About that Big CNN Article

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You’ve probably heard about The Atlantic article which has painted a devastating picture of network CEO Chris Licht and the state of the network on his watch. (CNN has had some time slots where Newsmax has managed to beat it of late.) There are several moving parts to this story. After what turned out to be a woefully mismanaged acquisition by AT&T, CNN and its parent Time Warner were picked up cheap by Discovery, a cable news heavyweight known for producing cheap shows with solid viewership. That was a bad sign for CNN and HBO — both in their in own spheres premium properties. The results for CNN, judged in viewership, have been abysmal. But for all the grief Licht is getting, this is fundamentally a failure not of execution but of strategy.

Put simply, the theory behind the current revamp of CNN is the network got “too liberal” and gave on-air hosts too much leeway for personal commentary and advocacy. But did CNN get “too liberal”? Or did the national political environment become so polarized and so knocked off the kilter of democratic norms that news coverage forced some level of confrontational stance? We’re back to the old problem of whether to prioritize “balance” or “accuracy.” Which of those two is more important shapes everything about how you approach journalism.

The revamp of CNN seemed to be based first on the “bothsidesist” theory of journalism that is still so common in elite media circles, albeit to a lesser degree. But to an even greater extent, it seems like the way you’d think up to “fix” CNN if you knew about CNN largely by watching the evening line up on Fox. To a great degree, that does seem like where the strategy came from, as I’ll explain below.

As I’ve mentioned before, the editorial realities of our present politics shouldn’t present a journalistic challenge for CNN. But they definitely present a business challenge. CNN isn’t MSNBC or Fox. I don’t say that to equate the two. They’re not remotely comparable. But they each embrace being identified with one of the country’s two main political factions. CNN’s business model is based on access to the whole national population. That breaks down if one political party only allows friend and enemy journalists.

My point in noting this is that the Trump and post-Trump era really are a challenging for a network that has a business model like CNN’s. The problem, as Chris Licht and his boss David Zaslav had it, was that CNN had gotten “too liberal.” The solution was to make it less liberal. Then Trump would stop calling it “Fake News” and everything would be better again. Stated as such, it sounds too simplistic to be real. But listen to how Licht and his supporters describe it. That’s their description.

Beyond this the execution has seemed to go to some lengths in sticking it to the personalities who the strategy required getting rid of. Adam Serwer tells us that the cruelty is the point. That seems to have informed Licht’s approach to HR issues.

Just where this theory of the case and subsequent strategy came from isn’t entirely clear to me. Licht is a hotshot TV guy. He was showrunner on Morning Joe and Colbert, neither of which suggest a strong overt ideological bent. The real driver of all this appears to be his boss, Zaslav. He seems broadly reviled by a lot of people in media. But at least from his political giving, he seems to be at least nominally a Democrat. Who executives give money to doesn’t necessarily tell you a lot. But it gives you some sense of the importance of their politics in shaping their business practices. But he’s not the only one in the mix. The real money player behind all of this is longtime media titan John Malone. And he’s definitely that Republican billionaire. His comments through this very much match what you’d expect if an octogenarian Fox viewer took ownership of CNN and tried to “fix” it in line with the Fox worldview.

Wherever this plan came from, the salient point is that it’s not failing because Licht did a poor job implementing it. It’s simply based on misunderstanding the contemporary media and political landscape and almost everything about cable news. What’s too bad is that CNN, which for all its shortcomings is or at least was a thing of great value, is in the process of being thoroughly trashed.

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