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Chris Licht's disastrous tenure running CNN
Below is a topline summary of my reaction to Tim Alberta’s extensive profile of Chris Licht that was published in yesterday’s edition of The Atlantic. For my more expansive thoughts on the revelations, as well as their broader implications for journalism and democracy in America, feel free to watch this video commentary.
Chris Licht, the embattled CEO of CNN, is alone, isolated, guarded, mistrustful and working out with the man he calls his “therapist,” Maysonet, an elite trainer. It is 6:30 am in the east, and 3:30 am in the west. The phone rings. It is David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, on the phone from Los Angeles. He’s micromanaging the editorial decision-making from his perch atop one of the world’s largest media companies — with no regard whatsoever for any sense of propriety, any idea of basic journalistic ethics and any sense that he has a responsibility to forthrightly engage with the media himself.
Tim Alberta’s opus in The Atlantic centers on Chris Licht, but the profile is about so much more than that.
Alberta has put together a profile that will endure as a masterclass in the art form of written portraiture. His 15,000 words document a powerful man under stress, falling apart, and wobbling under the strain. Licht is equally certain, incoherent, rudderless, arrogant and deeply paranoid. He is portrayed as lacking judgment regarding nearly every aspect of his job, and being as completely lost, disoriented and in over his head as a person can conceivably be. He is a proverbial caveman trying to fly a helicopter, which is something he can’t even comprehend. Yet, the story isn’t about its principal character. It is about the collapse of the institution he leads, and more broadly, the implosion and disintegration of trust between the viewers and the network.
One thing is for certain: the Trump era wrecked CNN. What survived was further smashed to bits by the WarnerMedia-Discovery merger, and the absurdist world view of its plutocrat, the billionaire John Malone, whose sensibilities tell him that “balance” requires more television based on the ethical framework that drives Fox News. That’s what he wants — more Fox. It flows from there. He doesn’t get it. David Zaslav doesn’t get it, and Chris Licht doesn’t get it.
The greatest and most fertile television market that has ever existed is the untapped exhausted majority of Americans who have been marginalized, disenfranchised and expelled from the public square by freak show media, politics and business elites who live completely apart from them in every way imaginable. People want the truth. They want reality, normalcy and explanation. The American public is dying for someone —and something — to measure up when it comes to maintaining trust.
There is an astonishing paragraph in the Alberta story where Licht advises Kaitlin Collins and the team that produced the CNN-Trump campaign rally that “the way to deal with a bully like Trump was to confront him with facts.” Of course, this isn’t just a naive view, it is a dangerously foolish one. It is the philosophy of Édouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain at Munich. There is a tried and true approach to dealing with bullies, which involves knocking them on their a$$. This is far from the only scenario or situation where Mr. Licht seems to have a tenuous grip on reality.
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Mr. Alberta’s portrait describes Licht as someone who is thin-skinned and obsessed with his media coverage. Licht is described at a CNN Christmas party as curtly working the table and then sitting down, disengaged and aloof from his colleagues. Apparently he was glued to his phone reading the latest article about him on Puck News. Throughout the profile, Licht is eyes down, staring at his phone, and raging about his press, including directly confronting Dylan Byers from Puck News. One amazing anecdote surrounds Mr. Licht’s unhinged response around criticism authored by Democratic strategist Kurt Bardella in the LA Times. He promised to “destroy” Bardella. Let me ask, does that remind you of anyone?
There is a startling revelation in the profile about Chris Licht’s deliberate decision to downplay the most important Congressional hearings — those of the January 6 Committee — since Watergate. What exactly does Chris Licht believe is the most important story of this moment and era?
The most important story in America right now is the rise of an autocratic movement steeped in fascism that is hostile to democracy, pluralism, civil rights, the rule of law and the truth. It is dangerous and has already been lethal. There is a new extremism rising. There is a new fascism marching. It is real and it is happening. Pretending it isn’t in the name of “balance” isn’t journalism. It’s propaganda, and all propaganda is an evil. Propaganda smothers truth. Journalism illuminates it. The premeditated decision to ignore the January 6 hearings was not a journalism decision. It was a business decision, as were the negotiations aimed at Republicans that appeased their demands to lie to the American people with impunity on CNN’s airwaves.
What is it that Chris Licht does not understand about this threat as a fundamental reality and the most essential and important news story of our time? The story of the century is the rise of American fascism — and that is exactly what it is. There has been a long season of media gaslighting in the United States in which things that are clearly and plainly so have been twisted into appearing they are not exactly what they appear to be. Materially, this is no different than Sean Spicer’s crowd size lies, Ron Desantis’s Twitter lies, or Bret Baier deciding his “news” audience is too fragile to be informed about the truth and facts concerning the outcome of a presidential election in the United States in 2020. It is all the same. It is dishonest, unethical and endangering the country. The decision to suppress the gravest threat to the country — the conclusions from the investigative process of the January 6th committee — was the most transcendentally shameful moment in CNN history until the Licht orchestrated-Trump event.
What has occurred at CNN is both a travesty and a debacle. It is terrible for journalism, democracy and the American people. The Warner Bros. Discovery executive team took over a troubled institution that is also an indispensable one. They pressed the nose towards the ground and engaged the afterburners. The result is KABOOM! A disaster for the ages.
When CNN put Jeffrey Lord, Corey Lewandowski, Kayleigh McEnany and a gaggle of other serial liars on their air, they did it to make money and increase ratings by turning the news into WWE. Every breathless “breaking news” intrusion, every vituperative and sensationalized utterance, every promotional excess that turned any debate into a heavyweight bout made CNN Trump’s partner. Chris Licht isn’t wrong about that. Incredibly, knowing that, he’s made it worse.
American democracy can’t survive in a world where the truth and lie are equal and indistinguishable. The wreckage of CNN is tragic. It didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened. Hopefully, some day soon, a rebuilding can begin.