From the day he took over CNN in 2022, Warner Bros. Discovery head David Zaslav was clear about what he wanted from CNN. He told colleagues, reporters and others who might care, publicly and privately, that he wanted to move the network away from what he saw as left-leaning “advocacy” and toward a more “balanced” one. His CNN will not be anti-Trump and more welcoming of Republicans.
As Mr. Zaslav’s handpicked CNN leader, Chris Licht, appeared to struggle with that role in the months ahead, Mr. Zaslav backed him up with a final carte blanche: “Ratings be damned.”
In fact, ratings will continue cursedand Licht’s tenure, which came to an abrupt end Wednesday after a little over a year, came as Zaslav reached his limit.
Mr. Licht’s firing immediately raises a defining question for television journalism and beyond: a non-aligned approach to independent journalism in today’s fragmented, on-demand media age, when viewers prepare news on their terms Will it work? Will it work in the highly niche cable area of all places?
In the end, Mr. Licht’s attempts didn’t seem to satisfy anyone.An early line from some news commentators was that he failed because his mission is impossiblea dead idea of a bygone era.
Indeed, Mr Lichter’s brief tenure does not offer an easy answer. His mission is largely doomed by the idiosyncratic form of his mission, his own mistakes, and an apparently incomplete understanding of the web that existed prior to his arrival.
But it does illustrate how difficult it is to find success where Mr Licht is looking.polarization is high altitude, the Americans occupy the information silos of the duel. Cable TV, a medium that catered to different interests from the start, is now competing with social media, where the most successful projects tend to be the most partisan and provocative.
Yet despite this, trying to create a version of media that shares a public square is especially difficult without a clear notion of “balance” or an equal voice of “two voices”— as mr zaslav saidThis is especially the case when former President Donald J. Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, still falsely insists that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.
And, according to several current and former CNN staffers, it was this lack of clarity under Mr. Lichter and his boss, Mr. Zaslav, who was following in their direction. That definition rests more on what they don’t want — all that came under Mr Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker — than what they want.
Some of them point to early missteps at the top that led to early distrust of CNN employees — and weakened Mr. Licht — before Discovery merged with CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia.
In a November 2021 interview with CNBC, well-known Warner Bros. Discovery Channel board member and cable pioneer John Malone appeared to discredit CNN and praise Fox News while discussing his own hopes for CNN under the new corporate structure.
“In my opinion, Fox News has followed an interesting trajectory in trying to make information News, and I mean some actual news, embedded in the schedule of all views,” Mr Malone says“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism it started out with and actually have reporters, that would be unique and refreshing.”
It was seen as a slight to a news organization that was in fact full of brilliant journalists. Many of them look up to Mr. Zucker, who was forced out in February 2022 after failing to report a romantic workplace relationship.
“His claim that CNN’s thousands of reporters are not real is deeply insulting,” said Brian Stelter, the network’s former chief media correspondent and former New York Times correspondent. (Under Mr. Zook, Mr. Stelter became the embodiment of the network’s sometimes aggressive defense against Mr. Trump’s “fake news” attacks on the network, and has often been the target of conservative criticism. He will be one of the first high-value anchors mr lichter scissors.) “I think the takeaway for many CNN employees is that Malone wants CNN to be more like Fox.”
Mr Stelter insisted that the network was already recalibrating for the post-Trump era when Mr Zaslav took over. Many staff members agree with Mr Licht’s general view that networks should be straightforward, and he and others see the new leadership as “throwing a straw man”.
For example, one of the things that Mr. Zaslav and Mr. Lichter have made clear is that they want to reverse the Republican resistance to appearing on CNN. “The Republicans are back,” Mr Zaslav announced at a media conference in May. “Republicans are not live.”
But the idea of including Republicans in its programming is a novelty for the network, at odds with recent history.
Early in Trump’s rise, Mr Zucker was criticized for giving Trump too much time to talk uncritically, then hired Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandorf Analysts who are sharply pro-Trump, such as Corey Lewandowski.
The tone has certainly changed as CNN, like many other news outlets, has more aggressively challenged Mr. Trump’s misrepresentations. In turn, he has smeared them as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.”
Few have been as attacked by Mr Trump as CNN.fresh in memory mail bomb scare at its New York office in 2018 — part of an environment that receded before Mr Licht and Mr Zaslav arrived.
Even now, Mr. Zucker’s online fans — and there are still plenty of them — say that if his avatar, CNN, sometimes appears fiery and angry, it’s in defense of the truth.
“Under the Zook regime, CNN said: ‘We may sound angry, but we are debunking lies and we are standing up for truth. If that sounds angry, so be it,'” former CNN Washington said Frank Sesnow, bureau chief and now a professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.
Mr. Sesnow said he, too, believed it was the networks’ responsibility to “downplay certain elements and dial back some things” from the Trump presidency. But he said Mr Licht was on the wrong track.
“What Licht was really trying to do, and what didn’t work, was he was trying to change the tone, but he made it sound like a substantial change,” Mr. Sesnow said.
By the standards of the 2016 campaign, CNN’s town hall with Mr. Trump last month was not particularly unusual. Of course, that was before Trump’s four years in office and the unrest caused by his electoral lies that fueled the riots on January 6, 2021.
Mr Licht’s handling of the town hall will help seal his fate — not least his decision to stage it in front of an enthusiastic Trump audience, with the current president lying and attacking CNN host Kate, who was his investigator The audience cheered for Lan Collins.
There seems to be a general consensus within CNN that it was poorly executed. First, there is less uniformity in holding town hall meetings. After all, Mr. Trump is the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
As Anderson Cooper asked the next night on the radio, acknowledging audience disappointment, “Do you think staying in your silo and only listening to someone you agree with will make that person go?”
The answer seemed to come in the next few days: The network had its worst week in eight years.
Even now, Mr Zaslav seems intent on sticking with his strategy. “Ratings be damned,” he might say. But history shows that no TV strategy can survive the eternal ratings curse.