“I did that too, and I also got slammed!,” Walter Isaacson told me earlier this week. The veteran journalist, former editor of Time, one-time cable chief and biographer of history’s great men was referring to Chris Licht, the newly installed chairman and C.E.O. of CNN, and a recent trip he’d taken to Capitol Hill. Licht had ventured to D.C. in mid-July to meet with lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, ostensibly as part of an icebreaking, get-to-know-the-players tour. But Licht’s true objective, several sources told me, was to convince highly skeptical Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, and John Thune that they would get a fair hearing on his network, and that they should come back on its airwaves.
Twenty-one years earlier, in the halcyon, pre-9/11 days of August 2001—“the summer of sharks and car chases,” as he put it—Isaacson himself had ventured to Capitol Hill as the newly installed chairman and C.E.O. of CNN, with a similar mission to salvage the network’s relationship with conservative leaders like Trent Lott, Dennis Hastert, and Tom DeLay. In those days, on the heels of the Gingrich Revolution and the launch of Fox News, CNN was losing appeal on the right. G.O.P. lawmakers had accused it of liberal bias; DeLay, who referred to CNN alternately as the “Communist News Network” and the “Clinton News Network,” even suggested conservatives boycott the channel entirely.
During his mission to the Hill, Isaacson reportedly told lawmakers he wanted to “change the culture” at CNN to “win back” conservatives’ trust. He described the trip then as an outreach effort to Republicans who felt “that CNN has not been as open to covering Republicans.” But, he told me this week, “I was basically asking Republicans not to boycott CNN.”