Quick Bit: A conversation with a CNN insider who currently works for the network about how its’s changing under new boss Chris Licht.
For the umpteenth time in recent months, CNN has found itself making headlines for events at the network that unfold off-camera — not just for the news and live coverage that its journalists bring to our TV and smartphone screens.
This time, the catalyst was a memo penned by CNN’s new boss Chris Licht decrying an overuse of the network’s “breaking news” banner, and setting out new conditions for when that designation will be used going forward. “It has become such a fixture on every channel and network that its impact has become lost on the audience,” Licht wrote in the memo, the contents of which were first reported by The New York TimesNYT
Reporters covering the media beat quickly pounced on the memo from Licht — who took over at CNN on May 2 — with an outsized share of the ensuing coverage focused on the breaking news about-face. And why not? It fit neatly into a bigger narrative that’s started to emerge about the news network under its successor to Jeff Zucker. According to the story that’s emerged so far, the new guy among other things thinks audiences have had enough of the breathless play-by-plays of nonstop crises. And that there needs to be less white-hot resistance programming. Fewer panels with vituperative and partisan guests. A more measured tone in general, overall.
In the meantime, some of the media reporters tracking the changes at CNN also haven’t been able to resist a little palace intrigue. Depending on whether their sources are Zucker loyalists are not, Licht can come off as distant in some of the coverage — not as plugged-in as Zucker on account of things like Licht occupying an office on the 22nd floor at Hudson Yards in NYC (as opposed to Zucker’s old office on 17, the same floor as CNN’s newsroom).
The emergent portrait of Licht, who earlier in his career was the co-creator and first executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, is also that he’s more of a delegator, one who doesn’t bark orders and who’s in no rush to make big decisions (like naming a new host for the network’s 9 pm hour).
In the wake of all the “Breaking news: CNN wants to stop calling things breaking news” stories and tweets that circulated over the past few days, I decided to call an upper-tier source at CNN for some extra texture about what, exactly, is going on there these days. My source is in a position to know and understand Licht’s thinking on the new era at CNN, and sought to clarify and dispel a few myths for me.
Our conversation, by the way, came just days ahead of a CNN global town hall that Licht set for June 16 in Atlanta (at which his thinking will no doubt come more clearly into focus).
CNN World Headquarters.
LightRocket via Getty Images
Myth #1: Licht is taking a “lean back” approach to revamping CNN
In some of the media coverage about him, Licht has been tagged with a specific turn of phrase — that he’s “leading from behind.” When, in fact, he’s been to Washington DC three times in the last month. He’s visited CNN bureaus in Los Angeles and Atlanta, he was at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, he was in DC to oversee election night coverage, and, I’m told, he’s met with over 500 CNN staffers in 30 days. The implication being, does that sound like passive leadership?
Moreover, while it might look to some people like Licht is sitting in his Hudson Yards office quite literally above the fray, he apparently chose space on floor 22 simply because he didn’t want to move into Zucker’s old office on 17. A far more boring rationale than “the new general doesn’t want to mingle with the troops” (even though some people in the building seem to have taken it that way).
Myth #2: CNN’s new boss wants to make the network more centrist
I’ve been told that this is sort of true, but also that it’s not precisely correct.
Especially during the Trump era, CNN’s news and opinion content under Zucker took on a sharper edge (of a sort that could feel alarmist or outright partisan, depending on who you talk to). Licht’s “breaking news” memo is very much a product of his vision for New CNN. The aim is for less alarmism and more “nuance” (a word that you hear about 1,000 times in trying to divine the contours of the Licht playbook). With the hope being, among other things, that viewers stop feeling “alienated” (another word you hear often) by what they see on the news.
In practical terms, I’m told not to be surprised by less opinion in general from the network, but more “analysis.” More correspondents talking to real people, and fewer panels of guests snarling at each other over hot-button issues.
In fact, here’s where some of the nuance seems to be lost in terms of what observers think that Licht is thinking. Does he want to “re-center” CNN? Not exactly. By definition, if you’re thinking in terms of the direction along a spectrum and if you think CNN is too left or too progressive now, then there’s only one direction the network can move in if it wants to re-center: To the right.
From what I’ve heard, though, it’s more accurate to describe Licht’s vision for New CNN as an attempt to make the center of the conversation bigger, instead of simply repositioned.
Myth #3: If this works, viewers won’t feel the need to “pick a side” anymore
There’s clearly a sense within the network that the elevated conversation and tone that Licht wants to imbue CNN with should be able to fill an underserved gap in the marketplace. New CNN, in other words, can become the Goldilocks’ porridge nestled between the too-hot and too-cold extremes of Fox News and MSNBC.
Licht, I’m told, wants to get people more comfortable with a “bigger center” at CNN, to the point that they feel like they don’t have to pick a side anymore, so to speak. But that brings up a question that I haven’t gotten a good enough answer for from anyone at CNN yet:
If there is, indeed, a critical mass of people who prefer more ideologically neutral journalism and opinion programming, why did Fox News just hit its 65th consecutive week at #1 in prime time?
And why, according to the latest audience data, does Fox consistently have the vast majority of the 100 most-watched cable news telecasts — including programs like The Five and Tucker Carlson Tonight, which mop the floor with its rivals on a nightly basis?
I’ve put this tenet of Light’s vision in the “myth” category (for now). Licht & Co. might be right about the existence of a vast and underserved middle in cable. But it’s also just as possible, and you can certainly interpret the Fox data this way, that many or even most of those viewers have already “picked a side.” They’ve identified their tribe, and they’re already making content consumption decisions accordingly.
Originally found on Forbes Read More