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Home » Is the mess at CNN a one-off issue? Or does it say something about the future of cable news?

Is the mess at CNN a one-off issue? Or does it say something about the future of cable news?

What a week, huh? The firing of CNN boss Chris Licht led the media news this week, and it’s likely that CNN will be in the news until it names a new CEO, which could take a while.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to break down what exactly went wrong during Licht’s tenure at CNN besides, well, everything. Seriously, what lessons can be learned from the CNN mess? Is this just a one-off, a struggling network sent stumbling even more by a boss who was in over his head?

Or does this say more about the future of cable news and network strategy?

Let’s start with Jim Rutenberg’s analysis in The New York Times. It’s always good to see Rutenberg, who used to write about media regularly for the Times, weigh in on media matters. His latest piece: “Does CNN’s Turmoil Mean There’s No Room on Cable for Independent News?”

Rutenberg writes, “In fact, Mr. Licht’s short tenure does not provide an easy answer. His mission was in large part doomed by the particular shape of his assignment, his own missteps and an apparently incomplete understanding of the network as it existed before his arrival. But it did illuminate just how hard it can be to find success where Mr. Licht was sent looking. Polarization is sky high, and Americans occupy dueling informational silos. Cable, a medium that played to divided interests from the start, is now competing with social media, where the most successful items tend to be the most stridently partisan and provocative.”

Rutenberg added, “Yet for all of that, trying to create a media version of a shared public square is especially hard without a clear notion of what it means to be ‘balanced’ or to give equal say to ‘both voices.’”

Another good read about CNN is from a former CNN staffer. Brian Stelter, who used to cover media at the network and hosted the since-canceled “Reliable Sources,” wrote a column for The Washington Post: “CNN’s next leader must be able to answer this one question.” That one question: What should an anchor do when a guest says something untrue?

The issue, however, runs deeper in a news outlet that is still likely taking orders from the big, big boss — Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, the guy who hired and fired Licht. Stelter wrote, “Over time, anchors and producers came to believe that Zaslav and Licht wanted CNN to be the Food Network but for news — inoffensive, predictable, safe to leave on in the living room all day. As one CNN anchor told me, ‘If you try to be all things to all people, you’re not anything to anybody.’”

Stelter smartly writes, “We live in an age that requires a muscular form of TV journalism, one that defends truth against a torrent of lies — and accepts that the truth-telling will spur backlash from some viewers.”

But it still isn’t clear what CNN’s editorial strategy was under Licht and what it will be moving forward. That’s part of the problem, maybe the problem: What is CNN?

Erik Wemple, the excellent media critic for The Washington Post, pointed to a passage in Tim Alberta’s devastating profile of Licht in The Atlantic. While covering E. Jean Carroll’s civil suit against Donald Trump, CNN put on a chyron that included the words “SEXUAL ABUSE.” Word quickly came down from one of Licht’s lieutenants: Get rid of those words.

Wemple wrote, “There are many subplots to Licht’s abbreviated tour, but the sexual abuse chyron moment captures a critical one: His departure marks the failure of his mandate — delivered from his corporate overlords, including Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav — to recalibrate the network’s political sensibility toward the center. To the extent that anyone ever understood what that meant for actual CNN broadcasts, it’s now clear that it meant sanitizing the screen in deference to the Republican front-runner.”

We’ll have to wait and see what recalibrations CNN makes with a new boss. But let’s not forget the guy that hired the old boss will hire the new boss, too.

Stelter wrote, “(CNN journalists) are wondering, as one on-air personality put it, if Licht’s exit represents ‘a real change of direction’ or if Zaslav will just ‘find someone more competent and less obnoxious to execute the same vision.’ Good TV is not always good journalism, and good journalism is not always good TV. But at its best, CNN has been both, and it can be again.”

But here’s what it comes down to: viewers. That’s what this is all about. It’s about ratings, eyeballs, viewers.

In her column for Guardian US, longtime media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote that Licht probably would’ve survived if the numbers were good. But they weren’t. And why?

Sullivan wrote, “Perhaps the biggest cheeses at CNN have learned the right lessons: that you can’t ‘both sides’ your way into ratings success. That there is no vast political middle just waiting to be entranced by performative neutrality. And, most of all, that good journalism has nothing to do with sucking up to would-be authoritarians but rather it demands brave truth-telling. There’s little evidence that these will be the takeaways from this debacle. But it sure would be pretty to think so.”

The final chapter of Licht’s controversial reign at CNN started with Tim Alberta’s profile of Licht in The Atlantic. By now, if you follow the media closely, you’ve read this searing piece.

In his first public comments since his story, Alberta spoke to his Atlantic colleague Hanna Rosin for the Radio Atlantic podcast episode: “The Rise and Fall of Chris Licht and CNN.” It’s a fascinating listen about Alberta’s profile and his take on Licht and what happened at CNN. They talk extensively about the disastrous Donald Trump town hall and what happened in the days between the town hall, Alberta’s story and Licht’s firing.

About Licht’s firing, Alberta said, “I can’t say that I was surprised, if only because in the days after the piece was published, I was just inundated with text messages and emails and phone calls from people at CNN telling me the situation there was untenable, that there was no way he could survive this. And that was all unsolicited.”

It certainly appears as if Licht’s tenure wasn’t going to end well, but did Alberta’s piece hasten the firing? Rosin brought up that subject, asking Alberta, “You know, it’s weird to be a reporter in a position of having a story come out and then someone gets fired. In your case, it sounds like you see yourself as just a chronicler of something that was already unfolding, not like a causer of events, but just: You wrote this story, this happened; it was already on its way.”

Alberta said, “Well, yes, I — let me say it this way: I’ve had a number of CNN reporters reach out, people who are friends of mine, people who I’ve known and worked with and respected for a long time, who all were saying basically the same thing to me, independent of one another, which is, Hey, don’t feel bad about this. Because I think because they think I’m a nice guy — I hope because they think I’m a nice guy.”

And now to more media news, tidbits and links for your weekend review …

  • While CNN looks for a replacement, a leadership team of Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and COO David Leavy will run CNN. With the interim appointment of Entelis and Moseley, Mediaite’s Jennifer Bowers Bahney points out that every major cable and broadcast news network is now run by women. Besides the CNN leadership, that includes Rebecca Blumenstein of NBC News, Kimberly Godwin of ABC News, Rashida Jones of MSNBC, Wendy McMahon of CBS News and Suzanne Scott of Fox News. By the way, The New York Times’ Katie Robertson has a story on the four people running CNN right now.
  • The headline on Rolling Stone’s site after the news broke that longtime religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and one-time presidential candidate had died? “Pat Robertson, Televangelist Who Blamed Gay People for 9/11 and Hurricanes, Dies.” Robertson’s media ties include founding the Christian Broadcasting Network in 1960. It produced the show “The 700 Club.” Pat Robertson’s son, Gordon Robertson, is CEO of the Christian Broadcasting Network and the main host of the current “The 700 Club.”
  • With the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf merger, a lot of talk has come up about “sportswashing.” In this case, the Saudi government, which finances LIV, is using golf to try to scrub its horrendous human rights record, as well as acts of terrorism. The Los Angeles Times’ Samantha Masunaga has a good story: “The LIV Golf, PGA Tour merger shows why sports is so good for image washing.”
  • Journalist Yanqi Xu writes about a personal experience for The Appeal: “I was the victim of a crime. Then the system left me to fend for myself.”
  • Sad news: NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, a veteran national correspondent, died Thursday of cancer. He was 63. NPR’s Debbie Elliott wrote, “For more than 25 years, Wade reported on his home state of Texas and the southwest United States, covering top stories including the Oklahoma City bombing, school shootings, hurricanes, the American Sniper murder trial, and the Boy Scouts sexual abuse scandal.” Elliott added, “Wade’s soothing bass had a way of pulling listeners a little closer to the radio. A profile once described his voice like ‘warm butter melting over barbecued sweet corn.’ But Goodwyn argued his writing is what really mattered. And he was right. If his voice pulled you in, his way with words kept you listening.” Be sure to read Elliott’s excellent remembrance of Goodwyn and his career.
  • Longtime Poynter faculty member and writing expert Roy Peter Clark once devoted a column to Goodwyn’s excellent writing while covering massive tornado destruction in Oklahoma in 2013. Clark called it an “… admirable example of breaking news, rendered by a radio news pro who demonstrates that it’s possible to make deadline prose feel compelling, poetic, and, of course, vivid.”
  • Love this. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis is offering high school grads across Minnesota free one-year digital subscriptions. Sophie Culpepper writes more about this for Nieman Lab.
  • Poynter’s PolitiFact has added a full-time reporter to fact-check LGBTQ+ issues. Poynter’s Jennifer Orsi talks to that reporter, Grace Abels, in this interview.
  • Variety’s Brian Steinberg with “NBC’s ‘Nightly News’ Gets New Logo With Digital Viewers in Mind.”
  • New York Times chief TV critic James Poniewozik with “The Paranoid Style in Tucker Carlson’s Home Office.”

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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