I started out writing a much longer post about Tim Alberta’s astonishing 15,000-word takedown of CNN’s now officially embattled CEO, Chris Licht. But I decided there’s really no need. You can read Alberta’s story for yourself along with Jon Allsop’s analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review of what it all means, Brian Stelter’s article at New York magazine on the chaotic aftermath inside CNN, and Benjamin Mullin’s story in The New York Times on Jeff Zucker, Licht’s bitter and scheming predecessor.
Rather than add to that, I want to focus instead on one small point that shows Licht sort of/kind of had the right idea. While speaking to a student group, Alberta writes, “Licht sought to differentiate CNN from both networks — slamming Fox News for being a duplicitous propaganda outfit, and rebuking MSNBC for trafficking in hysteria.”
Licht has been talking this way from the moment he ascended to the top of CNN, and it’s why I was willing to cut him some slack despite misguided decisions such as firing Stelter, the network’s excellent media reporter. The problem, it seems, is that he understood CNN’s problems correctly but superficially and thus wasn’t really able to execute.
CNN didn’t need to move from the left back toward the center or to be more polite to authoritarian right-wingers, as Licht seems to think. Rather, it needed to readjust the balance between opinion and reporting.
Of course, it’s fair to ask who is really calling the shots at CNN — Licht or his overlords, David Zaslav, the head of Warner Bros Discovery, and right-wing billionaire John Malone, who owns a significant chunk of the company. It all fell apart when CNN’s town hall event with Donald Trump turned into a disaster in exactly the ways in which everyone had predicted — with Trump simply yelling lies in the face of his well-prepared but overwhelmed host, Kaitlan Collins, while the Trumper crowd hooted and hollered off stage.
You may have heard that another media executive, David Leavy, has been brought in as CNN’s chief operating officer, a significant wing-clipping for Licht, who has presided over a steep decline in ratings, revenue and morale. It seems hard to believe that Licht can survive the humiliation, much of it self-inflicted, that he endured in Alberta’s piece.
It’s equally hard to know where CNN should go from here. A return to Zucker’s clown show (Chris and Andrew Cuomo, anyone?) would hardly restore the reputation of a still-great news organization whose on-air product often fails to match the excellence of its journalists.
CNN is just as much in need of a reset today as it was when Licht took over.