The Warner Bros. Discovery chief, David Zaslav, was clear from the day he took control of CNN in 2022 about what he wanted for the cable news network. Publicly and privately he told associates, reporters and whoever else might care that he wanted to move the network away from what he viewed as left-leaning “advocacy” and toward more “balance.” His CNN would not be anti-Trump, and would be more welcoming for Republicans.
As Mr. Zaslav’s handpicked CNN leader, Chris Licht, appeared to struggle with that remit in the months that followed, Mr. Zaslav backed him with the ultimate carte blanche statement: “Ratings be damned.”
Mr. Licht’s dismissal immediately raised a defining question for the television news industry and beyond: Can an unaligned independent approach to news work in today’s splintered, on-demand media era, when audiences are primed for news on their own terms? And can it work in, of all places, the highly niche precincts of cable?
In the end, Mr. Licht’s attempt appeared to satisfy no one. And the early lines among some news commentators was that he had failed because his mission was impossible, a dead idea from a bygone time.
In fact, Mr. Licht’s short tenure does not provide an easy answer. His mission was in large part doomed by the particular shape of his assignment, his own missteps and an apparently incomplete understanding of the network as it existed before his arrival.
But it did illuminate just how hard it can be to find success where Mr. Licht was sent looking. Polarization is sky high, and Americans occupy dueling informational silos. Cable, a medium that played to divided interests from the start, is now competing with social media, where the most successful items tend to be the most stridently partisan and provocative.
Yet for all of that, trying to create a media version of a shared public square is especially hard without a clear notion of what it means to be “balanced” or to give equal say to “both voices” — as Mr. Zaslav puts it. That is especially the case when former President Donald J. Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, still falsely maintains that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him.
And, several current and former CNN staff members said, that clear notion 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 did not want — all that had come before them under Mr. Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker — than what they did want.
Several of them pointed to an early miscue from on high that bred early mistrust — and undercut Mr. Licht — with the CNN staff before the merger of Discovery and WarnerMedia, CNN’s corporate parent, was even complete.
In an interview on CNBC in November 2021, a prominent Warner Bros. Discovery board member, the cable pioneer John Malone, appeared 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 have news news, I mean some actual journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions,” Mr. Malone said. “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.”
It was taken as a slight to what was, in fact, a news organization brimming with distinguished 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 CNN’s thousands of journalists were not real was deeply insulting,” said Brian Stelter, the network’s former top media correspondent and former reporter at The New York Times. (Under Mr. Zucker, Mr. Stelter had emerged as the embodiment of the network’s sometimes combative defense against “fake news” attacks that Mr. Trump waged against the network, and a regular target of conservative criticism. He would become one of the first high-profile anchors Mr. Licht cut.) “I think the takeaway for many CNN staffers was that Malone wanted CNN to be more like Fox.”
Mr. Stelter maintains that the network was already recalibrating for the post-Trump era when Mr. Zaslav took over. Many staff members agreed with Mr. Licht on the general notion that the network should play it straight, and he and others viewed the new leadership as “punching at a straw man.”
For instance, one thing Mr. Zaslav and Mr. Licht made clear was that they wanted to reverse Republican resistance to appearing on CNN. “Republicans are back on the air,” Mr. Zaslav declared at a media conference in May. “Republicans weren’t on the air.”
But the idea that including Republicans in its programming was novel to the network was at variance with recent history.
Early on during Mr. Trump’s rise, Mr. Zucker was criticized for giving Mr. Trump too much uncritical airtime, and then for hiring a cast of stridently pro-Trump analysts like 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. He, in turn, smeared them as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.”
Few came under attack from Mr. Trump the way CNN did. Memories are still fresh from the mail-bomb scare at its New York offices in 2018 — part of an environment that subsided before Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav arrived.
Even now, Mr. Zucker’s fans at the network — and they are still legion — will say that if his incarnation of CNN at times appeared to run hot and angry, it had done so in defense of the truth.
“Under the Zucker regime, CNN said: ‘We may sound outraged, but we’re calling out lies and we stand for truth. If that sounds angry, so be it,’” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN Washington bureau chief and now a professor at the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University.
Mr. Sesno said he, too, believed that it was incumbent upon the network to “tone certain elements down and dial some things back” from the Trump 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 substantive 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. That, of course, was before the tumult created by four years of Trump governance and his election lies, which fueled the riots of Jan. 6, 2021.
Mr. Licht’s handling of the town hall would help seal his fate — particularly his decision to stage it before an ardently pro-Trump audience that cheered the former president as he delivered falsehoods and attacked the CNN host serving as his inquisitor, Kaitlan Collins.
There appeared to be wide agreement within CNN that the execution was bad. There was less uniformity about holding the town hall in the first place. Mr. Trump was, after all, the lead contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
As Anderson Cooper asked on air the next night in acknowledging viewer disappointment, “Do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”
An answer appeared to come in the days that followed: The network had its worst ratings week in eight years.
Even now, Mr. Zaslav appears intent on sticking to his strategy. “Ratings be damned,’’ he has said. But history shows no television strategy can survive eternal ratings damnation.
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