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What the Hell Is Going On at CNN?

A large statue of the CNN logo outside the network's headquarter building.

Last Week, CNN abruptly canceled Reliable Sources, which examined the media landscape and ran in various iterations for 30 years. Longtime host Brian Stelter used his final monologue this weekend to condemn the bothsidesism mindset that apparently led to his firing.

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“It is not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue,” Stelter said, stressing that no one from CNN management had reviewed his script ahead of delivering it live. “It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues—it’s required, it’s patriotic.”

Noting the importance of “representing the full spectrum of debate,” he added, “We must make sure we do not give a platform to those who are lying to our faces.” It seems that that is the direction CNN is heading in, though.

Who is CNN’s new president, Chris Licht?

Earlier this year, Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned after nine years as the network’s president over a romantic relationship with a colleague that he failed to disclose as required. He was replaced by Chris Licht, then the executive producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and also the founding EP and co-creator of Morning Joe, MSNBC’s primary tribute to both-sidesy centrism. Licht seems to be close with the show’s conservative host Joe Scarborough and he’s also longtime friends with David Zaslav, the man currently decimating HBO Max. (CNN is also owned by the Warner Bros. Discovery conglomerate.) And Licht looks to be taking an approach similar to Zaslav’s with his job at CNN.

With Reliable Sources, Stelter focused heavily in recent years on calling out Donald Trump’s lies and the ways in which conservative media facilitated them. Rightwing media figures like Tucker Carlson and Greg Gutfeld would frequently target Stelter with derision, holding him up as one of the main faces of “liberal media” and “fake news.” But rather than stand by Stelter and his work shining a spotlight on the dangerous propaganda being pushed by Republican politicians and conservative media, Licht reportedly wants the network to be seen as less divisive, which can apparently only be accomplished through silencing legitimate criticism.

Courting Republicans, silencing criticism

Licht reportedly told the network’s editorial staff at a recent meeting that there will be more changes following the cancelation of Reliable Sources. Deadline writes:

According to sources who were present, Licht told CNN employees at Friday’s well-attended editorial meeting, “There will be moves you may not agree with or understand.” Some took that to mean they may not like some of the changes.

He added, “I want to acknowledge to everyone that this is a time of change. I know that it is unsettling.”

There are also reports going around—although they seem to be exclusively making the rounds among ultra-conservative outlets so take them with a grain of salt, I suppose—that Licht is trying to court Republican members of Congress in what the right-wing outlet The Washington Free Beacon called an “apology tour.” (Axios called it a “diplomacy tour” and noted that Licht also met with Democrats.) A CNN spokesperson confirmed to Axios that one of Licht’s priorities is to let audiences “hear from elected officials on both sides of the aisle” and that he will “continue to engage a variety of voices.“

Except in promoting Republican and conservative voices, he is silencing legitimate criticism of the harm they’re causing, both through policy and through their fear-mongering manipulation of the news landscape. In addition to Stelter’s firing, Licht reportedly instructed staff to stop using the term “big lie” to refer to Trump’s oft-repeated claims about a “rigged” and “stolen” election, saying it was too close to Democrats’ “branding.”

This weekend, former MSNBC host Keith Olbermann railed against Licht on his podcast The Countdown. Olbermann shared an anecdote from their shared time at the network, saying, “Licht was Joe Scarborough’s henchman and after Scarborough attacked me on twitter in a violation of MSNBC policy that was supposed to resort in automatic suspension, Licht warned management that if they suspended Scarborough, Scarborough would go to right wing media and say he was being persecuted by me because he was a conservative.”

Olbermann says Licht and Scarborough worked together to get guests they didn’t like banned from his show and ultimately from the entire network. He says they also worked to squash criticism of conservatives. “Licht demanding that [Rachel] Maddow, [Chris] Matthews and I stop criticizing ‘Joe’s friends’ was a staple at MSNBC,” he said, adding that “Licht was hired to run CNN to enable the new Trump-Friendly owners to move out the liberals like Stelter.”

It doesn’t matter how far to the right CNN moves, or how friendly it is for Republican guests and conservative viewers. Trump and Fox News have convinced their fans that the network is the epitome of “liberal media” and placating them won’t do anything to change that. It only legitimizes that false and dangerous idea that you can give balanced coverage of a completely unbalanced political landscape.

We absolutely need reliable sources to make sure that the news is being conveyed accurately and honestly. And CNN has proven that they are not up to the task, at least not under Chris Licht.

(image: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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