My Northeastern colleague Mike Beaudet and I spoke with Tanner Stening of Northeastern Global News about the meltdown at CNN, culminating earlier this week in the firing of CEO Chris Licht.
Tag: Chris Licht
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.
If you’re so inclined, you can sift through mounds of commentary on CNN’s alleged news event Wednesday night with Donald Trump. Tom Jones of Poynter has a solid account here. I thought beforehand that it would be terrible, but it was even worse than that.
If you saw it, or if you’ve just read about it, you know that the hall was filled with MAGA types who cheered Trump’s every utterance, whether it was his support of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists or his dismissal of E. Jean Carroll as a “whack job.” Carroll just won a $5 million jury verdict against Trump for sexually attacking her and for libel.
CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins was well-prepared and tried the best she could to hold Trump to account. Predictably, though, he shouted over her, spewing lies at such a rapid clip that she could only latch onto a few of them in an attempt to push back. It was a disgraceful night for CNN, and president Chris Licht ought to be fired. Then again, he was only doing what his corporate overlords want, and he seems quite pleased with himself today.
I do want to zero in on one moment. When Collins pointed out that people died on Jan. 6, Trump immediately cited Ashli Babbitt, an insurrectionist who was fatally shot by a Capitol police officer. Trump denounced Lt. Michael Byrd, who’s Black, as a “thug,” and by injecting him to the proceedings unbidden, he put the officer’s life and safety in danger at the hands of deranged right-wingers and white supremacists. Byrd told NBC News in 2021 that he’d gone into hiding. If he has since been able to resume his normal life to some degree, Trump has now shattered that.
“America was served very well by what we did last night,” Licht told his staff after the event, according to tweets by Brian Stelter, the network’s media reporter until Licht fired him. No we weren’t, and CNN’s current media reporter, Oliver Darcy, said so in his morning newsletter, writing, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”
First up is The Washington Post, where executive editor Sally Buzbee announced Wednesday that its Sunday magazine will be shut down at the end of the year. Ten staff members will lose their jobs.
Now, you could make an argument that Sunday newspaper magazines have outlived their usefulness. The Boston Globe has kept its alive, but only because its lifestyle-oriented content appeals to advertisers. It seems like 40 times a year the cover is devoted to Your Home, Your Wedding, Your Home Wedding or whatever. But it is also an occasional outlet for serious long-form journalism. So, too, with the Post’s Sunday magazine. According to the Post’s Sarah Ellison:
Five of the 40 Washington Post stories that drew the most online readers over the past year were produced by the magazine. They include a profile of then-Senate candidate J.D. Vance, the tangled saga of several separated siblings reunited through DNA testing, and longtime staff writer David Montgomery’s portrait of the shifting political demographic in Wyoming, “the Trumpiest state in the nation,” as its voters turned on Rep. Liz Cheney.
In 2020, the magazine won a National Magazine Award in the single-issue category for the special issue “Prison.” The issue “was written, illustrated and photographed by people who have been — or are currently — incarcerated, allowing readers to hear from voices that are often invisible in the debate around prison and criminal justice,” The Post said at the time.
Can stories like these appear elsewhere in the Post? Sure, and I hope they will. But Buzbee is shutting down something that’s working. She described the cut as part of the Post’s ongoing “global and digital transformation,” and said some of the magazine’s content will move to “a revitalized Style section” that will be unveiled in a few months. But let’s not forget that this move comes not long after Buzbee got rid of the Post’s venerable Sunday Outlook section; at least that was accompanied by a return to a standalone Book World.
I want to think well of CNN’s newish chief executive, Chris Licht. His predecessor, Jeff Zucker, may have been beloved by the staff, but he left behind a profoundly broken institution.
Licht has made some moves that I really don’t like, such as getting rid of Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources” media program and, for that matter, Brian Stelter. But Licht has also talked about returning CNN to less opinion and more reporting, which I’d love to see. I found much of what Licht told Kara Swisher on a recent podcast encouraging, although I don’t think he grasps the crisis of democracy in which we find ourselves when he talks about bringing on more Republican voices. Still, Licht isn’t Elon Musk; he seems like an earnest, well-meaning executive who wants to do well but who must also negotiate some treacherous terrain, such as keeping right-wing investor John Malone happy.
Now, in a move that had been telegraphed well in advance, CNN is implementing some pretty major cuts that will claim the jobs of possibly hundreds of staff members at a media company that employs about 4,000 people. Tom Jones of Poynter has the details.
CNN is one of our great news organizations — far better than what you see on prime time every night. As Licht told Swisher, one reason he got rid of CNN Plus, among the more ludicrous of Zucker’s debacles (along with the Chris and Andrew Cuomo Show, of course), is that the excellent CNN Digital is already the most trafficked news website in the U.S., and he didn’t want to shift attention away from that asset. But it’s hard to see how Licht can move ahead with a renewed emphasis on reporting if he’s working with a drastically downsized news division. Opinion is cheap; news is expensive. And Licht is going to be sorely tempted to take the path of least resistance.
One final note: The Boston Globe’s Mark Shanahan today interviews Randolph’s own Audie Cornish about her new CNN podcast. Cornish was lured away from NPR earlier this year as part of Zucker’s push to staff up CNN Plus and has been at loose ends every since the shutdown. But a podcast? Really? How about making her the anchor of a prime-time newscast, as I suggested earlier this year?
Today’s the day for yet another in an endless round of layoffs at Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds estimated that the body count could be around 200 of the chain’s 3,400 news employees.
Gannett publishes more than 200 daily newspapers around the country, including a number of titles in the Boston metro area. At one time it published dozens of weeklies as well, but many of those have been closed or merged, with virtually all of their reporters reassigned to regional beats.
Fortunately, Gannett’s withdrawal from community journalism in Eastern Massachusetts has led to a number of independent start-ups. Christopher Galvin had a good piece in Boston.com earlier this week about several of those projects. (He interviewed me.) And here is a link to a spreadsheet I maintain of independent local news organizations in Massachusetts. As you’ll see, the numbers are impressive.
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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.
The cancellation of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and the departure of its host, Brian Stelter, is a development that resonates beyond one outlet and one journalist, because it takes place within the context of an ongoing decline in media commentary.
The news that Stelter was departing came Thursday evening. David Folkenflik’s account at NPR raises the possibility that Stelter was the victim of conservatives now ascendant at CNN, although the most prominent of those conservatives, John Malone, a major investor in CNN’s new owner, Warner Bros. Discovery, told Benjamin Mullin of The New York Times that he had “nothing to do with” the move.
Chris Licht, who succeeded the scandal-plagued Jeff Zucker as the head of CNN, has said on several occasions that he wants to move away from opinionated talk shows and get back to CNN’s reporting roots. That’s fine, but we’re talking about Sunday morning, which isn’t exactly prime time. Stelter will host one final edition of “Reliable Sources” this coming Sunday, but I’d be surprised if he says much. In a statement to Folkenflik, he said, “It was a rare privilege to lead a weekly show focused on the press at a time when it has never been more consequential.”
Stelter came to CNN from the Times nearly a decade ago. During the Trump presidency, in particular, he used his perch at CNN to emerge as an important and outspoken advocate of an independent press. He’ll be missed, although I have little doubt that he’ll land on his feet. Maybe he’ll even return to the Times. Frankly, I never quite understood why he left in the first place.
As for what this move represents, well, it’s just the latest in a series of blows to media commentary. CNN isn’t just showing Stelter the door — it’s getting rid of a program that had been in rotation for some 30 years, having been previously helmed by Howard Kurtz (now the host of “Media Buzz” on Fox News) and Bernard Kalb. The media are one of our most influential institutions, and journalism is under assault. This is not the time to dial back. Yet consider these other developments.
- Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan is leaving to take a job at Duke University. Sullivan has been one of the true giants in holding journalism accountable. Before coming to the Post, she was a fearless public editor (the ombudsman) at The New York Times — someone unafraid of standing up to powerful people in her own newsroom. The position was later eliminated, removing a vital tool for accountability. At the Post, she’s used her platform to call for courage and truth-telling amid the Trump-driven onslaught against journalism.
- The public radio program “On the Media,” as I’ve written before, is less and less about the media and more about the whims of its host, Brooke Gladstone, and the people around her. Cohost Bob Garfield was fired last year and accused of bullying the staff — charges he mostly denied in a recent essay at Substack. But the move toward non-media topics was well under way even before Garfield’s departure. The latest, believe it or not: a three-part series on erectile dysfunction. OK, they’re showcasing another podcast while they take a few weeks off. I hope they get back to real media reporting and commentary once they resume.
- One of the most prominent media critics on the left, Eric Boehlert, was killed earlier this year when he was struck by a train while riding his bike. Before launching his own platform on Substack, Boehlert had worked for Media Matters and Salon. His Twitter feed was a running commentary on the sins of omission and commission by the so-called liberal media.
- As many of you know, “Beat the Press,” the media program I was part of since its inception, was canceled last summer by GBH-TV (Channel 2) after 23 years on the air. Nothing lasts forever, and I was honored to be associated with the show. But we took on important national and local topics every week, and my own biased view is that its demise was a loss. Host Emily Rooney relaunched the program as an independent podcast earlier this year; I hope you’ll check it out.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s nothing left in terms of media coverage and commentary. The Post, which is losing Sullivan, is still home to Erik Wemple, who writes incisive media criticism for the opinion section, Paul Farhi, an outstanding journalist who covers media stories for the news section, and others. One of the greats of media criticism, Jack Shafer, continues to write for Politico. And there are plenty of independent voices out there, from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen to liberal watchdog Dan Froomkin to, well, me. (An aside: We need people of color and more women, especially with Sullivan moving on.)
Still, there’s less than there used to be, and “Reliable Sources” was a well-regarded outlet for many years. Best wishes to Brian Stelter. And I’ll be casting a wary eye toward Licht. Zucker left him with a real mess to clean up, but this was the wrong move.
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