“The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”- Hunter S. Thompson, Author, Journalist
You don’t even have to get close. The radioactivity emanating from Donald Trump’s deadly persona can kill even at great distances. What it doesn’t destroy, it fatally wounds to cause a lingering and tragic end. Just ask Chris Licht, the CEO of CNN. Trump’s hour inside of a global journalistic institution has infected with a deadly virus LIcht’s career and the network’s reputation. Neither are likely to experience an expeditious recovery.
If you have remained oblivious to this intrigue, consider reading The Atlantic, and Tim Alberta’s piece on Licht and Trump, and the failure of the new CNN boss to understand the risks of giving the former president an hour of air time with an audience comprised of his sycophants. The maneuver set in graphic relief Licht’s shortcomings as an executive and a journalist, which has led the network to its lowest prime time ratings ever recorded, down below the laughable productions of the Family Dollar Store of TV journalism, Newsmax.
When CNN launched as a news network in 1980, those of us who were young TV journalists at the time were originally skeptical, if not hopeful. The idea was exciting. Local news constrained time for reporters, and this idea of 24 hours of news, giving stories a longer time to examine facts and issues, was compelling. There were, of course, blunders with formatting and executing the idea and critics began using the network’s acronym to suggest it stood for “chicken noodle news,” whatever in the hell that meant. But even the uninvolved knew we were looking at a new institution in American culture and it would, eventually, have profound impact.
Which is what happened. The legacy networks of CBS, NBC, and ABC, with their graying male anchors and 30 minute dinner hour reports, had become trusted sources of information. What was less clear to their audiences was the editorial processes that decided news content. The half hour window left time for only 18 minutes of news and 12 of commercials. How much might be learned beyond Dan Rather standing up to Richard Nixon or Walter Cronkite getting emotional on the air when President Kennedy was murdered? “Old Iron Pants,” as Cronkite was known for his ability to sit in the anchor chair for endless hours, had national influence. Eventually, he bemoaned the Vietnam War, which shocked LBJ. The newsman was also the first to openly say on the air that Lee Harvey Oswald was JFKs killer, which has become more theory than fact. Cronkite almost single-handedly decided for America that the Warren Commission would deliver the truth of that day in Dallas.
CNN offered a greater diversity of voices and insights and opinions than the conservative legacy operations. They relied on their FCC licenses, which required that they broadcast “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity,” a federal law from the 1930s that seems almost quaint in the era of cable proliferation, satellite TV, and wireless handheld devices. As our politics and national discourse over important issues became less genteel, too, CNN had the advantage of interviewing outside experts on matters of national import, bringing them to the news desk after a particular report to suss out more information and insight. The old school approach, if subject matter rose to prominence in the public’s eye, was for a network executive to schedule a prime time special on the topic, and produce an hour-long program that might no longer have true pertinence on the date of broadcast because it had taken much too long to get on the air.
The idea that people would not pay for a service that was free on publicly-owned airwaves was rendered moot, and a few dinosaurs began to look for tarpits to stumble into and die.
The broadening of sources of TV news was invaluable for the public. When David Brinkley of NBC Nightly News told an author years earlier, “The news is what we say it is,” his statement was revelatory of the way things worked, and it was overdue for a transformation. No longer was a small group of mostly white, older males going to be making the decisions about what Americans needed to know. When Mission Cable of San Diego strung together a group of Southern California TV stations the same year CNN launched, it became increasingly clear that there was a market for aggregated programming and alternate sources of information and news. The idea that people would not pay for a service that was free on publicly-owned airwaves was rendered moot, and a few dinosaurs began to look for tarpits to stumble into and die.
The suits in the network corporate offices didn’t see what was coming even from their high perches in Manhattan skyscrapers. They were visionary enough to begin unique new programs, though, and when Iran held Americans hostage during its 1979 revolution, Ted Koppel’s Nightline after late-night local news became a staple. When the show ended a half hour after the local reports, however, CNN was just down the street continuously reporting, live, and on-the-hour TV reports from Teheran, which were almost always outdated by the time Koppel got back on the air 24 hours later on ABC. CNN held this fertile ground almost in a near monopolistic fashion until Cablevision and NBC put together the Consumer News and Business Channel, CNBC almost ten years later in 1989. Those successes spawned, in part, a partnership between NBC and Microsoft, which led to MSNBC, another 24-hour news network and it was joined that same year by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. The editorial frame of Murdoch was to report from a conservative perspective because he was convinced the other networks leaned liberal.
It’s hard to argue that these developments were inevitable but they were accelerated when executives realized news operations were no longer just cost centers that they were obligated to run as a public service. There was plenty good money to be made and anchors became less important as editors across the industry competed for the best stories and the biggest ratings to make the most profit, and there isn’t much that distorts the lens of truth more dramatically than the desire to make money. Equal resources made it possible for the networks to compete nationally and internationally on big stories and that prompted innovative, and even questionable, efforts to differentiate products. What might be the difference between CBS News and NBC News? Liberal confronted conservative, talk shows proliferated, and conflict brought attention while resolution’s red taillights were headin’ for Spain.
There is not, obviously, an infinite universe of advertising dollars, and the proliferation and maturation of the Internet brought a new form of competition. On-demand news made the round-the-clock product almost irrelevant. CNN, along with other cable networks, operated what amounted to a walkup window of reports that changed and were constantly updated while news websites and social media catered to specific interests and took information, usually unvetted, from almost any user. If you hear reports of a plane crash in Paris, chances are good there was a witness who has already posted about it on Twitter while CNN is struggling to gather actual facts. Eyeballs went a wandering, and ad dollars went a plummeting.
The truth of a story was no longer the Valhalla of journalism. Slowly, it became culturally acceptable to change and revise facts as they came in the door. Even though there was a tornado tearing through town, editors brought a second point of view to the narrative, someone who said the weather was just fine. Recognition was never given to the incontrovertible notion that there are not two sides to every story, there is only one set of facts and maybe multiple perspectives on what is confirmed. News culture changed profoundly, too, when Matt Drudge put up his website and began reporting on a president’s DNA on an intern’s blue dress. Start a rumor, true or not, and if enough people whisper it around Washington, the rumor itself becomes a story on the Drudge Report, one of the Internet’s most heavily trafficked sites. When an unfounded or an uncorroborated yarn makes a headline on Drudge, the networks have come to feel like it has met a minimum standard for putting on their broadcasts. Gotta get some of those eyeballs off the computer screen and onto the TV screen.
What used to be just the news, is now a brutal business. Money matters, conflict sells, and facts take a lot of time to find and produce while opinions are abundant and easy to grab. Chris Licht, of course, knew all this when he took his lucrative role at CNN. What he did not seem to know was how to manage people, lead and inspire, and regain viewers. His interviews with The Atlantic and Tim Alberta, speaking about an absolute truth to be sought after, were commendable, and a message he’d been trying to get to his employees, though his style was ham-handed on the best of days. His most dramatic choice, too, was foolish, to give a man, even though he is a viable presidential candidate, a forum to take America back to its dark previous administration and relive the daily horrors of a malignant narcissist with power.
You can’t make money and acquire new viewership when the world is laughing at you. Trump ran over Kaitlin Collins and a friendly Trump audience, authorized by Licht, cheered him on while everyone who worked for CNN grimaced in horror. The network’s only achievement that night was to gain a few million viewers who were, as Licht admits, “rented,” because they were Trump supporters who have already gone back to thinking the editors at CNN are raging progressive, tree-hugging, LGBTQI lovin’, woke fools. Why bother giving their candidate a key to the studio to go on the air and insult the people and the network hosting the broadcast? Licht rationalized his decision by saying the network was giving public important information about a presidential candidate, but there was nothing spewing from Trump that three fourths of the planet’s surface had not already heard, and to not expect that kind of a performance is an abject failure of judgment.
CNN is a business, an asset of Warner Bros. Discovery, and it needs to make money, which it’s doing, just not as well as in the past. Licht was brought on board to replace Jeff Zucker, who had been guilty of an indiscretion with an employee, and also convicted by the network’s buyers of being a bit of a liberal leader. The new owners, led by David Zaslav, appointed Licht as his wunderkind to turn the ship around. Licht had ideas, but none seemed significant, and one of his biggest, getting rid of anchor Don Lemon must have caused him anxiety. Brian Stelter, the media critic, and John Harwood, a respected White House correspondent, were already fired by the time Licht got to Lemon. Meanwhile, staffers were thinking that Licht’s meetings with Republicans in Washington amounted to an apology tour even though he may have been innocently asking conservatives to reconsider coming on the air at CNN. After the Trump fiasco, though, descriptions made the newsroom sound like a funeral home as the grieving left, and The Atlantic article might represent the cortege’s arrival at the graveyard.
"...CNN is critical to keeping, not just this country, but the world informed, and whatever is wrong must be fixed."
Zaslav is reportedly sending a COO into CNN to offer oversight, and, undoubtedly, report back to headquarters on Licht’s performance. It’s hard to even give good odds on whether Licht survives the week without being fired, or feels so defeated he steps down from a dream job. The harm his tenure, and the Trump clown hall have done to the network is not irreparable, but there is rebuilding ahead, and it will include everything from reputation to morale and ratings. I think the network is critical to keeping, not just this country, but the world informed, and whatever is wrong must be fixed. I have many ideas that are too numerous to list in this modest space.
In my TV news correspondent days, I did a fair amount of on-air work for CNN, some live affiliate reporting from hurricanes, political events, and other disasters. I still write occasional commissioned opinion pieces for the website. I also continue to believe in the importance of the network, but it is doubtful the new CEO can any longer sustain credibility or plans to recover. He’s made a lot of mistakes, and there are those who believe they can be corrected and damage remediated.
But Licht’s biggest miscalculation might turn out to have been surrendering his ego to The Atlantic.