The Media Today

The coronation of Sir Mark Thompson

September 1, 2023
FILE - Former BBC Director General Mark Thompson arrives at Portcullis House in London, Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Imagine how Chris Licht must have felt reading the coverage of Mark Thompson’s arrival as the new head of CNN. When Licht stepped into the network’s top job last year, he was met with deep media skepticism. (Coverage often dismissed him as a “late-night producer.”) That sense of doubt was ultimately vindicated by a series of blunders. Early on, Licht made the notoriously bad decision to work out of an office away from the newsroom; this year, he decided to pack a Trump town hall with leering partisans. He also participated in disastrous interviews with The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta. In June, he was fired.

Thompson, by comparison, is being welcomed as a hero. (A piece in the New York Times characterized him as an ideal hire, not to mention “a big fan of classical music, opera, and television.”) Perhaps the most telling contrast between the press treatment of Thompson and Licht arrived in my inbox on Thursday morning, in the form of CNN’s media newsletter, written by Oliver Darcy. In the Licht era, Darcy fashioned himself a de facto network ombudsman, channeling staff frustrations with Licht, his management style, and his strategy. This week, reading the mood of his colleagues, Darcy wrote that CNNers are “excited about what Thompson might be able to do as their next leader. They’ve seen his track record of reshaping pre-eminent news organizations for the future. They’ve heard the praise his former colleagues have offered up for him. And so, like Thompson, they’re ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work.”

The commendations of Thompson seem largely warranted. At the BBC, over a quarter-century career, he worked his way up from trainee to director general, modernizing an outmoded institution while retaining public trust. (He also once bit a colleague. He later called it “horseplay.”) In 2012, he joined the Times at what seemed a perilous moment. As my colleague Emily Bell wrote back then, it wasn’t at all clear that he would be able to find a digital strategy that worked, as profits and readership fell industry-wide. “The paper needs more than just a continuation of strategy and regime; it has no future as a local newspaper and its ultimate ambition must lie with global presence and development,” Bell wrote. “If Thompson manages more than failure, it will, in some ways, be an astonishing achievement.”

In the end, the Times not only found its footing but thrived, remaking itself as a nimble digital giant (in part by gobbling up competitors and talent) and taking advantage of a polarizing political moment under Donald Trump to entice subscribers who saw themselves as aligned with the Times brand. Thompson, who left the paper in 2020, deserves major credit for that turnaround. 

The scale of the challenge he now faces at CNN is even more daunting, however. The network ranks third in cable news viewership, behind both Fox and MSNBC, and the drop-off is hurting profits. CNN’s digital strategy is foundering. Even some of Thompson’s former colleagues see saving CNN as an altogether different proposition than turning around the BBC or the Times

In an initial note to the troops at CNN, Thompson focused more on the problems than on his solutions. “We face pressure from every direction—structural, political, cultural, you name it,” he wrote. “There’s no magic wand I or anyone else can wield to make this disruption go away. But what I can say is that where others see threat, I see opportunity.”

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At the Times, Thompson only ran the business side of the operation. (Although, as Margaret Sullivan, who was the paper’s public editor, has noted, “the traditional strict separations between newsroom and business side were dissolving” at the time.) At CNN, as at the BBC, he’ll also oversee the news division. In that sense, I see his arrival as yet another sign that David Zaslav—the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s owner—backs a traditional approach to covering politics. As the 2024 election nears, a debate has intensified over how to address threats to democracy, and whether news outlets need to adopt a more robust, aggressive style. Advocates have received some pushback—not least from the industry’s most senior leaders, who argue that old-school objectivity is still the most effective way to counter declining public trust in the press. (This spring, A.G. Sulzberger, who was appointed publisher of the Times toward the end of Thompson’s tenure as CEO, set out his vision of journalism in an essay for CJR.)

When Licht was at the helm of CNN, he tried to yank coverage back to what he saw as the middle of the road, but his tactics and personal style proved to be too polarizing. Thompson is an entirely different leader, adept at institutional politics. He’ll likely align CNN’s coverage with the kind of independence championed by Sulzberger, while importing some of the digital and strategic innovations that have revitalized both outlets.

Success will require more than an appealing personal manner; many observers had more of a problem with the vision for news that Licht articulated to The Atlantic than the way in which he articulated it. But for now, Thompson is in a honeymoon phase—one that Licht never got, and may well have never deserved. 

Other notable stories:

  • Recently, as we detailed in this newsletter, police in Kansas raided the newsroom of the Marion County Record, a local paper, in connection with a reporter’s use of a state database. Now a different Record reporter, Deb Gruver, whose phone was seized in the raid even though she wasn’t a target, is suing the local police chief, alleging “emotional distress,” retaliation, and the violation of her First and Fourth Amendment rights.
  • A judge in Georgia confirmed that the trial of Trump and eighteen codefendants on election-subversion charges will be televised; the court will livestream all proceedings on its YouTube channel and will also allow news organizations to send in a “pool” camera. The ruling was anticipated given Georgia’s permissive policies around cameras in court, but is subject to change and won’t apply to any proceedings that end up in federal court.
  • This week, John Eastman, one of Trump’s codefendants in the Georgia case, appeared for a two-part sit-down with Laura Ingraham on Fox News. The interview, the Post’s Philip Bump argues, revealed less about Eastman than it did about Fox, which allowed Eastman to push lies—but cut off election-fraud claims of the type that got the network sued by Dominion Voting Systems. (Fox settled earlier this year for $787.5 million.)
  • Katherine Rosman and Lanna Apisukh, of the Times, spent two days on a boat with Geraldo Rivera, who quit Fox earlier this year after clashing with network personalities over their coverage of Trump’s election lies. Rivera’s “sudden unemployment, and perhaps the comfort of life on the water, left him unconstrained to talk openly about the ordeal that began with his dramatic falling out with the former president,” Rosman writes.
  • And The Nib, the comics publication founded by Matt Bors, is shutting its doors today after ten years in operation. “I am choosing to give it a death with dignity rather than make painful cuts and have it operate as a shadow of itself for a few more years,” Bors wrote, promising “a blowout last day…with about four times as many comics as we usually run.” (ICYMI, Bors wrote for CJR in 2021 about the death of political cartooning.)

Finally, a programming note: this newsletter will be off on Monday for Labor Day. We’ll see you on Tuesday. Have a great long weekend.

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Kyle Pope was the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He is now executive director of strategic initiatives at Covering Climate Now.