares to the world that, as a former colleague put it to me, you don’t know what you don’t know.
Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella, a former Republican congressional staffer who in the age of Trump left the GOP for the Democratic party, argued last summer in a Los Angeles Times column that CNN should be accurately informing citizens so they can make “meaningful choices” instead of trying to appease enemies of democracy. “The greatest disservice you can do is to place the liars on the same playing field as those who are committed to the truth,” he wrote.
We are on the verge of a crucial time, when federal prosecutors could make history by indicting Trump, and juries could make history by convicting him. Would CNN bring in Trump acolytes and FBI haters to whine about witch hunts and hoaxes and unfairness, even as the charges and witnesses and evidence are out there for the world to see? If Trump wins the GOP nomination despite all, will CNN treat him and his fanboys as normal politicians and voters, putting January 6th and everything else in the memory hole, in pursuit of a supposed evenhandedness that in fact distorts reality? All while the nation teeters on the brink of another Trump presidency?