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Chris Licht, CNN and the Failed Model of Centrist Media
The political media elite are viewing the story of CNN's downfall through the wrong prism
The very insular political media bubble spent the last many months obsessing over the fate of Chris Licht, the recently fired head of CNN. The media’s two favorite stories involve itself and embarrassing failures, so it’s no surprise that media elites talk, text, and tweet about the embarrassing failure of a media executive. Given CNN’s rapidly declining ratings and profits, as well as subterranean staff morale, speculation about Licht’s ouster has percolated for weeks. The Sword of Damocles fell because of a devastating 15,000-word profile from Tim Alberta of The Atlantic, wherein Licht complained about CNN’s COVID journalism, his predecessor, and demonstrated an astounding level of hubris borne of insecurity.
CNN’s precipitous drop in ratings and relevance is told through the story of Licht and his management and programming decisions. I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. Reporting from Alberta and Puck’s Dylan Byers illustrates that Licht was the wrong man for the job, and he made a series of management missteps and programming mistakes. He did not win over the network talent; and the few moves that he made to shake up a staid lineup did not work. Anyone not comatose for the last eight years could have seen that the Trump town hall would end up a PR and political disaster for the network. A better, more experienced executive could have avoided stepping on so many rakes, but in the end, this version of CNN was doomed.
The current clusterfuck at CNN is as much an indictment of the network’s pivot to centrist, both-sides journalism as it is of Licht, the man, and manager.
The Misbegotten Mission
CNN is not alone; the entire cable industry is in an inexorable decline. Cable has been hemorrhaging subscribers for years, but the problem is becoming critical faster than most expected. According to a report in Variety about a recent analysis of the industry:
As streaming video continues its ascendancy, cable, satellite and internet TV providers in the U.S. turned in their worst subscriber losses to date in the first quarter of 2023 — collectively shedding 2.3 million customers in the period, according to analyst estimates…
With the Q1 decline, total pay-TV penetration of occupied U.S. households (including for internet services like YouTube TV and Hulu) dropped to 58.5% — its lowest point since 1992.
Everyone from the Murdochs to Licht is tasked, not with saving cable, but with harvesting as much money as possible from its corpse before the lights go out.
Ratings are down for everything on cable other than live sports. Like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC lost viewers but at a much lower rate because they better understand the value proposition they offer viewers. Under the previous leadership of Jeff Zucker, CNN increased its ratings and profits by aggressively leaning into the story of the decade — the rise and fall of Donald Trump. While CNN did a lot of great reporting on Trump, there were plenty of excesses including airing empty podiums at Trump rallies and creating professional wrestling-style brawls between progressive pundits and paid Trump shills.
In rapid-fire succession, CNN’s parent company was sold to Discovery and Jeff Zucker was fired for misconduct. David Zaslav, the new head of Warner Brothers/Discovery, decided to take CNN in a different direction by toning down the anti-Trump rhetoric. This was a disaster from the outset. As Alberta wrote:
There was never going to be much goodwill between Warner Bros. Discovery and the journalists at CNN. In November 2021, not long after the corporate takeover was announced, John Malone, a right-wing billionaire who stood to become a major shareholder on the new Warner Bros. Discovery board, said that CNN could learn a few things from the reporters at Fox News. “I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone told CNBC… Zaslav told numerous people that he needed an outsider to revamp CNN’s journalistic practices because Republican politicians had told him they were no longer willing to come on the network—a rationale that worried staffers there.
Balance became more important than accuracy. Success would be judged by the reaction of CNN’s critics. Instead of reporting without fear or favor, CNN went the opposite direction. In an effort to improve its reputation, CNN began courting the very people who destroyed it.
The Bad Business of Both Sides Journalism
No one knows if Licht agreed with the Zaslav/Malone vision of a centrist, non-offensive CNN, but he executed that vision with ruthless efficiency. Licht ordered CNN to downplay coverage of the first January 6th hearing; he fired media reporter Brian Stelter and White House Correspondent John Harwood for being too anti-Trump; and he went on an apology tour with top Republicans hoping to lure them back onto the air.
This strategy is an objective failure. CNN has its lowest ratings in decades — periodically getting fewer viewers than Newsmax — a network that is nearly impossible to find and markets itself as the place to tune in if you think Fox News is too “fair and balanced.” The problem isn’t Licht’s implementation of Zaslav’s vision. It’s the vision itself.
There is an audience for CNN’s journalism. In this, they still exceed global standards. When big news happens at home or abroad, people tune into CNN. When Russia invaded Ukraine, people who do not normally watch, flocked to CNN for updates. The same is true during natural disasters, school shootings, and other major events. Those moments give us hope for CNN to bounce back and continue to exist. But those moments are the exception not the rule. Turn on CNN or any other cable channel and most of the day is not news. It’s people — pundits, experts, media personalities — reacting to the news. I say this as someone who spent four years being paid to be one of those people. It’s repetitive and boring, and sanding down the edges made it more unwatchable.
CNN’s new overlords believe there is a silent majority of people looking for “less political” news, but there is little evidence to support that thesis.
First, the people who tune into cable on a regular basis are people who engage very deeply with the news. These people are different from the population at large. High levels of news consumption tend to correlate with high levels of partisanship. Cable news viewers are more likely to vote and be engaged with politics than the population at large. In other words, they are political junkies; and political junkies are not centrist by definition. David Graham explained the problem well in The Atlantic:
America really does have a substantial centrist middle, which explains why Joe Biden is president today, but it’s composed of normal people. Less than 10 million people watch cable news nightly; 155 million voted in the 2020 election. There simply aren’t enough rabid news consumers who are also staunch centrists to sustain a network. Even Fox News is bleeding viewers who find it insufficiently conservative to networks further to the right, like Newsmax.
Second, not only did the new brand of CNN fail to bring in new viewers, it cost them much of their existing audience. Our media choices — like our politics — are part of our identity. We believe where we get our news says something about who we are. A pro-Trump person feels at home watching Fox News. An anti-Trump person is comfortable with MSNBC. CNN’s ratings rose during the Trump era because CNN held Trump accountable for his misdeeds. When CNN publicly changed, its audience — which studies showed was overwhelmingly Democratic — wondered whether choosing CNN should still be part of its identity.
Finally, like so many in the media before them, Zaslav and Licht made the fundamental mistake of thinking that the Republican complaints of liberal media biaswere made in good faith. Republicans complain about CNN and the rest of the media because it serves their political strategy. They want to discredit those who report unflattering information and they want to drive their voters further into the Right Wing information ecosystem. Sure, Donald Trump is back on CNN, but how did that work out? He used their platform and exploited their naivete and then went right back to crapping on the network.
At the end of the day, CNN’s crisis is much bigger than Licht. If there is not a change in strategy, his successor will eventually meet the same fate. This is a lesson bigger than CNN. It applies to the entirety of the legacy media and its dependence on an increasingly anachronistic model. In a highly polarized and competitive media environment, if you stand for nothing, you stand alone.