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Home » Chris Licht, Chuck Todd, and a tale of two Sunday shows

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

About a year ago—shortly after Chris Licht took over as chairman and CEO of CNN following the dramatic ouster of Jeff Zucker—I wrote in this newsletter that early signs suggested reasons for both optimism and pessimism about his plans for the network. On the optimism side, Licht had reportedly pledged to dial down the bombast and performative outrage that had come to define much of CNN’s coverage—not least of Donald Trump—under Zucker, and to instead elevate fact-driven reporting and “informed policy discussions” (Licht’s words). On the pessimism side, I feared that Licht appeared to view this imperative through “the reactive, distorted prism of perception” (my words) and might strip back necessary, hard-hitting scrutiny of the political right if it was perceived as bombastic and adversarial to Republicans, whom Licht wanted to lure onto the network more regularly. Since then, Licht’s moves have often bolstered my pessimism, not least his firing of Brian Stelter—a hard-hitting media reporter wrongly seen, by many on the right, as a partisan hack—and disastrous recent town hall with Trump

On Friday, The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta published a profile of Licht that was highly pessimistic and quickly became the talk of the media industry: channeling a wider consensus, Stelter called it “a 15,000-word defenestration” while Mike Allen, of Axios, described it as “devastating,” “brutal,” and “destined to become an iconic magazine profile.” The profile, and subsequent fallout—not least inside CNN, where many employees were reportedly stunned and demoralized by Alberta’s reporting—teemed with what Allen referred to as “Shakespearean drama,” depicting Licht not only as a bad manager, but as aloof and paranoid, obsessed both with negative media coverage of himself and the lingering shadow of Zucker. (In one particularly pungent scene, Licht mutters “Zucker couldn’t do this shit” while pumping iron in the gym. Not that Licht is necessarily wrong to be concerned about Zucker: over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Zucker has become “a kind of grievance switchboard” for disgruntled CNN staffers, with a spokesperson for Zucker saying on the record that it’s “wholly unsurprising that Jeff Zucker, the architect of CNN’s unprecedented success, would have deep misgivings” about its current direction.) Alberta also detailed Licht’s tense relations with Don Lemon, whom Licht tapped to host an ill-fated morning show before firing him in April. (Lemon spoke with Alberta pre-firing and challenged Licht’s characterization of Trump-era CNN.) Just before the profile dropped, David Zaslav—Licht’s boss, who has overseen CNN since Discovery merged with WarnerMedia, CNN’s owner, last year—tapped David Leavy, a longtime lieutenant, to serve as CNN’s chief operating officer: a move, Stelter and others have reported, that could undermine Licht. Several CNN staffers told Stelter over the weekend that they think Licht will soon be out.

This is all very juicy, but reading the profile (which I thought was masterfully written; you should definitely read the whole thing if you haven’t), my mind kept coming back to my assessment of Licht’s strategy from last year, and how my fears have since been realized despite Licht, in many ways, talking a good talk about journalistic integrity. The profile’s greatest value, for me, lies in its clear elucidation of Licht’s journalistic philosophy in Licht’s own words—the first time that the public (and, apparently, many of his own staffers) have heard it at such length. (Licht gave Alberta such extensive access that Alberta came to feel like his therapist.) In many ways, it’s a story of an emperor with no clothes. But its portrayal of journalism has a wider relevance.

Licht’s view of journalism, as presented in the piece, tallies broadly with what had been reported when I wrote about him last year: he took over with a mandate to steer CNN away from the “outrage porn” of the Trump era—which Trump served to the media, in no small part, to distract from his more substantive wrongs—and toward fact-driven reporting and respectful dialogue, a shift that Licht hoped would win the trust of Republicans and others who had tuned out. “Sometimes the tone of our coverage has undercut the work of our journalism,” Licht told his staff, per Alberta. “If something’s a lie, you call it a lie,” he told Alberta, adding, of Trump: “I think he changed the rules of the game, and the media was a little caught off guard and put a jersey on and got into the game.” Licht’s CNN, he said, would host people who like rain and people who don’t like rain, but not people who deny that it’s raining when it is. Asked by Alberta to sum up his mission as plainly as possible, Licht replied, “Journalism. Being trusted. Everyone has an agenda, trying to shape events or shape thought. There has to be a source of absolute truth.”

Instinctively, there’s a lot to agree with here. But Licht’s formulations read as conceptually shallow—what is “journalism,” exactly, and whom must it be “trusted” by?—and the profile suggests that he hasn’t thought much deeper. Asked later by Alberta whether he believes that “absolute truth” even exists, Licht said that the question was “weird”—despite his having used that phrase himself. “Your beliefs can be different, but there’s only one truth,” Licht eventually replied—and yet Licht repeatedly expressed what sounded very much like his beliefs to Alberta as he criticized both CNN’s direction under Zucker and the wider elite media, complaining about “virtue signaling” language around trans rights and coverage of “defund the police” and the pandemic. (When a college student put it to Licht that we know how many people died of COVID, he replied, correctly, that we don’t. He then suggested that the death toll may be lower than we think; many experts believe it is actually an undercount.) At times, Licht’s approach tipped into arrogance—not least in his repeated, blithe assurances that covering Trump is actually “very simple”: a matter of not “getting played” and covering him like “any other candidate.” These imperatives might be logically coherent, but they display a shockingly poor understanding of who Trump is. It’s no surprise that the Trump town hall blew up in Licht’s face.

Ultimately, the profile presents numerous examples of hard-hitting journalism appearing to get crushed in the mangle of partisan perception. Licht told CNN producers to downplay coverage of the first hearing of the congressional committee investigating January 6. After the Trump town hall, the network put Byron Donalds—a Trump-allied congressman who has very much denied that it is raining when it is—on a panel as a pundit. Prior to the event, a Licht lieutenant ordered the removal of an on-screen chyron featuring the words “SEXUAL ABUSE,” a reference to the recent court finding that Trump abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll. (Per Alberta, Licht didn’t know about this edict—but as CNN’s leader, he’s responsible for setting the editorial tone from the top.) The most infuriating thing about all this is that many Trump fans who watched the town hall still perceived it as an example of CNN being unfair on Trump. Catering to perception isn’t just a morally bankrupt way to do journalism—increasingly, it seems futile, too. 

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Another key takeaway from the profile, it should be noted, concerns the role of Zaslav in all this: indeed, Alberta, in no small part, depicts him as the power behind the throne at CNN, with Licht as his underling—and, whatever Licht’s thoughts about journalistic philosophy, Zaslav, Alberta reports, sees “steering CNN toward the center” as “a business decision.” If Stelter’s sources are right and Licht is on the way out, then his replacement may not run CNN much differently. This fact, of course, reflects dynamics that are peculiar to CNN as a business. But it also, in a sense, points to a broader truth: about continuity and change in the world of TV news. 

Yesterday, a different, confirmed departure also got tongues wagging within the industry: Chuck Todd, the long-serving host of Meet the Press on NBC, revealed at the end of his show that he will step down at the end of the summer, handing the reins to Kristen Welker. Todd and Licht, clearly, are different people with very different roles, and the atmospherics surrounding Todd’s departure contrasted greatly with the weekend buzz about Licht. (“I’d rather leave a little bit too soon than stay a tad bit too long,” Todd said, adding that he doesn’t want to let work “consume” his life.) But Todd also offered up some reflections on his views of political journalism that, in part, hit similar notes to those espoused by Licht. “I leave feeling concerned about this moment in history but reassured by the standards we’ve set here. We didn’t tolerate propagandists, and this network and program never will. But it doesn’t mean sticking your head in the sand either,” he said. “Being a real political journalist isn’t about building a brand. It’s about reporting what’s happening and explaining why it’s happening and letting the public absorb the facts.”

Again, there’s a lot to agree with here. But Todd, too, hasn’t always executed on such rhetoric. Over the years, he has been criticized by many media-watchers for repeatedly failing to push back sufficiently strongly on propagandists. And I would argue that his show has too often privileged a halcyon conception of civil dialogue over hard-edged accountability journalism—as well as focusing too much on political optics and process. Yesterday’s edition was a case in point. Todd hosted Joe Manchin, the Democratic senator from West Virginia, and asked him whether bipartisanship is “dead” until the 2024 election, whether he might run for president on a third-party ticket, and how he won a major new pipeline project for his state as part of the spending package that Congress just passed. Todd did not ask about the impact of the pipeline on the climate, nor the fact that one of the project’s backers is a top Manchin donor.

People who work in media—myself very much included—talk a lot about individual personalities and personnel changes. These matter for a range of reasons: Welker, for instance, will become the first Black journalist and only the second woman ever to moderate Meet the Press. But we should recognize, too, that the story of the form that political journalism can take in America—particularly on TV—is one of continuity and consensus much more often than it is one of radical change. Watching CNN’s Sunday show, State of the Union, alongside Meet the Press yesterday, I was struck by how similar they were—not because they both gave rare platforms to voices from both parties, but because they were both so organized around the notions of partisanship and perception; the CNN show featured some substantive questions, but more about whether interviewee X would run for Y office, who won the spending negotiations, what impression it gave when President Biden fell over at the weekend, and so on. Neither show met the bar of what I would call an “informed policy discussion,” even if CNN’s might have met Licht’s bar. That’s a failure of his leadership, too, amid the noise. And it is not his failure alone.

Other notable stories:

  • Semafor’s Ben Smith reports that both domestic and overseas journalists have faced restrictions from the government of Ukraine as they seek to cover Russia’s war in the country—a source of tensions that are approaching “a boiling point.” Coverage in outlets including the Times, The New Yorker, and NBC has angered Ukrainian military officials and “led to journalists having their credentials threatened, revoked, or denied.” 
  • Earlier today, a court in Hong Kong overturned the 2021 conviction of Bao Choy, a journalist who was found guilty of deceptively obtaining vehicle-registration records when she checked a box on an online form. Today’s verdict, the AP’s Kanis Leung notes, is “a rare court ruling upholding media freedom” in Hong Kong, where officials have clamped down on the press of late. (Hsiuwen Liu wrote about the situation for our recent issue.)
  • Covering Climate Now, a climate-journalism initiative founded by CJR and The Nation, hailed “a path-breaking innovation” at France’s public broadcaster, where two TV channels have retooled their weather reports to situate a given day’s conditions in the context of the changing climate. “Viewers are left in no doubt that global warming is man-made and caused mainly by burning fossil fuels,” Covering Climate Now writes. 
  • Also in France, journalists at Les Echos—a French financial newspaper owned by the billionaire Bernard Arnault and his luxury conglomerate, LVMH—went on strike last week in protest of what they described as threats to their editorial independence. Journalists at the paper already accused Arnault of forcing out its former editor over coverage he didn’t like in March, and now claim bosses are infringing their right to help pick a successor.
  • And Poynter’s Omar Gallaga spoke with Courtney Bublé, a reporter at Government Executive who has created a guide for journalists who are introverts. “There’s always this notion, especially in journalism, that you have to be the loudest person in the room,” Bublé said—but she found, Gallaga writes, that “introverts can still be very effective, and at times, even more suited to the job,” for example by having good listening skills.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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