John Harwood’s brand of truth-telling is no longer welcome at CNN

Chris Licht, left, hanging out with a notable truth-teller. Photo (cc) 2017 by Arforv

The way forward for CNN was less talk, more news. Instead, Chris Licht, the new chairman and CEO, seems to have embarked on a campaign of less truth, more pandering to the Trumpist right wing of the Republican Party.

Last month Licht canceled “Reliable Sources,” CNN’s long running media-criticism program. That led to the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, who had emerged as an outspoken defender of the press and the First Amendment in the face of Donald Trump’s attacks on the media as “enemies of the people.”

Then, on Friday, came another blow. In analyzing President Biden’s Thursday night speech, White House correspondent John Harwood told the simple truth about the state of our politics. Within two hours, Harwood announced that he was leaving CNN. As Dan Froomkin reported, “A source with knowledge about Harwood’s situation told me that Harwood was informed last month that Friday would be his last day, even though he was on a long-term contract. ‘He used one of his last live-shots to send a message,’ the source told me.”

Here’s what Harwood said in what turned out to be his last appearance on CNN (click through to Froomkin’s post to watch the video):

The core point he made in that political speech about a threat to democracy is true. Now, that’s something that’s not easy for us, as journalists, to say. We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them. But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election and other things as well. And a significant portion — or a sufficient portion — of the constituency that they’re leading attacked the Capitol on January 6th. Violently. By offering pardons or suggesting pardons for those people who violently attacked the Capitol, which you’ve been pointing out numerous times this morning, Donald Trump made Joe Biden’s point for him.

I was willing to give Licht some room after he replaced Jeff Zucker, who transformed CNN’s prime-time bloc into an endless stream of Trump-bashing and who had presided over and enabled the Chris Cuomo scandal. Zucker was said to be popular with the troops; given how bad much of the programming was, I didn’t think it was necessarily a bad thing that they were unhappy over his departure.

But Stelter and Harwood’s departures signal that Licht’s goal is to move CNN back to the center at a time when there no longer is a center. Eliana Johnson reported for the right-wing website Free Beacon that Licht has been sucking up to Republicans with the message “We want to win back your trust.” But as Harwood pointed out, you can’t have that kind of balance at a time when the Republican Party has devolved into “semi-fascism,” as Biden put it recently, by refusing to abide by the clear results of the 2020 election and indulging the insurrectionists who stormed Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021.

The biggest unanswered question is how much of this is being driven by John Malone, a billionaire investor who owns a large chunk of CNN’s new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery. As Peter Kafka recently wrote in Vox, Malone has been quite explicit in saying that CNN should be more like Fox News, but he’s also denied that he’s had anything to do with the recent changes at CNN. Then again, does he really have to say anything? Licht knows who’s calling the shots.

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, we all learned something we might have forgotten — CNN is a great news organization, with skilled, courageous reporters around the world dedicated to bringing us the news. It was a stark contrast to the hours of talk the network foists on us every evening. More news would be an admirable direction to pursue.

The danger, instead, is that CNN is going to stick with talk, give us some weird amalgam of small-d democrats and insurrectionists, and try to convince us that they’re now balanced. Who is this supposed to appeal to? It’s not going to attract current Fox News viewers. It’s hard to see who this will benefit other than MSNBC, which has stuck with its prime-time liberal talk-show lineup and which will probably attract some share of disaffected CNN viewers.

More: Following Zucker’s departure I offered five ideas for GBH News on how CNN could reinvent itself. So far, Licht has taken me up on exactly one of those ideas — strangling CNN Plus in the crib.

2 thoughts on “John Harwood’s brand of truth-telling is no longer welcome at CNN

  1. Dan Kennedy

    A comment from Donna Halper:

    I am not asking journalists to become partisans and stick up for “their side” (whatever side that is), but I do wish the major TV, radio, and print outlets could recognize that sometimes, “bothsidesism” isn’t useful. Sometimes, there’s really just one side. But by treating the other side as if it’s equally valid, it distorts the facts– much like the Texas school administrator who insisted that because teachers should never take sides on “divisive issues,” both sides of the Holocaust needed to be presented. Of course, as someone who spent four decades in broadcasting and print, I understand the need to offer reactions from “the other side” when the president or a party leader makes an important speech. And I also understand that it’s not shocking for politicians to be upset (or pretend to be upset) about the way the media cover them– that has been going on since the days of Thomas Jefferson.

    But few politicians have attacked the media with such vehemence– or encouraged their supporters to do so– the way Donald Trump did. And sad to say, few have been rewarded by network executives with so much coverage (as Les Moonves said when he ran CBS, and I’m paraphrasing here: Trump is terrible for democracy, but he’s great for CBS’s ratings). In times like these, when facts matter and misinformation seems to be everywhere, one might think that Public TV, including WGBH in Boston, would seize the moment and put some much-needed media criticism programs on the air– or in the case of WGBH, back on the air. I am still irritated that the wonderful “Beat the Press” was cancelled, and it’s time to bring back that show or something like it. We need it now more than ever. And we also need media executives to stop rewarding those who want to dismantle our democracy: allowing GOP politicians to attack Biden’s word choices ignores a larger point– the Republican party is currently in thrall to a man who does not believe in freedom of the press, unless it benefits him and his “movement.”

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