In this week’s podcast, Kate Riga and I talked about the on-going talent purge at CNN. We’ve discussed this before. CNN is under new Republican management and the top shareholder has announced his intention to make the network less “liberal” and more “centrist.” There are both ideological and business drivers, which I discussed last week. But I want to dig into the mechanics, which seem to be getting short shrift in the media discussion. Two rungs down the ladder from the top corporate boss is CNN boss Chris Licht. The game plan may come from on high (i.e., Trump donor billionaire John Malone) but Licht is the implementer. So far Brian Stelter and John Harwood have been axed and the rumor mill is now fixated on Brianna Keilar, a CNN host deemed “too liberal” or too critical of Trump for the new “centrist” CNN.
If you read the insider sheets like I do they are chock full of palace intrigue and rumors about Keilar’s imminent demise. Last week she went on a multi-day obsession about the presence of Marines in the background for Joe Biden’s big “MAGA Republicans” speech. This was a 48-hour hullabaloo. People can reasonably disagree over whether it was the appropriate optics. But she simply would not let it go. To me it seemed like a rather transparent effort to curry favor with Licht and show she could adapt to the new regime. Dylan Byers’ new column in Puck suggests that this was the takeaway within CNN as well.
The most striking thing about Licht’s firings to date is how they are choreographed for public consumption, particularly right-wing media consumption. They also seem designed to instill not only fear but uncertainty within CNN ranks which will lead on air talent to, for lack of a better word, discipline themselves without being told to directly.
Here’s what I mean.
When an organization like CNN wants to fire someone there are many ways to do it. One is to go to the person, explain that the organization wants to move in another direction and find a way for the employee to leave, at least outwardly, on their own terms. If there’s a contract outstanding, that can be negotiated. My sense with both Stelter and Harwood is that they got what amounted to a call out of the blue that they were out, more or less without warning and out immediately.
Stelter got the call a few days before what was to be the last episode of Reliable Sources after a 30 year run. The sign off and atmospherics with Harwood’s departure look similar. A call out of the blue: you’re out. In both cases the first public comments from the canned employee suggested as much.
This very public choreography is designed to generate mass schadenfreude on the right: the bête noires Fox has been harping on for years suddenly marched to the top of the pyramid and hurled to the ground. The abrupt and public approach is designed to be humiliating for the purpose of satiating the critics who long to see these folks hurt and who CNN wants to appeal to. It’s the whole “cry more” mentality. Public mockery of other people’s injury is a core leitmotif of Trumpism. Trumpism is dominance politics. To use Adam Serwer’s phrasing, the cruelty is the point. So the plan within CNN is not only to appeal to the Trump world but to do it, appropriately enough, in the language of Trumpism.
Licht appears to be driving a similar effect within CNN. Reports suggest Licht has made very little effort to explain to anyone at CNN just what his plan is. He wants CNN to be more “centrist” but how he plans to do that or precisely what that means aren’t clear. The few comments he’s made within CNN seem to amount to, “you’ll find out soon enough” or “we’ll see.” This is clearly a deliberate strategy to keep everyone guessing, to draw their own conclusions from the bodies flying past the office windows. It is again classic Trump: Keep people around you in a state of suspense and uncertainty because it gives you leverage over everyone. It’s a style of performative dominance.
As we’ve discussed in other contexts, the Trump aim behind “media bias” bullying is never to create specific editorial adjustments. It’s to demonstrate power, get the targets of the ire to confirm with their own actions the substance of the charge. There’s isn’t any personnel shake up or revised editorial line that would lead Donald Trump to say, “Well they were totally fake news but they’re looking pretty solid now.” The point is to stomp and chortle at the kowtowing and demand more. But perhaps Licht is on to something in realizing that what he can never deliver in terminations or right-leaning editorial interference he can edge up to with the language of performative Trumpism.