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Hard Truths

The Fix CNN Needs Is Clear. Do the Suits Have the Guts to Do It?

There are three lessons CNN could take from this disaster, and the network isn’t likely to pick the right one.

Chris Licht at Madison Square Garden
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Chris Licht during a presentation in 2022

As always in these cases of major corporate shakeups, the question is what lesson the suits at CNN take away from the disastrous, and now mercifully short-lived, Chris Licht era. Here are three possibilities:

1. Don’t give a reporter who has endless space unlimited access to your life. This is what Licht did for The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, who produced a crushing 15,000-word piece in which he did nothing more than allow Licht to hang himself.

2. CNN didn’t go far enough to fulfill Licht’s promise that CNN would be more welcoming to Republican guests and viewers.

3. Become a serious news organization grounded in firm journalistic and American principles.

Guess what I think the odds are of each?

The first lesson is the easiest one, the path of least resistance. But as a lesson for Licht’s successor and the network’s executives, it’s necessary but insufficient. Of course someone shouldn’t be stupid and arrogant enough to give that kind of access to an enterprising reporter. But while the Atlantic profile might be the proximate reason for Licht’s ouster, it’s hardly the cause of the network’s troubles.

The second lesson is the one we have every reason to fear they’ll take away from this debacle. Licht’s boss was David Zaslav, who heads Warner Brothers Discovery, the conglomerate that now owns CNN. What moral did Zaslav draw from the Donald Trump town hall, an obvious ethical low point in CNN’s history? He thought it rocked! He told a media conference the week after the town hall: “Republicans are back on the air. Republicans weren’t on the air.… During the McCarthy hearings, for those four days, we had 75 Republicans on the air, 41 went on us before they went on Fox. And the reason is, as I’ve said, and Chris has too, to a number of them, they are not going to get one more vote on Fox News. They’ve already got that.”

Read that quote over. That’s the head of a neutral, objective news organization saying that he tells Republicans that they will get more votes coming on his air.

Now, here’s the third lesson. It’s very simple. Stand for something. Not liberalism. Not the Democratic Party. Stand for truth. And stand for democracy.

There is a way to be the network in the center, in between MSNBC to the left and Fox News to the right, and still stand for truth and democracy. It means holding Democrats accountable and reporting on them critically. It means not framing conversations on terms favorable to Democrats and liberalism.

MSNBC does this, and I personally have no problem with it, because I usually agree with the framing, which is why I watch MSNBC. But I recognize too that MSNBC doesn’t spend a lot of time challenging my assumptions. CNN can find ways to do this, by asking Democrats tough and skeptical questions and by calling them out when they exaggerate or embellish, as most politicians do sometimes. CNN can easily frame its coverage so that it’s not in the Democrats’ corner (when I watch CNN, I do note that it sometimes does this).

So it needn’t stand for liberal values. But it must stand for American values. Any news organization in this country needs to stand for the principles of the democratic republic we are still in the process of building and perfecting. That means calling authoritarianism what it is, and yes, that means alienating a certain segment of Americans.

Jake Tapper and Anderson Cooper did an excellent job of doing this on the night of the Trump town hall itself. They came on air and basically said: That was ghastly. We hardly even know where to begin. They told the truth.

CNN suits will say, but there’s no audience for that. Well—create one. Republicans are, according to one recent poll, about evenly split on whether MAGA is a good thing. In other words, half of Republicans don’t want the propaganda Fox is peddling. And that’s Republicans! Most independents presumably don’t. And there are a number of Democrats who prefer CNN to MSNBC—I know some—either out of old habit or because they prefer having their narratives challenged (yes, some liberals are like that!).

So there’s an audience for a smart middle-of-the-road approach to covering politics. But it has to be smart. And principled. And it has to sell itself to potential viewers as such. The pitch needs to be to genuine swing voters and soft partisans who want to hear the other side but still want bullshit called what it is.

When he was appointed, Licht said: “First and foremost, we should and we will be advocates for truth.” Obviously, those were just words. He was too stupid to understand what they meant and that they had to be given real meaning. CNN needs to find a veteran respected newsperson who can give them meaning. I’m a satisfied MSNBC customer, so I don’t really care that much, but this is CNN’s path to survival.