The Media Today

A Licht reader

June 23, 2022
CNN CEO Chris Licht attends the TIME100 Gala celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on Wednesday, June 8, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

In 2010, Chris Licht, then the executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, suffered a brain aneurysm, and, as he later put it in a memoir, his life “moved closer to the abyss’ edge.” As Politico’s Max Tani and Alex Thompson recounted recently, while Licht was in the hospital, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the hosts of Morning Joe, asked for advice from a friend who had experienced two brain aneurysms—then–vice president Joe Biden—who subsequently called the hospital, helped facilitate Licht’s care, and checked in on him from time to time, beginning a friendship. Licht would later say that Biden is “a great and kind person,” and that a photo of Biden embracing Licht and his wife would “live on in our family forever.” Per Tani and Thompson, Licht also told Biden, at a party in the vice-presidential residence, that he saved his life.

Twelve years later, Biden and Licht are both overseeing major fiefdoms: the former, the United States; the latter, CNN, where he was named chairman and CEO earlier this year after his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, was ousted in a convoluted scandal that I don’t have the energy to explain again but you can read all about here. According to Tani, Thompson, and Allie Bice, shortly after taking the helm at CNN last month, Licht traveled to the White House and met privately there with Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff. It’s not clear what they discussed. But there’s no indication the visit was for old times’ sake—far from it, in fact. Klain has reportedly been meeting with other media figures (including Scarborough) as the Biden administration has amped up efforts to sell its agenda. And, in his early days in his new job, Licht took meetings with prominent politicians in both parties. Per Politico, he has a good relationship with Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, and watched the Super Bowl with the GOP pollster Frank Luntz. It has been widely reported that he wants more conservative guests to come on CNN.

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Since taking the top job, Licht has also embarked on an internal listening tour, visiting various CNN bureaus in the US as well as stopping off in London and Cannes. (You can’t spell the latter, after all, without C-N-N.) He is also, apparently, taking a more hands-off approach to running the network than Zucker, who was famously micro-managerial. A slew of recent reports, however, have attested that Licht is already trying to make his mark on CNN—which, as Vanity Fair put it, has recently been “a swirling cauldron of leaks and gossipmongering about his grand vision”—with most concluding that he is working to steer the network away from the opinionated bombast of the Trump years while doubling down on reporting and respectful dialogue. When his appointment was announced, the Washington Post reported Licht as having said, to a friend, that “there’s a difference between standing up for yourself, and becoming part of the resistance.” In a memo to staff around the same time, Licht said he didn’t yet know how he’d change CNN, but had been hired to keep it on its perch as “the global leader in NEWS.”

Since then, Licht has taken several specific steps to such ends, including the edict for more conservative guests. He announced the creation of a new guns beat that would aim to foster “informed policy discussions.” He told staff that he would prefer it if they refrained from referring to the “big lie” about the 2020 election on the grounds, Mediaite reported, that the phrase sounds like a Democratic Party talking point; “Trump’s election lie” or just “election lies,” Licht added, would be better. In a move that was widely discussed by media watchers, he also asked that CNN dial back its use of the “BREAKING NEWS” banner on-screen, complaining that it was alarmist and had lost its resonance through overuse. Earlier this month, the New York Times summarized the “Licht doctrine” as “less hype, more nuance and a redoubled effort to reach viewers of all stripes.” In other words, speak softly, and don’t carry the “big lie.”

For now, other hints as to Licht’s intentions for CNN are missing, or murky. He has yet to pick a new anchor for the network’s crucial 9pm Eastern hour, which has been vacant since Chris Cuomo was fired amid the Zucker scandal. (Again, no energy; read here, here, and here.) Axios reported that Licht is evaluating whether “partisan talent” who “grew polarizing during the Trump era” (in Axios’s words) can adapt to his philosophy, and could oust those who can’t; Puck subsequently confirmed the thrust of that story—and the resultant “Lichtxiety” among CNN staff—but added that Licht’s calculations might be more about “alarmism” than partisanship, and that he hasn’t, to this point, told any specific anchors to change their tone. As I’ve perceived it as a regular (if not fanatical) CNN viewer, the overall tone of the network’s programming has not so far undergone any Licht-era sea change. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see whether that will happen, and what it might look like. “I know this organization has been through tremendous change over the last four months,” Licht told staff recently, “which is why I am approaching this process slowly and thoughtfully as we look at all parts of the operation.”

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There are enough clues in the recent Licht library and his own internal pronouncements, however, to foreground both optimism and pessimism about his plans. This regular viewer, for one, would welcome new, quieter overlords—CNN already does a lot of stellar hard journalism, and it would be nice to see this foregrounded all the time, not just at moments of crisis like the early days of the war in Ukraine. While it was a more minor step than the chatter it generated might suggest, reserving the “BREAKING NEWS” banner for actual breaking news, rather than any and all news, is a positive step in this direction. (Now do “KEY RACE ALERTS.”) “Informed policy discussions” sound great, and shouldn’t stop at guns. Platforming and listening to a wide spectrum of views is, in theory at least, a laudable goal, as is hosting conservative officials—as long as those debates and interviews don’t turn into platforms for unchallenged lies and propaganda. As for the “big lie,” it strikes me that the most important word here—particularly given major outlets’ past squeamishness around it—is “lie,” and Licht seems okay with that. Arguably, “Trump’s election lie” is even tougher than “big lie.”

Still, Licht’s rationale for the latter preference is puzzling to me—the Democratic Party did not invent the phrase “big lie”; if anything, “Trump’s election lie,” to my ear, sounds more partisan, not less—and points to potential problems with his philosophy. The news should avoid partisanship, but that imperative is often interpreted through the reactive, distorted prism of perception, fairly or not. In general, journalists shouldn’t flinch from a truth because a political party happens to be speaking it—and those at CNN who are most decried as “partisan” by conservatives are often targeted for speaking blunt truths to right-wing power. (Brian Stelter’s unsparing coverage of Fox News comes to mind. Before Licht took over, the Daily Beast reported that Licht wanted a “ceasefire” with Fox; for now, CNN’s media team is still covering it aggressively, as far as I can see.) There is a mighty fine line between avoiding partisan hype, and journalism as difference-splitting, centrist triangulation. As Puck suggested, Licht might be more concerned with alarmism than partisanship, per se. But the news these days is often alarming.

Some of Licht’s early remarks suggest that he intends to find the right balance here, calming CNN’s tone without sacrificing tough truths. But others offer cause for doubt, including a reference to the “extremes” (plural) that he sees as “dominating” cable news. “Fearlessly telling the truth and being representative of what the country is,” he told staff, “is a lane that is wide open right now, and not only will it be good for this country, it will be good for business”—which is all well and good until fearlessly telling the truth involves not representing “the country” (whatever that is) and being bad for business. Then what? Again, the proof will be in the pudding, and it would be unfair to judge Licht just yet. Speaking softly is a fine plan. But in an age when democracy is under assault from one side of the aisle—and swaths of “the country” seem okay with that—you better be sure, as a news organization, that you carry a big stick, too.

A different question, of course, is whether the plan to speak softly will stick; cable news, as we know, is a ratings-driven business, and eyeballs often follow outrage and conflict (and, as CNN and other networks have learned in the Biden era, Trump). According to Bloomberg, Licht personally is a longtime ratings obsessive; even when he was in the hospital in 2010, he reportedly “found himself unable to resist checking the numbers” for Morning Joe. It’s less clear that ratings are his top priority these days. Various outlets have reported, in their Licht profiles, that David Zaslav, the CEO of CNN’s new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, is more concerned that CNN be a reputational asset than a ratings juicer. According to the Post, Licht expressed concern, before taking the job, that it would “throw him into a cutthroat ratings battle.”

Still, as others have reported, prioritizing reputation brings its own financial considerations. CNN+, CNN’s short-lived subscription streaming service, may not have lasted long enough for Licht to oversee it, but the network could yet pivot other parts of its business to a subscription model, and Puck reckons that the new owners will see CNN’s palatability to conservatives as a bonus as it seeks to sell broader-based streaming packages. The Times, meanwhile, has quoted Licht as telling colleagues that CNN being perceived as fair-minded will be attractive to major advertisers, while Bloomberg reports that Licht could allow advertisers to sponsor segments on individual shows, a step that CNN has avoided in the past due to concerns about editorial independence, according to a former top executive. All this need not interfere with Licht’s stated vision and fearless truth-telling. But it could.

Below, more on Chris Licht and CNN:

  • Some more background: In addition to working on Morning Joe, Licht has worked as an executive at CBS, where he helped launch a morning news shows and oversaw Stephen Colbert’s late-night program. He has long been friendly with Zaslav, with the pair reportedly seeking out each other’s counsel. According to the Post, ahead of Licht’s hiring, “CNN employees and observers looked to Zaslav’s appointment of a new president for hints of what editorial direction he wants the network to take—particularly after Discovery shareholder John Malone said in a November interview that he ‘would like to see CNN evolve back to the journalism it started with.’”
  • The financials: A source told Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo recently that Licht may soon have to oversee cuts due to “immense” pressure from CNN’s new owners, but it’s not yet clear what, if anything, these might look like. “Some sources told me word on the street is that there will be reduced spend at CNN’s original series/film division and CNN Digital, but others poured cold water on this chatter, noting that Warner Bros. Discovery talked up CNN’s original series at its recent upfront,” per Pompeo. Licht “has indicated that no cuts are planned for news-gathering” and “product and digital are hiring, which sounds like a good thing considering the steady exodus from digital’s leadership ranks.” 
  • Big little lies: Trump recently seized on the news that CNN is reevaluating its use of the phrase “big lie,” claiming—falsely, of course—that the network has “totally prohibited” its staff from using the term, and that it has done so for fear of legal liability. Erik Wemple, a media columnist at the Post, dismantled Trump’s claims, and also made the case that neither “Trump’s election lie” nor “election lies” are suitable substitutes for “big lie,” since they aren’t specific enough: Trump also lied about the integrity of the 2016 election even though he won. The “big lie,” by contrast, is “short, elegant and descriptive, encompassing the disinformation campaign surrounding the 2020 presidential election.”
  • Prescience: Writing in 2019, Emily Tamkin, who was then CJR’s public editor for CNN, explored the balance between the network’s opinion and news output, and how it might be better. “What if, for every talking heads segment, there was a reported segment?” she mused. “What if the hosts threw their shows over to the beat reporters more often? What if guests who lied weren’t brought on again? What if people who had worked on campaigns couldn’t be brought on to spin the news unmitigated? Would more people watch? Would people feel less overwhelmed when they turned on their televisions?”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.