I wasn’t able to watch last night’s CNN town hall. I was helping my son prepare for an AP exam. I plan to watch it later today. But I’ve already heard enough reviews and seen enough clips to see that it conforms with what we knew of the Chris Licht model. Licht, as you may know, got the CNN assignment when CNN ended up with its latest corporate overload Warner Bros. Discovery. There’s been a lot of debate about just what Licht’s brief was. But it seems to have been some mix of the ideological fancies of its new owners and a general desire to make it “less liberal.”
For many of us, the idea that CNN is or ever was “liberal” is an absurd enough proposition to get the conversation about Licht’s goals off to a pretty poor start. But the topic clarifies itself when you see the question through the lens a corporation uses to understand questions like this. We don’t need to have an abstract conversation about what constitutes “liberal” in this context. It’s much simpler than that. You’ll know it’s not “liberal” when Trump and Republicans stop attacking it.
CNN is designed to be mass audience, not niche. The business model is based on at least having a shot at getting the viewership of the whole population. You don’t have to be in cable news programming to know it’s a problem if a big minority of the population thinks of CNN as the “Clinton News Network” or “Fake News CNN.” So there’s a real imperative to get out of that penalty box. That’s been Licht’s core agenda: getting out of that penalty box. The problem is that Licht and lots of people from his world approach the question with a category misunderstanding of what Trumpism is and how our hyper-polarized political and media landscape operates. It’s not as though Trump and his carnival of circus monkeys have a discrete list of complaints which can, at least for the most part, be addressed and then everybody is friends again. In the world of Trumpism there is the obedient press and the enemies. The whole point of the Trumpian Wurlitzer is to exact a price for non-compliance and get executives like Chris Licht to metaphorically or sometimes literally follow Trump around asking, “Sir, what can we do to prove we’re not liberal and make you happy?”
It may be the only real “Sir” story anywhere in Trump’s vicinity.
The point, as you can see, isn’t to remediate any specific set of concerns. It’s to get a news organization into the posture of a supplicant. That both defangs the news organization from playing its proper role, and turns them into an object of mockery for Trump’s supporters. That latter part is very much by design. You know this if you have a basic understanding of Trumpism and the characters who make up the Trump cinematic universe.
Don’t get me wrong. I too sometimes find myself nostalgic for the Bernie Shaw era CNN. Lots of hard news, straight at you. But the fact that that doesn’t exist anymore really isn’t about programming decisions at CNN. We live in a profoundly different era.