Licht’s Teacher’s Pet Syndrome

Brianna Keilar
CNN anchor Brianna Keilar is at the center of the organization's latest internal drama. Photo: Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
September 7, 2022

In mid-August, one week after F.B.I. officials executed the search of Mar-a-Lago that recovered more than 300 classified documents, CNN’s respected and forceful anchor Brianna Keilar brought on Rep. Mike Turner, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, to articulate the G.O.P. response. The interview, which took place on the network’s State of the Union program, showcased Keilar’s prodigious prosecutorial talents and the authoritative, occasionally combative, take-no-bullshit approach to cross-examination that she had honed in the latter years of the TrumpZucker era. 

During that epoch, Keilar had become one of the more unlikely stars of the network. Sure, she wasn’t making Anderson Cooper money and she wasn’t an Erin Burnett-style billboard talent, but her defense of Washington’s institutions against Trump’s berserk behavior made her a crowd favorite, a Twitter heroine, and a star of the Zucker combine.

The SOTU exchange was vintage Keilar. In the tensest part of the segment, Turner repeatedly sought to argue that the documents, which had been marked “special access,” might merely be labeled as such, and might not actually be classified or rise to the level of a national security threat. Keilar was unmoved by his seemingly specious, or at the very least rather thin and circumlocutory, arguments. She cogently expressed to the congressman that he didn’t “actually have the information on which to base that conclusion at this point.”

Later, as Turner sought to change the subject, Keilar interjected: “Do you know they’re not [a national security threat]?” Moments later, she tried again: “Sir, you’re aware they had concerns that this could be a national security threat. When you cast doubt on that, do you have evidence that this was not a national security threat, or that this was known to not be a national security threat?” Turner did not.

The interview received some positive attention on social media. And in an alternative universe it would have been heralded as yet another example of CNN sticking it to Trumpworld, standing up for truth, the-apple-is-the-apple, yada yada. But in the embryonic David ZaslavChris Licht era, one in which CNN is aggressively pivoting to the center and disrobing itself of the more unctuous qualities of the #resistance chapter of its history, it was received with more equivocation. Had Keilar gone too far? Was she pushing the wrong buttons?

The Marines Episode

Internally at CNN, a rumor exploded among staff—categorically and aggressively denied by CNN P.R. head Matt Dornic—that Licht was displeased with the tone and tenor of the interview, and that he had conveyed as much to Keilar, either directly or via a deputy, such as CNN programming chief Michael Bass. Whether it happened is almost less important than the context itself. There was fertile ground for such a rumor to spread, of course: Under Zucker, Keilar had made a name for herself as a staunch critic of Trump and his Republican enablers. And indeed, Licht has been refreshingly transparent about his intentional brand repositioning, even if he is scant on some details. Meanwhile, anxieties are running high. The fact that fellow Trump critics Brian Stelter and John Harwood have both been ousted in recent weeks, years ahead of their respective contract out years, has only heightened speculation about Keilar’s fate. 

Then, last week, a different sort of Keilar sotto voce conversation surfaced in and around CNN: In the wake of President Joe Biden’s speech in Philadelphia, in which he warned that “equality and democracy are under assault,” Keilar took to Twitter to condemn Biden’s use of uniformed Marines as part of his backdrop. The criticism, which she would expand upon in an analysis piece noting her status as a member of a military family, angered the Biden White House and specifically chief of staff Ron Klain, who retweeted a liberal blogger who had called Keilar “one of John Malone’s propagandists”—a reference to the powerful Discovery shareholder who first previewed the company’s desire to reform CNN last fall. (Klain has also tweeted praise for Harwood, and retweeted a tweet labeling CNN “diet Fox.” Politico, the Beltway bible, has declared a new “Biden-CNN rift.” Slow news week, I suppose.) 

Anyway, this time around the rumor inside CNN held that Keilar was going after Biden in order to compensate—or, some argued, overcompensate—for her previous criticisms of Republicans, essentially in an effort to appease Licht and protect her career. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it was subconscious, maybe it was just an emotive and expressive broadcaster articulating her truth. Regardless, many around CNN had a theory, and few thought it was some Joycean stream of consciousness absent an agenda. This is cable news, dear reader, everyone wants something.

The sturm und drang surrounding Keilar, who declined several requests to speak with me, is indicative of the general panic and dread at CNN, where programming decisions that may have once seemed unremarkable are now seen through the anxiety-inducing prism of Licht’s mandate, overanalyzed by CNN insiders—and, increasingly, eagle-eyed viewers on Twitter. Criticism of Biden, or hard-hitting interviews with Democrats, both of which long predated the Licht era, are now interpreted as crude and reflexive virtue signaling. Piercing questions to Republicans are read like tea leaves for evidence of how anchors and correspondents are trying or failing to get in line with Licht’s vision. Very often, some hosts and correspondents told me, these on-air talents second-guess themselves, and are then left guessing and second-guessing whether or not the boss approved, or even noticed. During the Zucker era, this sort of managing up worked to great effect. Talent were motivated by the boss’ approbation, seemingly electrified by his supportive emails and tweets, sent at all hours. During Licht’s early tenure, not so much.

On some level, all of this is ridiculous, of course. And yet on another, it reflects the marvelous alchemy of cable news—a business in which the honest truth is supposed to be professed by broadcast talent who wear make-up and read cue cards to a camera. But so it goes. Zaslav and Licht indeed deserve credit for managing CNN’s evolution amid the linear decline with stiff upper lips. The decisions that they are making aren’t easy or popular or riskless, especially when the people whose fates they are laboring over get to speak live on camera every day. Plus, a little anxiety isn’t always terrible in a business unit that had, over the years, been more than occasionally guilty of breast-beating and self-mythologizing.

All that said, Licht is now five months into his transformation and he somehow seems to be moving too fast and too slow at once—turning around the ship while announcing low-wattage superficial changes, elbowing out mid-level talent, and promoting Zucker’s deputies. He seems to have coalesced his troops behind a do-more-with-less vision via cost-cutting fears rather than visionary persuasion. First years are always the hardest years of transformation, and Licht seems to be learning a valuable lesson: the C.E.O. is both the most powerful and most outnumbered. It can be lonely at the top.