Chris Licht’s Master Plan Comes Into View

Chris Licht
Photo by Sean Zanni via Getty
Dylan Byers
May 11, 2022

When Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, giving birth to the 24-hour news cycle that would eventually re-orient the media industry, bestowing us MSNBC and Fox News in the process, he did so with the lofty, quixotic ambition of bringing people closer together. “We hope,” he said at the network’s launch in Atlanta, “that the Cable News Network, with its international coverage and greater-depth coverage, will bring, both in the country and in the world, a better understanding of how people from different nations live and work together, and within the nation work together, so that we can perhaps, hopefully, bring together in brotherhood and kindness and friendship and in peace the people of this nation and this world.” Sure, the commentary manifested Turner’s slightly dippy, Brown alumni side, but it wasn’t some genetically modified corporate pablum. To drive the point home, Turner had the flag of the United Nations raised alongside those of the United States and the state of Georgia.

In the four decades since, CNN has certainly succeeded in becoming the leading global news network, with a far larger footprint than any of its rivals. In that regard, at least, CNN has provided people around the world with a shared record of the day’s news, and a common perspective on historical events for anyone who cares to watch. 

But here in the United States, CNN’s quest to foster brotherhood and friendship among citizens has proved elusive. For one thing, Turner’s proclamation was granted in simpler, pre-omni-channel times. These days, not enough people watch the network for it to have such a significant influence on the culture. But, more to the point, the political polarization of recent years, and CNN’s response, have placed the network firmly at odds with broad swaths of the country, and most dramatically with anti-establishment Republicans.

CNN has long touted itself as “the most trusted name in news,” but even its own internal polling shows that that is decidedly not the case on the right. CNN loyalists will argue that Donald Trump and other like-minded Republicans forced them into that position by demonizing the media and abandoning all regard for the truth, thereby requiring that the daily delivery of the news include a few doses of outrage to avoid normalizing the daily norm-shattering—hence the infamous “This is an Apple” promo. CNN’s critics will argue that the network simply gave up on the pretense of hiding its long-held liberal bias and embraced a self-righteous, tedious, chest-thumping, anti-conservative slant in order to stay competitive with the avowedly liberal MSNBC.

The truth is somewhere in between, of course, but what’s undeniable is that during the last decade, with Jeff Zucker at the network’s helm and Trump in the White House, CNN’s reputation for traditional, just-the-facts journalism was often overshadowed by the hyperpartisan, hair-on-fire rants and Brady briefing room diatribes of some of its most notable hosts, correspondents, and contributors. The network continued to produce “facts first” journalism day in and day out, and it never lost its global news-gathering infrastructure, as evidenced by its best-in-class coverage of the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, CNN gave its critics in the White House and at Fox News enough ammunition to portray it as a biased network, and leave Republicans with the impression that it had abandoned fair-minded journalism altogether. 

Among the critics was John Malone, the powerful Discovery shareholder and mentor to David Zaslav, who memorably called on CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists” on its airwaves—a recommendation that would be illogical to anyone who has watched CNN on a daily basis, but might make a lot of sense to someone who watched Tucker Carlson’s coverage of CNN every night.

In any case, water under the bridge. Zaslav now controls CNN, Zucker has been ousted and Chris Licht is chairman and C.E.O., with a mandate to restore the network’s “brotherhood and kindness” reputation for non-partisan journalism and broaden its appeal to consumers across the political spectrum. In a memo to the network on his first day in office, Licht said his mission was to restore people’s trust in media by “being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics of journalism: fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘group think,’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints.”

Like Ted Turner forty-two years ago, Licht has ambitious goals for CNN, and though his language can feel similarly idealistic, the ambition itself is intriguing. After all, cable news has become rather predictable, rife with the same partisan orthodoxy and pre-packaged outrage. It’s a declining business model, and non-innovative content decisions have only exacerbated the challenges.

The reality, of course, is that CNN’s biggest financial opportunity relies on following Licht’s thesis. The politics of both Fox News and MSNBC provide scant room for nuance, let alone any deviation from party doctrine. On both networks, you are more likely to find hosts and contributors shaming the opposition, rather than seeking to understand it, interrupted only by commercials for erectile dysfunction medication or blood thinners. Meanwhile, the fringes of the political spectrum are often given the most air time, simply because they shout the loudest and serve as useful bogeymen for the other side. Fox News would have you believe that A.O.C. speaks for every Democrat, while MSNBC often provides the incorrect impression that Marjorie Taylor Greene is a proxy for the mainstream G.O.P. Neither is true, of course, but their programming decisions have created a massive white space in the center of the market for CNN to own. 

According to the people that I talk to in and around CNN, Licht sees this opportunity. He aspires to elevate the conversation and provide viewpoints that better reflect the full spectrum of public opinion. And frankly, he wants to make the content smarter, a decibel lower, and above the my-side boosterism. That sort of adult conversation sophistication has been a hallmark of his career from Morning Joe, which still features the most insightful political conversation on morning TV, to CBS This Morning and even Colbert. Perceptive CNN viewers will notice that he’s already removed the constant “breaking news” banner, toned down the chyrons and introduced a far more measured tone to the website’s headlines. 

Zucker presumably could have architected something similar under Zaz, but he would have likely had more than a few headaches pivoting back a ship that he’d steered in a radically different direction only a few years earlier. And his titanic stature in the industry would have spotlighted every micro-decision, perhaps stymying some from materializing. Licht’s lower-key demeanor should allow him to orchestrate the maneuver more quietly. “Fearlessly telling the truth, and being representative of what the country is, is a lane that is wide open right now, and not only will it be good for this country, it will be good for business,” he said in his inaugural town hall last week.

Articulating a strategy, of course, is one thing; executing it is another. Can Licht succeed in making CNN a booming business of grown-up table centrism? Veterans of the cable news business will argue, with substantial evidence, that outrage rates and nuance doesn’t. Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow are the highest-rated hosts on their respective networks, and both rate significantly higher than anyone on CNN. 

Then again, everything the new leadership has said about CNN in recent months suggests they see the network as a prestige play, and don’t actually care as much about the ratings as the previous regime. Zaslav has referred to CNN as a reputation booster for Warner Bros. Discovery, rather than a profit center. Licht reiterated the sentiment in the town hall, referring to Zaslav as a “news purist” who sees CNN as “a reputational asset” in his portfolio. Licht also said, “I’m not here to focus on ratings,” and encouraged the network to get away from overly dramatic headlines and clickbait.

Reading between the lines, what’s probably true is that CNN is a nicely profitable business that Zaz & Co. want to position as a significant value add to Warner Bros’ future fully-rolled up streaming service. And that means making CNN palatable for the Republicans who download this future WB-Disco-HBO Max product for Dr. Pimple Popper, too. Licht will still have to sell advertising—“there are people that want to be next to a pristine CNN brand,” he said—but over time, it will be interesting to see if Licht and his overlords at WBD stop using the ratings metric publicly.  (Ideally, should this be the case, they would eventually cease sending out ratings releases that spin third-place finishes as first-place wins.)

The far bigger challenge for Licht and CNN will come in 2024, if they are forced to deal with Trump or any other like-minded Republican candidate who positions the mainstream media as the enemy. It’s all well and good to promise a more respectful and inclusive forum for debate, but holding true to that mission will prove challenging if and when a popular Republican candidate takes them to task as Ron DeSantis has with Disney. Like Zucker, Licht will be forced to choose between truth and agnosticism.

It turns out Licht has an analogy for this. “If it’s raining, we’re not going to have people come on and say it’s not raining,” he told employees in the town hall. “But most people love the rain, a lot of people love the rain. Some people hate it. Let’s talk to people that hate the rain and find out why they hate the rain and maybe you might move off a little bit, to, ‘Oh, I mostly like the rain.’ Or, ‘all of a sudden, I don’t like the rain.’ But I think we want to be a safe place to have those honest, respectful discussions. And I don’t see that at the other places.”

Licht readily acknowledges that “it’s going to take a minute” to realize his vision for CNN. But, he said, “once the world realizes what we’re doing, I think it can change the entire industry.” It’s a little loopy, sure, and extremely idealistic. But it also sounds just like something Ted Turner might have said in Atlanta in 1980.