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A walk in the park

On Wednesday, during an early-morning stroll through Central Park, Chris Licht, the chairman and CEO of CNN, was fired by David Zaslav—the head of Warner Bros. Discovery, the network’s parent company, whom Licht considered a mentor. The site of the firing provided poignant detail in this week’s CNN-implosion story: according to the New York Times, Licht  was offered the network’s top job early last year during a similar walk through the park with Zaslav. This time, Zaslav tossed his protégé into the shrubbery, as an ominous yellow haze enveloped the city.

The scrum of coverage about Licht’s ouster has focused largely on his hubris, presented to Tim Alberta, a writer for The Atlantic, in a masterful profile. Licht, a rising star, clearly thought that he could win over Alberta, and maybe his own staff. Instead, he came across as arrogant, vacuous, severely out of his depth. Postmortems, of which there were many, blamed the Atlantic story, CNN’s sagging ratings, and a revolt among on-air talent. Yet Licht, for all the words he managed to confide in Alberta, seemed unable to articulate a vision to his staff that made any sense. 

Journalism can look easy from the outside. I once worked for a boss (you may have heard of him) who could not understand why feature reporters accustomed to doing a story every week or two couldn’t just as easily churn out one a day. How hard could it be? Hard, it turns out, and maybe harder now than at any time in our media history. Licht’s mistake was in thinking he could see something no one else could: a straightforward path out of the deeply politicized, broadly distrustful, intensely personal, and politically dishonest moment that the country finds itself in. Journalists are living that moment like everybody else, and newsrooms are struggling as they plod their way through.

Anyone who claims that the solution is “very simple”—as Licht did, with specific reference to coverage of Donald Trump—is deluded. (Consider, for instance, The Messenger, a startup news site that billed itself as an answer to a supposed left-wing tilt in newsrooms when it launched recently, only to devolve into a den of clickbait and internal strife almost on day one.) The dwindling media chorus on Twitter is rarely much better, berating news organizations anytime they deign to hear from a Republican.

Licht, abetted by Zaslav, suggested there was a simple blueprint—and that CNN’s journalists, among the best in the world, had been intentionally heading in the wrong direction when he took over. Another Times story this week quoted Frank Sesno, a former Washington bureau chief at CNN, who believes that CNN did need to “tone certain elements down and dial some things back” following the Trump presidency. But Sesno also told the Times that Licht’s approach was misguided: “What Licht was really trying to do, and it didn’t work, was he was trying to make a tonal change but he made it sound like a substantive change.”

The challenge for news outlets, as for every American planning to vote in 2024, is how to process a political climate that has become a threat to the democratic process. How do you cover a major-party contender, in Trump, who has been impeached, arrested, indicted, and discredited, yet continues to command the loyalty and attention of millions? How do you speak to voters who don’t trust the media but who seem comfortable in a sea of professionalized disinformation? How do we keep the press from becoming the story along the way?

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Thoughtful people, including many of the journalists inside the CNN newsroom, are trying to wrestle with these questions. A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of the Times, puzzled through the predicament of the press in a recent essay for CJR. Jon Allsop, the author of CJR’s The Media Today newsletter, wrote earlier this week that the problem with most television news is less about individual personalities than its conventional, optics-driven tone. (“Licht’s formulations read as conceptually shallow,” Allsop observed. “What is ‘journalism,’ exactly, and whom must it be ‘trusted’ by?”) To me, it seems best to avoid the sweeping correctives that Licht, and Zaslav, pursued. Journalism can’t be packaged like a consumer good, marketed in a certain political direction. Truth isn’t “centrist” or “left leaning” or “inclusive.”

The hard, worthwhile work of journalism lies in day-to-day decision-making that prioritizes what we know to be objectively true—and not repeating a lie, no matter who says it. Don’t assume that the loudest, most provocative person in the room is worthy of the most attention. Give your staff the time, and the resources, needed to make sense of an enormously complicated, and unsettled, time. Admit fallibility and confusion. 

Some reporters at CNN, and elsewhere, may be celebrating the demise of a bad boss—and rightly so. (Can we please, though, dial back a tad on the nostalgia for Jeff Zucker, Licht’s predecessor at CNN, who, as New York’s Shawn McCreesh points out, was “the ultimate Trump-platformer who green-lit The Apprentice and offered Trump debate advice”?) Zaslav has vowed a patient search for a new leader; for now, CNN will be run by Amy Entelis, the longtime head of talent and content development; Virginia Moseley, the head of editorial; Eric Sherling, the programming chief; and David Leavy, who was announced as the incoming COO of CNN just last week, and whose arrival was mooted by media reporters (correctly) as a bad omen for Licht. For the moment, the moves mean that all the major news networks in the US have women in the top editorial jobs. The Times reports that on the network’s editorial call yesterday morning, Licht was barely mentioned. In a statement, he said, “I learned a lot over the past 13 months.”

CNN remains the most important place on TV for breaking news, and it will no doubt be indispensable during the 2024 campaigns. But the tensions highlighted by Licht aren’t going anywhere—at CNN, nor at any other major US outlet. Zaslav seems to think that his network’s problems can be solved by saying the right things to placate those who hate it. The answers instead are to be found in confronting our deeply divided country with truth and independence, and in not sounding like a bro taking media advice from his trainer.

Other notable stories:

  • Last night, Donald Trump claimed in a post on Truth Social, the social media network he founded, that he had been indicted on federal charges stemming from his mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House. The last time Trump claimed on Truth Social that he was in the process of being indicted, in the New York hush-money case, the news cycle blew up, but key parts of his claim turned out to be wrong. After Trump posted last night, talking heads on CNN initially reacted with caution—but journalists at that network and elsewhere quickly confirmed that Trump has, in fact, already been indicted in the documents case, later reporting that the charges against him include conspiring to obstruct justice, making false statements, and violating the Espionage Act. At time of writing, the indictment itself had yet to be unsealed, but that didn’t stop mainstream pundits from speculating about it and figures in right-wing media from claiming, breathlessly and baselessly, that the rule of law is in tatters. 
  • Yesterday, thick smoke from wildfires in Canada continued to blanket New York City and swaths of the northeastern US, with inhabitants rushing to download the Environmental Protection Agency’s air-quality app, which overtook Facebook in popularity in Apple’s App Store. The front page of the New York Post urged its readers to “BLAME CANADA!” (“EH!POCALYPSE NOW,” a subheading read); the climate newsletter Heated urged its readers not to blame Canada. (“Canada is in no way off the hook for climate policy obstruction—but why blame America’s Hat for your climate woes when there are so many better targets this week?”) Covering Climate Now, a climate journalism initiative founded by CJR and The Nation, argued that the smoke in New York has the potential to be “a pivotal moment in media coverage of the climate story,” since so many journalists live there.
  • Earlier this week, The Debrief, a little-known site that covers science and defense, published a sensational story quoting an intelligence whistleblower as claiming that the US government possesses “intact and partially intact craft of non-human origin.” The story was reported by two journalists who have broken significant news on UFOs for the Times in the past, but, according to Vanity Fair’s Charlotte Klein, the paper passed on the story this time; the reporters then went to the Washington Post, which was still working on the story when the reporters determined that it needed to be published as quickly as possible. The reporting process, Klein writes, has raised eyebrows. 
  • Media Matters for America’s Mia Gingerich is out with a new report assessing how broadcast and cable news networks covered anti-trans violence in America last year. The networks devoted much more airtime to the story than in the year before, Gingerich found. But almost all of the coverage was pegged to a shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado in November—and even this coverage suffered from “familiar issues,” including failures to put the shooting in its broader context and to air perspectives from trans guests.
  • And Pat Robertson—the Baptist minister and right-wing politician who called homosexuality “an abomination” and claimed that the 2010 earthquake in Haiti was divine retribution, among other incendiary comments—has died. He was ninety-three. Robertson founded the Christian Broadcasting Network, which redefined religious broadcasting, as the Times notes, “by serving up religion as news and entertainment.”

Related: Chris Licht, Chuck Todd, and a tale of two Sunday shows

Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

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