The head of Warner Bros. Discovery, David Zaslav, was clear from the day he took control of CNN in 2022 what he wanted for the cable news network. Publicly and privately he told colleagues, journalists and anyone else who might care that he wanted to move the network away from what was seen as left-wing “advocacy” and towards more “balance”. His CNN would not be anti-Trump, and would be more welcoming to Republicans.
As Mr. Zaslav’s chosen CNN leader, Chris Licht, appeared to struggle with that remit in the coming months, Mr. Zaslav backed him with a final carte blanche statement: “Ratings be damned.”
Mr. Licht’s dismissal immediately raised a pivotal question for the television news industry and beyond: whether an unaffiliated independent approach to news can work in today’s fragmented, on-demand media age, when viewers can choose to watch on their own terms. But is prepared for the news? And can it work in the highly niche complex of cables, of all places?
In the end, Mr. Licht’s effort didn’t appear to satisfy anyone. And the opening lines among some news commentators were that he had failed because their mission was impossibleA dead thought of the past.
Indeed, Mr. Licht’s short tenure doesn’t provide an easy answer. His mission was largely doomed due to the particular size of his assignment, his own missteps, and his apparently incomplete understanding of the network as it existed prior to his arrival.
But it did highlight how difficult it can be to find success where Mr. Licht was sent searching for it. is polarized sky high, and the Americans capture the dueling informational silo. Cable, a medium that has played to divided interests since its inception, is now competing with social media, where the most successful items tend to be the most blatantly biased and provocative.
Yet for all that, trying to create a media version of a shared public square is especially difficult without a clear notion of what it means to be “balanced” or to say “both voices” are equal – As Mr. Jaslav says, This is especially the case when the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, former President Donald J. Trump still falsely claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.
And, several current and former CNN staff members said, that clear perception was precisely what was lacking under Mr. Licht and his boss, Mr. Zaslav, whose direction he was following. The definition was shaped more by what they didn’t want — all that was exposed to them under Mr. Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker — than what they wanted.
Many of them pointed to an early disturbance from above that led to the initial mistrust — and Mr. Licht — with CNN employees before the merger of Discovery and WarnerMedia, CNN’s corporate parent, was even completed. Had taken.
In a November 2021 interview on CNBC, a prominent Warner Bros. Discovery board member, cable pioneer john maloneappeared to denigrate CNN and praise Fox News while discussing his own hopes for CNN under the new corporate structure.
“Fox News, in my opinion, has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to news News, I mean some real journalism, embedded in the program schedule of all views. mr malone said, “I would like to see CNN evolve into the kind of journalism it started with, and actually have journalists who will be unique and fresh.”
In fact, it was taken modestly as a news organization with eminent journalists. Many of them revered Mr. Zucker, who was forced out in February 2022 after failing to report a romantic workplace relationship.
“His suggestion that thousands of CNN reporters weren’t genuine was outrageous,” said Brian Stelter, the network’s former top media correspondent and former New York Times reporter. (Under Mr. Zucker, Mr. Stelter emerged as the embodiment of the network’s sometimes combative defense against the “fake news” attacks that Mr. Trump has waged against the network, and was a regular target of conservative criticism. He became one of the first high-profile anchors mr licht cut.) “I think the takeaway for many of the CNN staffers was that Malone wanted to make CNN more like Fox.”
Mr. Stelter says the network was already recalibrating for the post-Trump era when Mr. Zaslav took over. Several staff members agreed with Mr. Licht on the general notion that the network should play it straight, and he and others saw the new leadership as “punching down on a straw man”.
For example, one thing Mr. Zaslav and Mr. Licht made clear was that they wanted to overturn Republican resistance to appearing on CNN. “Republicans are back in the air,” Mr. Zaslav declared At a media conference in May. “Republicans weren’t on the air.”
But the idea that the inclusion of Republicans in its programming was novel for the network was at variance with recent history.
During Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Zucker was criticized for giving Mr. Trump too much uncontrolled airtime, and then for recruiting staunchly pro-Trump analysts such as Jeffrey Lord and Corey Lewandowski.
The tone certainly changed as CNN, like many others in the news media, more aggressively challenged Mr. Trump’s false statements. In turn, he denounced them as “fake news” and “enemies of the people”.
Some took aim at Mr Trump, like CNN. the memories are still fresh mail-bomb scare in its New York offices in 2018 — part of an atmosphere that subsided before Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav arrived.
Even now, Mr. Zucker’s fans at the network — and they are still veterans — will say that if his CNN avatar appeared hot and angry at times, he did so in defense of the truth.
“Under the Zucker regime, CNN said: ‘We may seem angry, but we’re lying and we stand for the truth. If that sounds angry, so be it,'” said Frank Cesno, CNN Washington Former bureau chief and now professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Mr. Sesno said he also believed it was up to the network to “truncate some elements and dial back some things” from Trump’s presidency. But he said Mr. Licht had gone about it the wrong way.
“What Licht was really trying to do, and it didn’t work, was he was trying to make a tonal change, but he made it sound like a solid change,” Mr. Sesno said.
The town hall that CNN conducted with Mr Trump last month was not particularly unusual by the standards of the 2016 campaign. This was, of course, before four years of the Trump regime and the uproar generated by his election lies fueled the riots of January 6, 2021.
Mr. Licht’s handling of the town hall would help seal his fate — especially his decision to stage it in front of a pro-Trump audience, which amused the former president as he lied and posed as his inquisitor, Kaitlyn Collins. Attacked the CNN host while serving.
There appears to be broad agreement within CNN that the execution was poor. There was little unanimity about where the town hall was placed in the first place. Mr. Trump was, after all, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
As Anderson Cooper acknowledged the audience’s disappointment, asking on the air the next night, “Do you think that staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to drive away?”
An answer came in the days that followed: the network had its worst ratings week in eight years.
Even now Mr. Zaslav appears to be sticking to his strategy. “Ratings get bad,” he has said. But history shows that no television strategy can escape eternal ratings doom.