CNN Throws In The Towel

In replacing Chris Licht with Mark Thompson, David Zaslav lost an opportunity to move the channel back towards straight news. 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.

Hank Price

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.

Comments (3)

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TrueBroadcasterGO1965 says:

September 18, 2023 at 9:19 am

Excellent commentary and cannot agree more. When I see cable news I can clearly see where leadership is missing. I agree the one hope is NewsNation as they seem to have the discipline. Local news leadership also more important now than ever.

AIMTV says:

September 18, 2023 at 10:16 am

I’m not a CNN fan. In fact, I never watch it, so perhaps I am missing something, but I’m not sure why you’d say CNN has “Thrown in the towel,”

1) Last I checked, BBC is a solid news organization.

2) Why does Ms. Sullivan’s quote about understanding the mission of a newsroom translate to becoming a smaller version of MSNBC? Is it because Ms. Sullivan works at the Guardian? I don’t get it.

3) David Zaslov was “considered a genius less than two years ago” – Perhaps to some, but as a point of fact, Zaslov is primarily responsible for the cable industry’s descent to cheap reality TV a decade-plus ago that saw storied franchises like MTV switch from music to stupid game shows on a loop, Travel Channel to paranormal superstitious, or whatever they call that trainwreck of a waste of spectrum these days, etc.,., etc.

The cable industry followed Zaslov’s every move with a breathless “what will he say next” mentality and acted in kind as if he were some shaman. Now look at ’em. IMHO, he’s no genius and never was. Today, all of cable is a shadow of its former self, including CNN. (A notable exception is the Fox News Channel brainwashed brigade, but bitterness, fear, and hate age people fast and they will die out eventually).

But I still wouldn’t say CNN’s “throwing in the towel” by hiring someone seemingly competent and hopefully drama-free.

newser says:

September 18, 2023 at 10:23 am

One of the things lost with Chris leaving is that the editorial was all context vs chasing whatever was trending on twitter. Under zucker most producers legit went with any trending story on linkedin news and twitter to feed viewers for ratings along with politics. Under Chris, Alisyn Camerota’s 2 hours at night showcased reporting and for once graphics and sets were changed finally.

Once chris left the existing management (prior under zucker) changed it back to be a soft version of Zucker’s rein. So CTM is now reverted back to being a new day (back to old set), and the 10, 11PM hours are simply lighter versions of don lemon’s former show.

What chris did wrong was the speed of execution and talent. Lemon should’ve been bounced over poor ratings (300K) and oliver Darcy and every media spin guy zucker should’ve been gone. Some of the talent promoted were moved to the wrong places. He should’ve said that this is Alisyn Camerota’s show and give it it’s own name and promotions like how Collins show gotten. He was waiting for breakout moments to brand and program around vs just saying here’s what we’re doing, I believe in this. If Alisyn Camerota’s 2 hours were branded and promoted he would’ve had a hit. The current management should’ve had phillips join CTM with phil and Poppy and have Laura on in many different ways. Audie Cornish should be on daily too somewhere. The brick studio should be the main newsroom/news central studio like msnbc’s old nj newsroom. CTM should be in the news central set. You can’t be the middle news network with no grand newsroom to back it.

It also isn’t hard to see that Zaslav had control issues as seen in all his random cnbc appearances to talk about cnn without chris. So you have a ceo that’s too far in (Zaslav) and a group of people blindly loyal to zucker who still can’t see that they ate themselves alive. They also can’t see that in “winning” they are still in 3rd place.