CNN Throws In The Towel
After almost two years of internal strife, backbiting, press leaks and management turmoil, things have suddenly become very quiet at CNN. No more tales of employee anger. No more revelations of management incompetence. No more negative press.
Apparently CNN is back to its pre-Chris Licht self.
Perhaps we were naive to believe David Zaslav’s bold proclamations about returning CNN to its former glory. Perhaps seeing Licht overwhelmed by the system caused Zaslav to decide trying to change an entrenched culture was too hard a task. Or perhaps David Zaslav simply has a glass jaw.
When Zaslav first took over the failing network as part of the Warner Bros. Discovery portfolio, he was quick to identify CNN’s obvious problem. The network was slowly dying. Rather than the straight news channel that had made CNN nationally recognized for fairness and balance, under Jeff Zucker the network had been transformed into a poor copy of MSNBC.
Seeing an obvious opportunity to rebuild CNN’s credibility, Zaslav named producer Chris Licht to head the network. That allowed Zaslav to exercise his penchant for micromanagement while Licht took the criticism. Perhaps this would have worked had Licht been a stronger manager, but we will never know.
What we do know is that with Licht gone, Zaslav had to make a fateful decision: continue to try to rebuild CNN while dealing with employee unrest and a hostile press, or simply give in.
Zaslav not only gave in, he did so in a big way, naming former BBC and New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson as chairman and editor in chief.
Not that there is anything wrong with Mark Thompson. He has a strong track record as a successful executive, especially during the New York Times’ transition from print to digital. But remember that he was also the CEO when Times executive editor Dean Baquet famously declared that balanced political coverage was over. There is no evidence Thompson disagreed with that decision.
In fact, one can make the case that the Times’ change from balance to advocacy was a smart business move since it drove digital growth among true believers on the left. And don’t think Thompson was merely a bystander during the Times transition. When asked about Thompson’s new appointment, Baquet recently declared him “the perfect hire” for CNN.
Baquet is not the only voice from the left supporting Thompson’s new job. Press coverage has been overwhelmingly positive, including from those who had been quick to condemn Licht’s performance.
Thompson also understands something about television news. Writing in The Guardian, Margaret Sullivan said that while director general of the famously liberal BBC, Thompson “demonstrated a solid understanding of the newsroom mission.” In other words, Thompson was no centrist.
Meanwhile, at CNN the entrenched culture endures. Look no closer than Anderson Cooper’s statement that he still has no idea what Chris Licht was trying to do, to understand that nothing at CNN has really changed.
Under Thompson, CNN will probably accelerate its proud quest of trying to be a smaller version of MSNBC. Ratings will of course continue to dwindle, but oh how wonderful the press will be until one day a headline will ask: “Does Anyone Remember CNN?”
We must now wonder why, after only one feeble attempt to center the network, did David Zaslav give up so quickly? I think there are two answers. The first is that it wasn’t simply negative news stories, it was the personal attacks in the press. Considered a genius less than two years ago, everything from his personality to his business acumen had become fair game to multiple writers.
As someone who had not been in the public eye for most of his career, Zaslav apparently did not know how to absorb press criticism. Like Licht, he became too concerned about his own image.
The second reason is that sometime next year, with ratings temporarily boosted by a presidential election, CNN might well be put up for sale. Much better to sell it then, while the brand still has value, than to wait until the decline inevitably steepens. Naming a respected liberal business executive to head the organization was a smart move because it tamped down staff discontent while improving press coverage.
The disappointing thing about CNN throwing in the towel is that political polarization has become a cancer in our country. The loss of reasoned debate among people who disagree, yet still respect each other, is the great tragedy of the 21st century. CNN had a chance to build a small bridge over that chasm of partisanship, but the opportunity now seems to be gone.
Maybe I’m wrong about all this. Maybe Mark Thompson is a Trojan Horse who will center CNN’s mission, but his background makes that seem unlikely.
Where does that leave people looking for straight news?
NewsNation is trying very hard to fill the center, and I hope it succeeds, but is it any wonder survey after survey shows a loss of public trust in most national news organizations? Distant and unconnected to mainstream viewers, the majority have no accountability to end users other than falling ratings, which are routinely ignored.
No one should be surprised that local newscasts, which remain answerable to the communities they serve, are the last trusted voices.
If Zaslav does sell CNN, perhaps the new owner will have a better plan for restoring the network to its previous eminence, but for now if you are interested in news from the left, continue to go to MSNBC. If your preference is news from the right, go to Fox. Sadly, I’m not sure why you would go to CNN.
Hank Price spent 30 years leading television stations for Hearst, CBS and Gannett while concurrently building a career in executive education. He is the author of Leading Local Television and two other books.