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CNN Blues

Recently, the far-left Atlantic published a profile by Tim Alberta of CNN CEO Chris Licht that was the equivalent of stuffing him in his school locker after getting a massive wedgie in front of the entire junior high student body. 

Alberta documented, through on-the-record interviews, Licht’s quest to make the most of a fresh start—or what passes for one, at the “most trusted name in news”—and combed through interviews with staffers, on-air talent, and former employees. The article painted an image of a corporate bigwig out of his depth, dismissive of feedback, and isolated from workers whom he never even bothered to get to know. All of these things might be true, however this saga of corporate turmoil would not be very newsworthy were it not for the fact that CNN is a struggling media company, and therefore journalists feel that the rest of the public is pining for the latest dish of gossip from inside the network. 

Indeed, many of the people who defined CNN prior to Warner Bros. Discovery’s takeover have become the network’s harshest critics, and have piled on to Alberta’s piece causing it to become a sensation among other outlets. Internally, at least according to Alberta’s other sources, the company seemed like it was on the verge of total mutiny. A few days later it was announced that Licht was officially out as CEO.

The mission of saving CNN, which has on occasion slipped behind Newsmax to become only the fourth most watched news network on cable, had fallen on the shoulders of Licht at the direction of Warner Bros. Discovery’s CEO David Zaslav. But not everyone really understands what “saving” means. 

Licht’s tenure turned out to be a career suicide mission. He was not able to restore the network to its former glory for two reasons: 1) Too many people have abandoned CNN because of political bias, and 2) more broadly, too many customers are abandoning cable news in general or cutting the cord entirely and dumping their cable packages. CNN is fighting over a steadily shrinking pie, and along with its main rivals MSNBC and Fox News, is sporting an average viewer profile age well into the 60s. 

Moreover, political polarization is hurting the networks, making it more difficult to reach viewers across the divides. They also do not have an easy way to reverse course. Does anyone expect people born after 1990—let alone 2000—will sit and watch a boring, buttoned-up presenter drolly introduce stories Tom Brokaw-style?

CNN became a success in the 1980s and ’90s because it established the 24-hour news cycle, but that model has been copied endlessly and is no longer cutting edge. Besides, internet pages allow readers to access news anytime, all the time. Finally, social media and the advent of the smartphone allowed average citizens to provide cheaper and more abundant news content than a professional news crew.In recent years, perhaps in contending with those industry headwinds, CNN and its top executives and personalities have embarked on ever more cynical and risky initiatives in their quests to remain relevant.

CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, hired Jeff Zucker in 2013 to fill the vacant CEO position. Unlike his predecessors, Zucker came from the entertainment side of TV through NBC Universal, where he had spent a tumultuous period as CEO in the late 2000s, during which the broadcast network suffered major turmoil, including a feud between late-night talk show hosts Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno. The debacle over time slots resulted in Zucker getting fired, and O’Brien ditching NBC for TBS. It is considered one of the most disastrous TV programming decisions of all time.

Zucker was brought in to help CNN forestall a decline in its viewership, and he took several crucial measures to do so, including canceling “Piers Morgan Tonight” in 2014 after the British interviewer had failed to fill the shoes of the legendary Larry King. 

CNN also benefited from events like the Ferguson riots and the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 in order to leap ahead of MSNBC in the cable news rankings. What saved CNN in the short term, however, was the 2016 election and rise of Donald Trump. In May 2016, as the primary elections were all but over, the three major cable news networks were so fixated on the viewership of Trump rallies that they remained riveted to coverage of the empty podium before the Republican candidate took the stage. But when Trump won in November of that year, the network’s shameless opportunism for Trump viewers soon became an open vendetta as Zucker steered the network’s coverage into 24/7 coverage of the president, including airing of numerous rumors and innuendos. 

As John Nolte of Breitbart wrote in his much harsher post-mortem on CNN, Zucker “woke raped CNN into a national joke.”

While Licht’s tenure with CNN has been roiled with turmoil, from his axing of the CNN+ streaming service to the firing of network personalities like Brian Stelter and Don Lemon, the issues were centered on his management decisions and style, as opposed to personal and professional misconduct, as was the case with Zucker.

One could say that while he did not “make CNN great again,” Licht at least made it relatively benign, attempting to bring in people with more diverse backgrounds. Alberta reported that he once proposed to the network’s diversity department that recruiting multiple graduates of different races who all went to Harvard is not truly diversity. 

Now that Zaslav has sacked Licht, the question is whether the institution can even be given a direction to follow. Other major personalities, including political analyst Chris Cilizza, bit the dust in waves of layoffs during the Licht era. The Atlantic profile shows that no matter how many naughty journos were shown the door, those left behind at the network were never on board with a move to a more credible and professional news operation. No doubt some of them are high-fiving and pumping their fists at Licht’s departure. But celebrations are probably premature. With this type of mentality and before long, the CNN Center in Atlanta could be imploded like its former neighbor, the Omni Arena, was in 1999.

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