Technically, the news is that CNN CEO Chris Licht was pushed out this morning. But the only newsy part of that statement is that it happened this morning: Licht, whose tenure at the cable news giant barely lasted a year, has been a dead man walking for the last week.
The real question is whether Licht’s former boss, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav, has learned anything over the course of the debacle. It’s not clear that he has.
The very fast recap: Zaslav took over CNN and the rest of the company that used to be called Time Warner last spring. Then he installed Licht, a TV producer who most recently had turned around Stephen Colbert’s late-night CBS show, to replace former CNN boss Jeff Zucker, who had been pushed out by the previous owners. Licht then told anyone and everyone that his job was to fix CNN by reversing its supposed slide into liberal anti-Trump activism.
Things went south immediately: Disgruntled CNN staff distrusted Licht from the jump; Licht distrusted his staff; ratings plummeted from Trump and Covid-era highs, and things culminated in a much-derided “town hall” event with Trump last month. Then all of this was cataloged in great detail by the Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, who published a devastating 15,000-word piece about Licht’s tenure — with Licht’s hubristic co-operation — five days ago. Following the Atlantic piece, the only question about Licht’s position at the network was the timing of his departure.
But in the year prior to the Atlantic piece, Zaslav had insisted, publicly and privately, that Licht was doing great, and that his head-to-the-middle strategy was the right way to go. Days after the Trump town hall, Zaslav told investors that CNN was on the rise, due to the fact that it was now committed to showing “both sides” and courting Republicans. “Chris is rebuilding the network,” he said. “It’s going to take some time ... We’re making real progress on that.”
But a few weeks later, Zaslav was unwilling to talk to Alberta on the record about Licht’s tenure (presumably he had heard, as I had, that the piece was going to “go off like a nuclear bomb” at CNN, as an insider had told me before publication). And yesterday “a person close to Zaslav” — a journalese convention that usually means Zaslav himself, or a Zaslav public relations person speaking with Zaslav’s permission — told the Wall Street Journal that Zaslav “is also losing patience with the number of [Licht’s] self-inflicted wounds and missteps.”
Which puts Zaslav in an uncomfortable position that someone ought to ask him about next time he speaks on the record: Did Zaslav truly believe that CNN was crushing it as recently as last month — and that it took a story from another media outlet to convince him that he was deeply wrong?
Now Zaslav says he’ll look for a replacement for Licht, starting with internal candidates. (A group of CNN veterans and the recently installed chief operating officer David Leavy, a close Zaslav confidant, will run things in the meantime.) Presumably he can find someone less openly antagonistic to the people the new leader is going to manage than Licht was. But unless Zaslav completely rethinks his theory of the case for CNN, that person is going to inevitably struggle, too.
News can’t save cable news
That’s because Zaslav’s premise — which, as I’ve noted before, happens to be the same premise held by John Malone, the conservative investor who is Zaslav’s longtime mentor and sits on Zaslav’s board — is that CNN had failed because it wasn’t centrist enough and that it needed to tack to the right to attract guests, advertisers, and viewers.
But that wasn’t at all true. Yes, under Zucker, CNN had thrived financially with programming that often responded to Trump tweets as if they were major news events. But prior to that era of programming, Zucker’s CNN had thrived by giving Trump — then a can’t-look-away political novelty — a platform for nearly every utterance he had in the 2016 election cycle. And prior to that, CNN had thrived by “event-izing” minor news stories about things like disappearing planes or white women.
The point being, CNN worked not because it found ways to program a 24-hour news channel with news, because people have never wanted to watch 24-hour news. It worked because it found something else besides news to fill the time and keep people watching.
Yes, some people will turn to CNN or other cable TV channels in times of crisis or something truly extraordinary. But even that’s a habit specific to people who’ve grown up with TV, a number that’s shrinking all the time — only 58.5 percent of people in the US get pay TV at all anymore. Meanwhile, if you’re in the small percentage of people who deeply care about news, it’s available to you in the phone in your pocket, 24/7. And everyone else just watches ... whatever.
Which, obviously, is a problem that all cable news channels face. CNN rivals Fox News, MSNBC — and, at least for the moment, Newsmax? — deal with the structural challenge not by programming news but by acting as partisan cheering sections. But there’s no cheering section for “neutrality,” despite what media executives and some journalists may insist. That’s what CNN’s previous management always understood.
That doesn’t mean CNN isn’t a valuable journalism resource — I’ll still reflexively turn to it when something truly remarkable is happening, and I’m pretty online for a middle-aged dude. And it doesn’t mean it’s not a valuable business — up until last year, the unit was reliably generating $1 billion in annual profits.
But it does mean that its next manager and its current owner need to be realistic about what the company can do now and in the future. And they need to stop trying to pretend it’s something else.