June 8, 2023: When Chris Licht took over as the CEO of CNN, there were high hopes for a transformation. The goal was to shift the network away from its perceived liberal bias and return to a more balanced and fact-based approach reminiscent of its early days. However, this idea faced insurmountable challenges in today’s fragmented media landscape and was destined to fail.
Licht’s recent dismissal came as no surprise, considering the all-time low ratings CNN experienced under his leadership. David Zaslav, Licht’s boss at Warner Bros. Discovery, CNN’s parent company, acknowledged Licht’s dedication to the job but cited multiple reasons for the unsuccessful outcome.
One of the factors contributing to Licht’s downfall was his attempt to incorporate a diverse range of on-air perspectives, including conservatives, to move away from what Zaslav perceived as “advocacy” journalism under the previous president, Jeff Zucker. While this was a well-intentioned approach, it needed to align with the desires of CNN’s viewers.
The reality is that people turn to cable news not for impartial reporting but to have their own biases reaffirmed by influential figures on television. Unless it’s a story about significant events like the outbreak of war or a terrorist attack, viewers do not seek out unbiased reporting. They tune in to hear their side praised and the other side criticized. Liberals want to hear about conservative corruption, while conservatives want to listen to the worst about liberals.
The cable news business model relies on giving viewers what they want, catering to their preferences, and hoping they keep returning for more. CNN aimed to return to traditional journalism, but it differed from what its audience desired.
Furthermore, it wasn’t just the ratings that suffered; the morale within the organization plummeted as well. Licht faced criticism from CNN journalists for various decisions, including the failure of the new morning show led by Don Lemon and the dismissal of several liberal correspondents. However, nothing drew more backlash than Licht’s decision to host a town hall with former President Donald Trump, moderated by Kaitlan Collins.
CNN sought to diversify its shows and provide a broader range of opinions. However, the town hall received widespread criticism from within and outside the network. Critics questioned why CNN would give someone like Donald Trump a platform, despite his faults and potential for another presidential run. Some saw it as CNN’s attempt to emulate Fox News rather than maintain its reputation as a reliably liberal news organization.
The fallout from the town hall was evident, with on-air talent appearing stunned and respected host Christiane Amanpour openly disagreeing with Licht about allowing Trump to participate in that format.
In the end, Licht’s vision for CNN needed to align with the desires of its viewers or the expectations of its journalists. The attempt to revive a more traditional approach to journalism in today’s media landscape proved incompatible with the network’s established audience and led to dwindling ratings and internal discontent.