Chris Licht attends the 2023 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor presentation at The Kennedy Center on March 19, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Chris Licht’s Failures at CNN Show There’s No ‘Good Journalism’ Without a Point of View

In a chaotic year full of layoffs and low ratings, CNN just announced the latest tumultuous change at the network. Chris Licht, after serving a short, year-long stint as CNN’s Chairman and CEO, departed the company on June 7.

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Licht’s departure comes on the heels of an unflattering profile of Licht in The Atlantic last week, titled “Inside the Meltdown at CNN.” Writer Tim Alberta described the fiasco that was Licht’s handling of CNN’s town hall with Donald Trump which, despite Licht’s purported intentions, not only gave Trump’s obvious and predictable lies a platform, but rewarded him for his trouble.

As TMSVivian Kane pointed out in her piece on the Trump town hall:

CNN put Trump on stage and on television as if he were any other Republican candidate, making it clear we’ve learned exactly nothing since 2016. Even worse, the network filled the audience with enough Trump supporters to guarantee the room would feel like one of his rallies. […] This was nothing short of Trump propaganda and CNN put it on TV.

Why did Chris Licht even get this job?

Licht has a long history in TV news. After getting his career start on Los Angeles and San Francisco’s NBC affiliates, and producing several news programs there, he moved to CBS News in 2011 as the VP of Programming. Most notably, he was the executive producer of CBS This Morning, which became hugely successful under his leadership.

From 2016-2022, Licht was the showrunner of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Within a month of taking that job, the show’s audience shot up. He’d never run a late-night talk show before, but he’d had experience putting together a daily, news-based show, and seemed a great fit for The Late Show.

He had a successful track record in producing news-based television. So, what the hell happened?

Licht’s leadership experience was primarily in morning news shows and primetime news shows that were more focused on opinion and analysis. In other words, most of his experience was in presenting the news conversationally. This is not me disparaging morning shows or shows that analyze the news, some of which illuminate and contextualize the news of the day, and help the general public to parse ongoing news stories.

But there’s a difference between making an individual morning show or a late-night talk show more entertaining and running an entire news network that way.

Prioritizing ratings over journalism

The chaos CNN is experiencing is what happens when a 24-hour news network entrusts its CEO position to someone with a history of “getting ratings,” and whose motives aren’t balanced with a concern for producing quality journalism.

It should be no surprise that this stellar example of decision-making driven by corporate greed came from David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery responsible for such classics as removing beloved shows and films from HBO Max to save money on paying residuals, spending money on more Harry Potter content despite the harm that J.K. Rowling has caused to the LGBTQ community, and generally prioritizing profits over people—all of which led to Zaslav being booed by students during his recent commencement address at Boston University.

Licht’s goals and hopes for CNN after former president Jeff Zucker was ousted seemed well-intentioned. After an entire presidency during which Trump and his MAGA-hat-wearing supporters singled out CNN as “fake news,” Licht wanted to regain what The Atlantic describes as “a broader viewership that craved sober, fact-driven coverage.” He wanted to “save journalism” and regain not only the trust of viewers, but the trust of his journalists at CNN.

However, whatever Licht was doing wasn’t translating into the high ratings that Zaslav hired Licht to achieve. So, he decided to prove everyone wrong by taking a big, risky swing and airing a town hall with Donald Trump.

The execution of that big swing was wrong from top to bottom, regardless of whether you think it should’ve been taken at all.

Good journalism performs a service beyond facts

There seems to be a misconception that journalists “shouldn’t have an opinion,” and that news should be purely fact-based. This isn’t entirely accurate. While facts (and fact-checking) are absolutely imperative, this doesn’t mean news shouldn’t have a point of view.

News outlets and individual journalists have always reported the news through specific lenses. Every time a journalist or a news outlet decides to cover a story, they do so because they believe that story is important for some reason, and that knowing and discussing it would be beneficial to the public.

We can be cynical and say this is purely for profit, and of course that’s partially true. When you make a living creating something for public consumption, you want it to reach the widest possible audience so you can make that living sustainably.

However, news also requires context. Reporting a mere fact means nothing unless you tell a reader or viewer why the fact matters to them where they live and why they should care. Providing context for the news to arm the public with the information they need to navigate the world is the service that good journalism provides.

Keep that in mind when reading the following description from Tim Alberta at The Atlantic of how Licht handled the Trump town hall:

Trump could be excused for thinking [his behavior and lies were] exactly what Licht wanted. The famously transactional ex-president had wondered aloud to his top aides […] what the network stood to gain from this production; when CNN made the decision to stock the auditorium with Republicans, the only thing Trump could figure was that Licht wanted a prime-time spectacle to resuscitate the network’s moribund ratings. The two men spoke only briefly backstage. “Have fun,” Licht told him. Trump obliged.

Alberta reports that Licht had larger goals than mere ratings, saying that he “believed that Trump owed his initial political ascent in part to the media’s habit of marginalizing conservative views and Republican voters. That needed to change ahead of 2024.” Licht naively (perhaps willfully) believed that appealing to Trump supporters would somehow make them think better of CNN as an institution.

Licht’s failure in that moment had to do with his overestimation of Trump supporters and with a misguided overcorrection away from “opinion” in an attempt to be “balanced.” The event got away from him because he didn’t have the backbone to demonstrate CNN’s point of view clearly.

Licht “spoke briefly” to a notoriously toxic ex-president, whom anyone else in his position would’ve known needed careful handling. He filled the room with Trump supporters in a move that could be seen as respecting Republican voters, or as one meant to generate reality-show drama to stoke ratings, depending on who you ask. And he set zero expectations on behalf of CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins, who did her best under the circumstances but was set up to fail by Licht’s failure to lead.

The Trump town hall was all ratings-bait, and no journalism. Journalism requires a point of view. This event simply platformed a sexist, racist blowhard for over an hour with no context.

An environment of news “entertainment” goes beyond Licht

Apparently, Zaslav had misgivings about Licht for a while. CNN Business reports that, “Over the weekend, after The Atlantic story crystallized concerns that Zaslav had with Licht’s leadership over the last several months, the Warner Bros. Discovery chief started seriously considering relieving him of his duties.”

Zaslav “took responsibility” for hiring Licht as he announced Licht’s dismissal, saying, “For a number of reasons, things didn’t work out and that’s unfortunate. It’s really unfortunate. And ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”

According to the Atlantic profile, Zaslav “hired Licht with a decree to move CNN toward the ideological center.” Appealing to “everyone” appeals to no one. Individuals are allowed to be politically moderate. Journalistic institutions need to balance verified facts with perspective. So, Licht may not have had the backbone to assert a solid point of view for CNN, but that shortcoming was seen by Zaslav as an asset.

Whether for his news media holdings or his film and TV properties, Zaslav’s decisions continually skew toward making everything less contextual and personality-free; so “non-threatening” to “middle America” (whatever that means) that what’s left means nothing to no one.

Zaslav encouraged Licht to push CNN toward the middle by doing “what he does best”: driving ratings up by making news palatable and entertaining. He then fired Licht for not driving up ratings and is “taking responsibility” for his hiring decision without truly seeming to understand why it was a bad one.

What the general public really needs to be engaged in journalism is a balance of facts and perspective. Maybe CNN will find this balance one day.

(featured image: Taylor Hill, WireImage)


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Author
Teresa Jusino
Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.