Did you hear? Chris Licht is out at CNN! Assuming you’re not a journalist or a well-adjusted person, and I apologize if the first descriptor there automatically implies the latter, you’re probably saying “who?”
But to the extent that understanding America’s horrifyingly dysfunctional news business is a requirement for fixing our toxic politics, there’s a lesson here. The recent drama at CNN is just emblematic of the fact that nearly all of America’s major news organizations are completely and utterly beyond repair. In order to understand what I’m talking about, first indulge me in a brief recap of the last decade at CNN.
In 2013, Jeff Zucker became head of CNN. Formerly the head of NBC’s entertainment division, Zucker was notable for pushing the vaunted cable news brand in a more “infotainment” direction. And notably, one of Zucker’s successes at NBC was a popular, long-running reality show known as “The Apprentice.”
By the time Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, Zucker’s CNN was all in on broadcasting his former employee’s campaign rallies, which managed to get a notable ratings spike for a cable news network that was usually in third place. Of course, the rest of Trump’s 2016 campaign is literally history and once the dust settled from Zucker’s various public apologies for giving Trump hundreds of millions worth of unearned media coverage, CNN turned on a dime and the network’s political coverage in the ensuing years was marked by credulous reporting of partisan disinformation, various libel lawsuits (both settled and merely threatened), unhinged commentary, and CNN journalists throwing honest-to-God tantrums in the White House briefing room. (But more on all that later.)
Then there were the internal scandals, and while there’s always personnel drama in cable news, Zucker was known for being cozy with the talent to a fault. The enabling of Chris Cuomo to give softball interviews on Covid to his brother Andrew Cuomo, who was then governor of New York, raised more than a few eyebrows — and when it finally came out that Chris Cuomo was advising his older brother on how to handle various sexual harassment allegations while still at CNN, the network was humiliated. Oh, and perhaps it’s worth mentioning that Chris Cuomo had his own sexual harassment allegations emerge.
After months of criticism, CNN fired Cuomo, while another major CNN personality, Don Lemon, endured his own very public sexual assault allegations. Meanwhile, the investigation of Cuomo’s conduct unearthed the fact that Zucker was having an affair with CNN’s Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, Allison Gollust, forcing Zucker to resign in February of last year, prompting lots of speculation about whether Cuomo was blackmailing Zucker over his own affair in order to keep his job. (The lawsuit against Lemon was dropped in May of last year.) By the time he resigned, it was pretty clear Zucker had become more of a zookeeper than a network head.
Two months after Zucker’s resignation, it was announced that Discovery and Warner Media (of which CNN is a part) were merging. And days after the merger was announced, the network’s much-hyped streaming service, CNN Plus, was shuttered just a few weeks after its launch, having already burned through hundreds of millions of the network’s cash. The politics of both those things probably had a lot to do with Zucker’s firing and how Chris Licht, a former producer for MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and the showrunner of “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert, became Zucker’s successor as president of CNN.
Though his resume did not exactly suggest someone who was an ideological moderate — indeed, it is truly remarkable how liberal politics has rendered Colbert’s “Late Show” devoid of anything resembling comedy — the perception was that Licht was being brought in to move CNN’s increasingly histrionic and ideological programming back to the political center.
Following the Discovery-Warner merger, billionaire John Malone, a major shareholder on the board of the newly minted entertainment conglomerate, went on CNBC and criticized the current incarnation of CNN saying, “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,” adding, “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.”
This statement set off klaxons at CNN, who were immediately wary of any new direction that new management wanted to take the network. However, Malone isn’t wrong — whatever criticisms you might have of Fox, it has a much clearer programming firewall between news and editorial than other networks. If you watch Bret Baier at 6:00 p.m. and Sean Hannity at 9:00 p.m., you’re not confused as to which one is the news program. (Yes, my wife works at Fox, but I will stand my ground that this is a defensible observation and this doesn’t negate any other criticisms of Fox’s opinion programming.)
When Licht did take over CNN, he did make some moves that seemed to follow Malone’s advice. He fired John Harwood, a veteran broadcast journalist who had become a completely unhinged partisan in the Trump era, a fact that remained obvious to everyone but John Harwood. He also axed CNN’s media reporter Brian Stelter who, well, since he’s endured heaps of abuse online, I don’t really need to say much. His reputation is what it is. And after much sturm and drang, Licht eventually even managed to fire the insufferably egotistical Don Lemon.
Licht probably could have gotten away with these firings and other attempts to push CNN to the center, but eventually Licht went… there. Not only did he make overtures to congressional Republicans and promise to treat them fairly if they would consider appearing on CNN, these overtures culminated in last month’s CNN town hall with Donald Trump. Though the event garnered massive ratings for CNN, Trump ran roughshod over CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins, defending himself forcefully, and the event was ultimately humiliating for the continually shrinking minority of people who still think legacy media outlets have any remaining credibility.
But before you give Licht too much credit for trying to restore balance to the network, the ultimate reason for his downfall might well be a combination of hubris and naivete. Just a few days before Licht’s firing, The Atlantic dropped a highly unflattering and lengthy report about Licht’s tenure at the network that begins by going hammer and tongs against Licht’s role in making the Trump town hall happen. Incredibly, Licht had allowed The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta to shadow him as he tried to remake the network over the last year, and this article was the result.
Alberta’s piece is a truly remarkable piece of journalism, and do not confuse that statement with a compliment. To start, it’s more than 15,000 words long — I basically had to force myself out of professional obligation to finish the interminable thing. Making professional wrestling analogies to explain Trump is beyond cliché at this point, Alberta calls Malone a “right-wing billionaire” when Malone publicly supported Michael Bloomberg in the 2020 election, and his claims that “Republicans were angry at CNN” over the Trump town hall strains the definition of “Republican,” to put it kindly. In other ways, however, Alberta’s workmanlike determination to not miss an angle on this story is helpful and revealing, even in ways he didn’t intend.
Alberta has always represented himself as a bootstrapping journalist from blue-collar Michigan, and the pinned tweet on his Twitter account is him taking a victory lap after his book, American Carnage, hit the bestsellers list: “This is for the laid-off autoworkers I waited tables alongside; the immigrants I landscaped with; the community college profs who motivated me; the colleagues who showed me grace; the friends who always had my back; and the family that believed in me.” It remains unclear to me why laid-off autoworkers and immigrants scraping by would care one whit about the success of an insidery book about Republican politics, but I’m glad he’s keeping his feet on the ground while reaching for the stars, I guess.
In any event, I only bring up this tidbit about Alberta’s modest background because wow is this article on CNN a departure from whatever working-class environs that made Alberta the dedicated journalist he is today. As a document that provides insight into the mindset of America’s ruling class, the immense amount of details in this piece on Licht are something. As a matter of fact, I don’t actually need to know what the president of CNN’s personal trainer really thinks about Rachel Maddow or care that much about the Kremlinology of which media executives go to what party in the Hamptons, but these things are revealing in their way. Alberta is savvy enough to know that he’s writing about powerbrokers for an audience of powerbrokers, and they’re the ones who care about those things.
Alberta’s reporting does at times make a semi-persuasive case that Licht was distant from and not always well-liked by his employees. Beyond that, I wouldn’t go so far as to say Alberta was trying to get Licht fired, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was very interested in holding Licht to account for the supposed crime of giving Trump a platform. Licht’s defenestration from the C-suite shortly after the publication of Alberta’s article was just gravy. Which is why, in an article that is the length of a novella, you find a lot of discussion of, say, Trump’s supposed crimes and all the unflattering behind-the-scenes details surrounding last month’s Trump town hall, while there is very little discussion of CNN’s glaring and repeated journalistic malfeasance over the past several years.
For instance, Alberta brings up Trump’s denigration at the CNN town hall of E. Jean Carroll, whom a New York jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing, three times in the article as an example of the kind of thing CNN should not be platforming. Aside from noting out of fairness to Trump that the charges against him were generously funded by partisan interests and there are major problems with Carroll’s account — she doesn’t even remember the year in which she was supposedly assaulted in a department store by a prominent celebrity — I have zero desire to defend Trump given his history of highly questionable sexual ethics. But stirring up opprobrium over Trump’s behavior while attempting to police the brand safety of a news network that’s had enough internal sex scandals to stage its own community theater production of Bob Guccione’s “Caligula” is a bit much.
As for the article’s obdurate unwillingness to discuss the particulars of how CNN was a rolling disaster in the Trump era, I’ll just note that the word “Russia” doesn’t appear once. In January 2017, just before Trump was inaugurated, it was CNN that published the story that first brought the discredited Trump-Russia dossier to public consciousness — a document they reported on without reporting out or apparently verifying any of the contents. When BuzzFeed published the unexpurgated dossier shortly after CNN’s story went up and the public saw its credulous and thinly sourced claims, CNN became a laughingstock. In spite of that, CNN anchors were falsely claiming “a lot [of the dossier] has been — been verified” months after the fact. Six months after the dossier debacle, CNN fired three journalists after one of their reports on Trump-Russia was retracted. Six months after that, CNN was again humiliated when the network published a report claiming Donald Trump Jr. had been sent hacked DNC emails from Wikileaks before they were publicly released — thereby supposedly proving collusion with Russian hackers. It turned out that CNN ran the story without seeing the email evidence, and they were likely misled by the staff of serial Russiagate conspiracist Rep. Adam Schiff.
CNN also had to settle a libel lawsuit after they targeted a teenage boy whose only crime was wearing a MAGA hat in 2019, and there was the infamous “fiery but mostly peaceful protests” chyron in the middle of the George Floyd riots that has become a meme unto itself for how deranged corporate media is. But there’s not a single mention of any of these episodes in Alberta’s article, to say nothing of the many, many examples of deranged on-air commentary.
The closest we get to anything approaching self-examination of CNN’s failed news coverage is Alberta quoting Licht multiple times questioning the network’s Covid coverage and whether it alienated middle America. The answer to that question is emphatically yes. That’s why CNN’s medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta went on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and despite his supposed medical expertise, he managed to get his posterior handed to him debating a marijuana enthusiast on the most significant public health episode of the last century.
Naturally, this episode isn’t mentioned in Alberta’s article, and Alberta — who has strong opinions on election lies and whether Trump is a sex criminal — isn’t brave enough to offer any judgments of his own about the media’s handling of Covid. Licht, whatever his other failings, is right to harbor doubts about whether media organizations should have questioned lawmakers who, say, used Covid as an excuse to shutter churches while keeping casinos open.
But voicing doubts, however meekly, about whether the Democratic Party and the media should be marching in lockstep was Licht’s mistake. In the final analysis, it’s remarkable that someone such as Licht could rise through the media ranks to become the head of a network like CNN without making this central realization: The primary responsibility of a corporate news outlet in the year of our Lord 2023 has less to do with ratings and far more to do with partisan, ideological enforcement. Alberta understands his role as an enforcer here innately, whether he’s aware of it or not.
That’s why Alberta’s article has little to say about CNN’s copious failures of journalism, but lots of gossipy details the Discovery-Warner Media board members might care about. It’s not an accident that The New York Times article on Licht’s firing sums it up this way: “His standing deteriorated late last week when The Atlantic published a 15,000-word profile extensively documenting his stormy tenure. Mr. Licht had spent hours with the writer, Tim Alberta, and his unguarded comments that CNN had overhyped its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency further rankled the network’s anchors and rank-and-file.” As far as our corporate media gatekeepers are concerned, it simply doesn’t matter that Licht’s assessment that CNN “overhyped” its Covid and Trump coverage is demonstrably true and a sentiment the vast majority of Americans would agree with. What matters is not upsetting the narrow journalistic consensus that’s divorced from reality.
Still, it’s hard to muster sympathy for Licht, whose attempts at reforming CNN were lukewarm at best and his vainglorious decision to have a reporter following him around means he bears responsibility for his own undoing. However, his timid approach to fixing CNN was far superior to the dominant alternative — defining the boundaries of acceptable discourse, even when it means limiting your audience, and calling it “journalism.”
But who can argue with results? Licht spent a year trying to fix CNN and failed because no one at CNN wants to admit they have a problem. Alberta, on the other hand, got his scalp and I predict he’s going to win a National Magazine Award. Does he deserve an award for this? No, but according to the diktats of modern journalism, he’s more than earned it.