Inside CNN, Lichtxiety Runs Amok

Jim Acosta
CNN anchor Jim Acosta. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
June 15, 2022

Tomorrow morning, CNN chief Chris Licht will host his second staff-wide town hall since taking over the cable news network six weeks ago. The presentation, which will be broadcast from Atlanta—Licht’s next stop on a bureau tour that also includes Washington, Los Angeles, and London—comes as many of the network’s journalists remain on edge about where they stand in the eyes of their new leader, and whether or not they fit in with his vision for a less-polarizing, non-partisan, post-Zucker, Zaz-friendly CNN. 

Those anxieties, which have been simmering for months, ever since influential Discovery board member and cable founding father John Malone called on CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with,” were set ablaze after Axios’ Sara Fischer reported that Licht was “evaluating partisan talent” to see if they could re-align themselves with his new mandate. “Have you heard anything about the reality of that report?” one decidedly non-partisan talent asked me this week. “It kind of screwed with my head.”

Licht is indeed evaluating talent, but there’s some nuance to his thinking that goes well beyond concerns about partisanship. His greater ambition, sources familiar with his thinking tell me, is to discourage spectacle and alarmism, as well as the chest-thumping fulminations that defined Jeff Zucker’s CNN during the Trump era. The direction that Licht wants to impress upon his staff—and which he intends to bring up at tomorrow’s town hall—is that CNN should cover the story, not be the story, and that anchors and correspondents need to uphold those principles in order to maintain and build trust with audiences, especially the cohorts who were turned off by the self-aggrandizing this-is-an-apple, always-at-11 grandstanding of the recent past. 

This is a notable departure from Zucker, who, befitting his talents as a generationally-talented entertainment programmer, encouraged some anchors and correspondents to speak out forcefully against the Trump White House, the G.O.P., and Fox News whenever they saw evidence of contempt for truth, civility and democracy. Many CNN personalities garnered their own headlines and became pseudo-celebrities in the process, which furthered their loyalty to Zucker and enshrined his legend at the network.

It was a good strategy at the time, and it rescued CNN from the Jon Klein era doldrums, when it truly could have become some sort of Headlines News or adult Cheddar, but times change. In fact, to be fair, Zucker sensed this too. CNN had already lowered its decibel level by a few notches by the time Jason Kilar came for him. 

“Questioning Why We’re Doing That”

So far, Licht has introduced some editorial changes to help turn down the temperature, reducing the use of the “Breaking News” banner that was a near constant presence on Zucker’s CNN. In the run-up to the Jan. 6 hearings, two sources familiar with the matter tell me, Licht also told producers that he would prefer them not to use the term “The Big Lie” when referring to attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election. Licht is said to prefer “Trump’s lie,” or “lies about the election,” as opposed to something that sounds like a hashtag and flattens the complexity of the matter at hand. 

But Licht, who has made a point of delegating day-to-day programming decisions to producers, has not gone so far as to direct specific anchors or correspondents to change their tone. His strategy, I’m told, is to establish CNN’s new mission, and then leave it to the employees to prove that they understand what he wants, or not. It’s a thoughtful management approach, sure, but it’s also presumably an opportunity for Licht to make the sort of evaluations that Fischer reported. And the lack of over-producing may be the purest way for him to determine which talents are authentically comfortable in the more centrist environment versus the ones attempting to play teachers’ pet, even if it screws with some peoples’ heads.

Hosts like Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer and Chris Wallace are all quite comfortable with the new administration and their place in it. But once you move beyond the core group of household name, trademarked, capital-S “Serious journalists,” there is a lot of second-guessing going on. This week, for instance, the occasionally outspoken and immensely popular Don Lemon questioned whether President Joe Biden, who will turn 80 in November, had “the stamina, physically and mentally, to continue on even after 2024.” It was a perfectly reasonable question, and one that the Times had openly asked days earlier, but the remark nevertheless earned him the ire of left-wing Twitter, where he got dogpiled. He also earned rare praise from Fox News host Sean Hannity

Eagle-eyed observers of CNN will note that Lemon, a #Resistance hero during the Trump years, wasn’t kissing up to the new boss in the name of newfound centrism. After all, this was consistent with his decision to call Biden “weak” back in October, a month before Malone even made his remarks. But at Licht’s CNN, several staffers now find themselves mindfucked—questioning, fairly or unfairly, whether Lemon or others are trying to appease the new leadership, or acting genuinely, as the network re-orients. This new paranoia and self-scrutiny filters down to decisions made across the organization every day. “Things we might have always done, guests we might have always booked—we’re now questioning why we’re doing that, and how that’s going to be interpreted,” one on-air talent told me. 

At CNN’s proverbial water-cooler, the most pressing question centers on whether or not any of Zucker’s truth warriors will lose their jobs. The Axios report mentioned just two on-air talents by name: Jim Acosta, the network’s famously confrontational White House correspondent, who wrote a book decrying Trump’s attacks on the press, and Brian Stelter, the outspoken media correspondent, who has devoted much of his on-air and online real estate over the years to calling out Trump and Fox News for attacks on the truth (and wrote a book about it, as well). Per Fischer, the two men have “become the face of the network’s liberal shift” in the eyes of “conservative critics.” That doesn’t imply that either one of them is on the chopping block, or will not be renewed when their deals expire. Nevertheless, in a brand-building effort such as Licht’s current reconfiguration, perceptions matter—particularly if you’re trying to convince Americans across the political spectrum that the network isn’t at war with the right and simply wants to do good journalism. 

In the end, Licht may find that multi-millionaire broadcast journalists aren’t actually stone-cold ideologues or advocates. Many talents who once railed against pro-Trump Republicans and Fox News are quite capable of tacking back toward a less activist brand of journalism. Alternatively, he may decide that he needs to offer up a sacrificial lamb to the moderates and Republicans—Malone among them—who felt alienated by what they saw on Zucker’s CNN, or at least what they saw on Tucker Carlson’s depiction of CNN. But the reality is that Licht may have learned a master management lesson from his boss, David Zaslav, who artfully burnished his talent-friendly reputation in Hollywood during the closing of the Discovery-Warner Media sale while delicately foreshadowing his moves so that nothing, even the unplugging of CNN+ or the recent sales mass layoff, seemed like a surprise. Licht probably won’t have to make a blood sacrifice. Evaluating talent from the 22nd executive floor, he may be content to let non-believers make his decisions easy for him.

Middle Men

Notably, Licht’s vision for a nonpartisan, non-polarizing CNN is indicative of a larger trend taking place at almost all of America’s leading media outlets. At The New York Times, newly minted executive editor Joe Kahn spoke to Joe Pompeo at Vanity Fair this week about the paper’s ability to draw in broad audiences, and repeatedly stressed that the Times was “an independent news organization… not a partisan fighter.” This talking point appears to be part of a larger initiative at the Times Company. The other day, C.E.O. Meredith Kopit Levien announced the company’s goal of reaching 15 million paid subscribers by 2027. And as Michael Jordan might tell you, Republicans buy Wordle, Cooking, and even Times subscriptions, too. Publisher A.G. Sulzberger, for his part, recently commissioned an ill-fated editorial decrying cancel culture. It’s a topic that Sulzberger has seen up close many times during his tenure: to wit, the James Bennet imbroglio, the Bari Weiss contretemps, and Bret Stephens’ criticism of The 1619 Project, and his column questioning what we know about climate change, et cetera.

At The Washington Post, Jeff Bezos and publisher Fred Ryan have privately asked prospective executive editors how the paper can help tone down partisan rhetoric and foster greater tolerance for diverse political views. The premise of Semafor, Justin Smith and Ben Smith’s new media venture, is, in part, that the highly divisive tenor of American media is not adequate to serve a sophisticated global audience. Meanwhile, in an echo of Licht’s desire to ensure that CNN is not the story, both the Times and the Post have strongly urged their staff to be more cautious about how they use Twitter. (Licht himself deactivated his Twitter account on the day he took charge of CNN, a less-than-subtle message to employees about how he views the platform.)

These are all logical pivots for a news industry that is no longer reaping the financial benefits of the Trump show, has emerged from the pandemic more aligned with the political left than its owners and publishers would like, and has seen the damage that an activist, Twitter-happy staff can do to a brand’s reputation. And surely, some of the rhetoric about broad, nonpartisan appeal is intended to attract and satisfy advertisers and marketers who fear being aligned with partisan outlets. Nevertheless, the broad trend in American media right now is quite apparent, and it points toward the middle.

This is all well and good in the Summer of 2022. The challenge for Licht and his contemporaries will come in six months, when the 2024 presidential cycle unofficially begins. If Republicans rally behind a candidate who lies with abandon, suggests that the 2020 election was a fraud (as the majority of Republicans believe), or vilifies the media, it’s going to be a lot harder for these organizations to manage their businesses, and, in some cases, their newsrooms. Licht’s plan is high-minded, and it might even work, but it’s going to take extraordinary discipline for him to stick to his guns as an electrifying national cycle heats up.

The other challenge to Licht’s less-alarmist CNN is, of course, economic. Zaslav has repeatedly said that he sees CNN as a prestige play, not a profit center, and Licht likes to say he’s not focused on ratings. But in the long run Warner Bros. Discovery can only tolerate the expense of running a global cable news network if people are actually watching it. As an executive news producer, Licht has a history of taking third-place shows and repositioning them as the smart, sophisticated alternative to what’s already on offer, which has won him many positive press reviews and plaudits from elites. 

But that strategy hasn’t always translated to ratings victories: Morning Joe never held a candle to Fox & Friends; CBS This Morning never left third place, and, depending on who you ask, Colbert’s success at the Late Show is at least in part due to Jimmy Fallon’s implosion at NBC. It’s quite likely that, six months from now, the Times or the Post will write a glowing review of how Licht made CNN more responsible and respectful, and lowered the temperature of American political debate in the process. It is less likely, though surely not impossible, that the article will mention how he moved the needle in terms of the business.