The Head of CNN Thinks It's Journalism's Job to "Make News." That's a Problem.
Chris Licht's Trump-a-palooza event on Wednesday debased the very concept of journalism, striking a critical blow to the network's credibility. What's more: it won't win him any new viewers.
I won’t go so far as to call CNN “fake news,” as former President Donald Trump liked to do, but I will say that in the eyes of the public, Wednesday’s spectacle should leave the company in a much worse place reputation-wise.
Sure, there are a lot of good journalists at CNN. I think Jake Tapper consistently does a good job. I think Oliver Darcy’s media analysis is really strong. I think Andrew Kaczynski, Pamela Brown, Donie O’Sullivan, Abby Phillip, Jeremy Diamond, and a whole host of others I can’t think of off the top of my head are all really good, solid, professional journalists.
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But from a management point of view? From an ownership point of view? It’s a mess, and last night’s disaster of a town hall with former President Donald Trump moderated by former Daily Caller reporter Kaitlan Collins (she once wrote an article titled, “Ice Bucket Challenge Hipsters: These Guantanamo Detainees Did It First,” which, as the headline suggests, was a joke about
torture “enhanced interrogation techniques”) made that more than clear.
If you didn’t watch, you missed out on a predictable evening of Trump telling lies, slinging insults at the moderator, and further defaming E. Jean Carroll just days after losing a defamation suit against her in which the jury found that he sexually abused her. Additionally, CNN packed the audience with Trump superfans who hooted and hollered throughout the event, turning it into little more than a nationally televised Trump rally (something CNN knows a lot about, as it spent all of 2015 and 2016 airing Trump’s rallies).
Immediately after the event, Tapper criticized Trump on air, rattling off a list of absurdities spouted by the former president. And yes, Oliver Darcy’s Reliable Sources newsletter opened with the words, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.” I point this out because I do want to make it clear that there are people at CNN who are willing to push back and call it like they see it.
The issue is ownership. The issue is management.
It was a grotesque spectacle, which is exactly what CNN head Chris Licht wanted.
On Twitter, former CNN host Brian Stelter reported out this morning’s editorial call between Licht and staffers (bolded emphasis mine):
Chris Licht begins CNN's 9am editorial call by praising [Kaitlan Collins] for a "masterful performance last night." He says "I couldn't be more proud of her" and the whole team in NH. Then he says he's aware of the backlash.
"You do not have to like the former president's answers, but you can't say that we didn't get them," Licht tells staffers, many of whom are angry about the town hall. "Kaitlan pressed him again and again and made news. Made a LOT of news." And "that is our job."
"While we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story," Licht adds, because those folks represent "a large swath of America," and the media screwed up by missing that part of the story in 2015/16.
Covering Trump is "tricky and messy," Licht says, and it will "continue to be messy and tricky, but it's our job." He confidently says "America was served very well by what we did last night." Many CNN employees strongly disagree.
Let’s make one thing extremely clear: No, it is not CNN’s job to make “a LOT of news.” In fact, if you’re working at a news organization and you find yourself making news rather than reporting news, then you are not doing journalism. You might be a propagandist. You might be an entertainer. You might be a partisan. But you certainly are not a journalist when you are making news.
And as I mentioned earlier, CNN (and media, generally) did not “miss” stories about Trump’s popularity. I don’t know where this lie started or how it became conventional wisdom. Every example of the press “missing” this happened during the early portions of the 2016 GOP primary. The fact that Licht seems to think that it’s important that people see and hear Trump’s deranged fanbase screeching and cackling as he repeatedly lied to the audiences at home is… bizarre.
This wasn’t journalism. It was a spectacle — one meant to get Trump elected president next year.
Licht is doing exactly what he was brought in to do: push CNN as far to the right as he can.
During a November 2021 interview with CNBC, influential Discovery shareholder John Malone (AT&T announced plans to spin off its WarnerMedia brand — which included CNN — to combine it with Discovery earlier that year) shared his thoughts on what he would like to see from CNN, a company he would soon be able to influence.
Let’s look at the transcript:
JOHN MALONE, DISCOVERY SHAREHOLDER: Fox News — Fox News, I think, in my opinion has followed an interesting trajectory of trying to have news-news — I mean, some actual journalism embedded in — in a program schedule of all opinions, and I think they've been relatively successful with that, with a service like — like Bret Baier and Brit Hume before him that tried to distinguish news from opinion.
I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and, you know, actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.
Ah, well, about that.
Just days ahead of the 2016 election, Fox News’s Bret Baier reported that he had “two separate sources with intimate knowledge of what’s going on with the FBI investigations [into Hillary Clinton],” that there was “a lot of evidence,” and “barring some obstruction in some way,” it would lead to “likely an indictment.”
It was a bombshell claim. It was also a lie. There was no looming indictment, and someone on Fox’s “news” side shouldn’t have ever suggested as much.
In 2020, Baier was one of several Fox employees who tried to undermine the election results in an effort to please Fox viewers and the Trump campaign. Days after the election, Baier emailed Fox News president and executive editor Jay Wallace, urging him to backtrack on the channel’s correct call of the state for Biden (at the time of the email, Biden’s lead over Trump had climbed to more than 10,000 votes), and instead “put it back in [Trump’s] column” (Arizona had not been in Trump’s “column” at any point at any network).
“The Trump campaign was really pissed,” he wrote in an email to Jay Wallace, the president and executive editor at Fox. “This situation is getting uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I keep having to defend this on air.” He accused the Decision Desk of “holding on for pride” and added: “It’s hurting us. The sooner we pull it—even if it gives us major egg [on our faces]—and we put it back in his column the better we are in my opinion.”
If Baier (or Brit Hume, who has always injected his conservative views into his “reporting”) is your idea of “actual journalism,” then your idea of “journalism” is right-wing propaganda. That’s what Malone said he wanted for CNN, and so far, he’s gotten exactly that.
After CNN head Jeff Zucker was pushed out in February 2022, Chris Licht was brought in to replace him.
Somehow, despite Zucker being one of Trump’s biggest supporters (he’s the man who brought The Apprentice to NBC), despite him hiring Trump’s hand-picked on-air surrogates (Jeffrey Lord, Kayleigh McEnany, Corey Lewandowski, et al.) to do nothing but defend and cheer Trump morning, noon, and night, CNN had developed a reputation for being “anti-Trump” or even on “the left.”
It simply wasn’t true. Ever. CNN, like all corporate media, was, at most, center-right.1 The view that CNN was "liberal" or "left" had to do with Republicans "working the refs" and crying about non-existent "liberal bias." The reality is that CNN made the decision during the Trump years to pack three-person panels with two Republicans and (maybe) one Democrat. Maybe one of those Republicans was "Never Trump," but that doesn't actually matter. Republicans frequently characterized two-to-one conservative-to-liberal panels as "liberal." It was a lie. It was always a lie, and I've written quite a bit about this.
We’ve seen over and over what happens when companies convince themselves they have a “liberal bias” based on the right’s ref-working. It’s not good.
Back in April 2022, I wrote a piece about a laughable Morning Joe segment that claimed the top “midterm issues for Democrats” (i.e. issues Democrats needed to address lest they be crushed that November) were the “censoring of conservative voices on social media,” “college campuses becoming liberal echo chambers,” “the push to be ‘politically correct,’” and “‘canceling’ historical figures.”
The general idea was that these things were true, and Democrats needed to acknowledge and admit that there was a problem. In reality, as Jeff Jarvis tweeted (linked in the below article), “These are not ‘issues.’ These are Republican tropes intended to take over the media agenda. Judging by this, it’s working.”
Jarvis was right, of course. Even so, the fact that “liberal” MSNBC’s morning show (whose eponymous host is a former Republican member of Congress who helped elevate Trump throughout the 2016 election — also, fun fact: Chris Licht used to be a producer at Morning Joe) was seriously suggesting that conservatives were “being silenced” on social media or elsewhere demonstrated just how detached from reality these sorts of claims have gotten and how they have become the accepted truth despite having no basis in reality.
In 2016, Facebook caved to bad faith claims of “liberal bias” by tilting the platform massively in favor of right-wing news sources. (I discuss that here.) Afterward, despite all evidence showing that they were given preferential treatment compared to people on the left, people on the right simply… kept claiming that Facebook was still biased against them.
Post-2016 election claims that the New York Times — the very paper that broke the Clinton email story, made questionable decisions about coverage (that favored Trump), and had a stable of conservative columnists working on the opinion side of things — was “liberal” led to more conservative columnists, a bizarre obsession with the right-wing anti-trans narrative, and a number of hires from center-right outlets like Politico. Notably, people on the right still claim that the Times is biased against them.
The same “bias” allegations were leveled against Twitter despite right-wing content regularly outperforming liberal and left-wing content, despite libertarian CEO Jack Dorsey’s repeated personal overtures to right-wing extremists like Candace Owens and Ali Alexander, and despite management overruling the company’s own Trust & Safety team (i.e. the people who enforce the platform’s rules) to keep right-wing accounts on the platform in spite of any rule violations. Did any of that change the right’s perception of the platform? No, of course not! In fact, all it did was set Twitter up to be taken over by right-wing troll Elon Musk who has spent the first six months of his Twitter ownership spreading far-right conspiracy theories and elevating white nationalist accounts. Even that hasn’t convinced the right that Twitter isn’t biased against them, as “Catturd” (one of Musk’s favorite far-right accounts) regularly tweets about being the victim of the “algorithms” (February 24: “I think it’s fair to say that the Twitter algorithms against conservatives are never going away - no matter who owns it.”) and suggesting there’s a secret deep state-type conspiracy within Twitter undermining Musk.
Have Facebook, Twitter, and the Times gotten better or worse since 2016? I think the answer is obvious.
The point here is that there is quite literally nothing companies can do to appease the right. And influential people on the right know this.
They don’t want an “unbiased” Facebook, Twitter, NYT, or CNN. What they want is for those companies to keep moving to the right, as far as possible. There will never come a moment where people on the right go, “Wow! The bias against us is gone! Okay, we’re good now!” Of course not. In the case of Facebook, the company continued to be dragged in front of Congress to account for every little grievance. That’s how the right fights its wars. Victimization is central to their identity, and as such, they always need to believe themselves to be the recipients of unfair treatment.
Putting Collins in that time slot, as Puck’s Dylan Byers writes, would help cement the network’s “John Malone-approved, G.O.P.-friendly posture” (Byers falsely claims that this is “more centrist” than pre-Licht CNN, but again, I’ve addressed repeatedly why that’s a heap of nonsense; it’s just more conservative than the center-right position CNN was already occupying). Byers calls Collins “the great conservative hope,” and he’s got that right: she’s a conservative. Just because she didn’t act like a Trump fangirl on camera during the Trump presidency doesn’t mean that she’s “good.”
The truth is that Licht is screwed. CNN will not be enjoying a flood of Fox viewers looking to rush to a slightly-more-conservative CNN. And moving to the right, generally, seems like a bad way to peel off MSNBC’s viewers.
On December 1, 2020, I wrote about the future of media for Media Matters, and why Fox News was far more likely to continue flailing to the right rather than adopt a more moderate stance. To simplify the reason a bit: because Fox viewers are much more likely to ditch Fox in favor of something that is even more to the right; Fox doesn’t need to worry about losing viewers to CNN or MSNBC.
From that piece:
One of the most consistent strategies in all of conservative media has been to accuse mainstream news outlets of having a liberal bias and frame conservative outlets as either an unbiased alternative or a necessary counterweight to the mainstream. In 1969, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered a speech attacking TV newscasters for supposed bias against President Richard Nixon. In 1996, former Nixon adviser Roger Ailes became CEO of Fox News at its launch. Under the banner of being “fair and balanced,” a slogan it used until 2017 when the tagline was ditched as a way to distance the company from Ailes, Fox News was a safe space for conservatives.
Fox’s journey to becoming a cable news powerhouse has relied on the cultivation of a fiercely loyal audience of people who have been conditioned to distrust other outlets. Fox spent years pandering directly to conservatives, making it the primary source of political and election news for 45% of conservative Republicans, according to a 2019 Pew Research survey. The level of distrust Fox viewers have for mainstream media outlets is remarkable: 65% of Fox viewers distrust MSNBC, 57% distrust The New York Times, and 55% distrust ABC News. The non-Fox sources of news trusted by the network’s viewers tend to be on the far right, such as The Rush Limbaugh Show and Breitbart. This may help explain how and why Fox News manages to stave off mainstream outlets like CNN and NPR while leaving itself susceptible to audience poaching from the fringe right.
Now, Newsmax and OAN are trying to peel away some of Fox’s viewers by indulging the election fantasies of Trump supporters. To counter this, as the increase in Carlson’s content demonstrates, Fox is clearly recalibrating how it operates as a source of conservative propaganda. It’s safe to assume that in the coming months we’ll see Fox become more like Newsmax and OAN, not less, as the rival networks compete for viewers among the Trump bubble dwellers who believe a satanic cabal run by Democratic leaders drinks the blood of babies. The right-wing outlets vying for that audience are locked in a race to the bottom, and we’re all worse off for it.
Licht has to know that this is not a strategy for ratings success. He can load CNN with every Tea Party-loving Trump-voting pundit he can find and he still won’t up his audience. He’s either oblivious (I don’t think he is) or he is simply trying to make John Malone happy. As part of the greater Warner Bros. Discovery portfolio, CNN is small potatoes, so why not use it to try to affect political change?
For any of you out there who think, “What? CNN? Center-right???” I ask, when was the last time someone with genuine left-wing views got hired at CNN to regularly advocate for causes like prison abolition or make outright calls to end capitalism? In reality, corporate media’s idea of “left” means mainstream Democrats, which, most generously, could be described as “center-left.” The millionaires and billionaires who own and operate corporate media hire people they believe will help them advance the causes that matter to them, like lowering taxes. As Noam Chomsky said to the BBC’s Andrew Marr in 1996, “I don't say you're self-censoring - I'm sure you believe everything you're saying; but what I'm saying is, if you believed something different, you wouldn't be sitting where you're sitting.”
Again, Collins worked at Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller website immediately before being hired by Zucker at CNN, where she would regularly churn out articles mocking Syrian refugees, victims of torture, asking whether the Obama daughters were wearing skirts that were too short, and giving people DIY instructions on how to “glare” just like Michelle Obama