CNN’s New Boss Remaking Network Into Centrist Safe Space For Republicans
CNN's new boss, Chris Licht, is on a mission to make the cable network less partisan and polarizing, sort of like 1960s television. "The Beverly Hillbillies" provided quality entertainment for all audiences, not divisive political commentary, and that’s the direction Licht is taking CNN. Well doggies!
Axios reported Tuesday that Licht is closely evaluating "personalities and programming” that apparently became too “partisan and combative” during Donald Trump’s presidency as democracy crumbled around us. Fox News is overtly partisan and combative and regularly cleans CNN’s clock in the ratings, so maybe Licht should make CNN more like Fox but just accurate and not evil.
Licht will give existing talent "a chance to prove they're willing to uphold the network's values so that they don't tarnish CNN's journalism brand.” If they can’t adjust, they’ll presumably join Chris Cuomo on the unemployment line.
Axios specifically mentions Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter as being under the partisan microscope, but is there actual evidence that either anchor is “liberal” or “progressive”? Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo noted in a Twitter thread that Acosta doesn’t talk much about health care, tax policy, or gay rights. The sole compelling evidence of his “liberalism” is that he’s anti-Trump-lying-all-the-time and anti-insurrection. If the press is expected to take a neutral stance when covering a corrupt thug’s attempted overthrow of the government, then nothing matters.
\u201c2/ I've never heard him say anything about tax policy or Obamacare or the Israel-Pal conflict. I haven't really seen him say much opinionated on more culture war stuff like trans rights or gay rights or abortion. What I have certainly seen from over the last few years ...\u201d— Josh Marshall (@Josh Marshall) 1654619683
\u201c4/ against the insurrection? I would not agree that that is a 'liberal' position. If you go by his criticisms over recent years he seems to be critical of Trump's fairly flagrant criminality and collaboration with Russia. In the polarization framework that becomes "liberal" ...\u201d— Josh Marshall (@Josh Marshall) 1654619683
Mediaite’s Colby Hall recently discussed Licht’s plans in depth. He thinks a more “centrist" CNN would fill a needed gap in the middle, because in his view, "MSNBC viewers are led to believe that Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rhetoric represents all Republicans, and Fox News viewers see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the Democratic standard-bearer.”
The obvious problem here is, well, reality: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is not the Democratic Party standard-bearer. Conservative Democrats Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have far more actual power, and moderate institutionalists steer the party’s overall direction and strategy. Meanwhile, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rhetoric does in fact represent all Republicans, who’ve started openly calling Democrats groomers and pedophiles. She also has the ear of former Republican president and de facto party leader Donald Trump. Democratic leadership, including President Joe Biden, consistently supports different primary candidates than Ocasio-Cortez.
However, Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav are reportedly adamant that CNN lay off all the “partisan and alarming” programming. Maybe they haven’t been keeping up on current events, but the last president incited an attack on the Capitol. The GOP remains under his thumb and has openly become an anti-democratic authoritarian movement. Licht and Zaslav demand a return to more “traditional journalism,” but an objective account of these events should probably have an alarming tone.
Turning the network into a 24/7 “Everything’s fine” meme would only benefit the GOP’s daylight democracy heist. However, apparently if CNN plays nice, it might convince Republicans to return to the network for what Hall describes as "meaningful, policy-based interviews.” Few if any Republicans are interested in more than just repeating rightwing talking points. Even fake moderate Susan Collins remains on message.
Hall demonstrates incredible naïveté when he suggests this less-partisan CNN would still call out "blatant misinformation presented by an elected official.” GOP leaders Kevin McCarthy and Elise Stefanik spread misinformation whenever they open their mouths. Any competent interview with them would quickly become confrontational, leading to predictable whining about liberal media bias.
Broadly speaking, Licht’s objectives are two-fold: 1) Restore CNN’s reputation as a news-based, centrist, outlet with people across the political spectrum; and 2) restore its appeal to the right and center-right, which have abandoned it entirely.
Centrism is just as partisan as liberalism and conservatism, and a “both sides” approach to news inevitably favors bad actors. Republicans abandoned serious news in favor of rightwing propaganda. There’s no appeasing them, at least without sacrificing journalistic integrity.
If Licht’s path forward involves booking “non-extremist Republican and Democratic officials,” that means grading Republicans on a ridiculous curve. Rep. Nancy Mace is less extreme than Rep. Lauren Boebert, but she’s still going to tap dance for Trump.
The GOP could potentially reclaim the House and Senate this fall, so CNN picked the wrong time to start sniffing the centrist glue. Instead of speaking truth to power, Licht’s CNN might simply whisper sweet nothings into its ear.
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Stephen Robinson is a writer and social kibbitzer based in Portland, Oregon. He writes make believe for Cafe Nordo, an immersive theatre space in Seattle. Once, he wrote a novel called “Mahogany Slade,” which you should read or at least buy. He's also on the board of the Portland Playhouse theatre. His son describes him as a “play typer guy."