CNN readies for town hall at turbulent time

CNN is holding a town-hall meeting on Thursday amid a turbulent two months at the cable news network, which is promising a new direction one month into the tenure of its new President Chris Licht.

Licht and the leadership at CNN’s new corporate owner, WarnerBros Discovery, have signaled they’d like to make a shift in the company’s direction from former chief Jeff Zucker, who left his post amid controversy. 

The new president has pledged a renewed commitment to centrism while taking a more sober approach when covering breaking news after CNN came under some criticism during the Trump era for a tilt to the left in its commentary and moderation, as well as sensationalism that left the network touting “breaking news” on stories that lacked oomph or had been in the news cycle for hours.  

“We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers,” Licht wrote in a memo to staffers this month that was obtained by The Hill. “You’ve already seen far less of the “Breaking News” banner across our programming. The tenor of our voice holistically has to reflect that.”  

The town hall isn’t likely to be a wholly happy event for Licht and the company.

Some staffers at the network have grown frustrated with Licht’s slow start in making key decisions and hires, as well as his more hands-off approach to management, a vast departure from Zucker, who was known for dealing directly with staff to execute his vision for what coverage should look like.  

Some inside the network have described a general feeling of uneasiness at the cable news giant, accentuated by the shuttering of its heavily promoted streaming service CNN+ — a major embarrassment for the company.

But there also have been voices of support for Licht, with some expressing optimism about the direction of the company and praising Licht’s transparency.

Licht came to CNN from “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” where he oversaw a much smaller staff focused on satire and often left-leaning commentary rather than straight news reporting. He rose to prominence in the media industry in morning television during his time as the visionary behind MSNBC’s long-running political talk show “Morning Joe.” 

Licht and his leadership team have spent the last several weeks on a listening tour of sorts, seeking feedback from staffers and outlining the network’s priorities as the company looks to move on from a tumultuous beginning to the year.

The most front-facing change Licht has implemented is the dialing back of the “breaking news” banner in chyrons and graphics in daily news coverage.  

Working with other editorial leaders at the outlet, Licht has overseen the implementation of an in-house breaking news stylebook outlining for producers and reporters what constitutes “breaking news.”  

“It has become such a fixture on every channel and network that its impact has become lost on the audience,” Licht said of the breaking news banner. 

When it comes to CNN’s political coverage, Licht has also signaled he would like to see a shift to the center.  

The New York Times reported this week that during a recent meeting with staffers at CNN’s bureau in Washington, CNN’s president said he wanted to see more Republicans and conservatives on political shows in an effort to offer a more diverse range of political viewpoints, praising a recent interview anchor Dana Bash conducted with Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas).  

A separate Axios report days later suggested Licht was also evaluating whether several of CNN’s top personalities, some of whom became polarizing media figures during former President Trump’s administration, can comport with his vision for a network that operates in the middle lane politically. A number of industry talent agencies have also reportedly been told that contracts of several more partisan contributors to the network will not be renewed, an assertion CNN has denied.  

Yet early indications of the network’s shift in tone politically remain. CNN included recently hired host Chris Wallace as part of its coverage of last week’s first hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.  

Wallace, who worked for years at conservative competitor Fox News, said he was “skeptical” of what the committee might find and had put itself in danger of falling victim to too much “hype” about its findings.  

“It’s clear to me that the issue they are focused on is the credibility of their brand, and the larger critique that news networks in general have lost their relationships with their audiences and that media in general isn’t trusted” said Mark Lukasiewicz, a former network news executive and now dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University.  

“And that going back to an approach in which facts are first and you dial down the hype and you dial down the partisanship,” he added.  

Licht is apparently also banking that a shift in tone will help the network rake in ad dollars at a time when cable news ratings are down across the board. CNN consistently ranks third behind Fox News and MSNBC in most key ratings categories on a monthly basis.  

“At a time where extremes are dominating cable news,” Licht told advertisers during CNN’s UpFront session last month. “We will seek to go a different way, reflecting the real lives of our viewers and elevating the way America and the world views this medium.” 

Other cable news networks have tried to occupy the so-called middle lane politically as a way of growing an audience. NewsNation, a smaller cable news company which is owned by The Hill’s parent company, has built a roster of anchors, reporters and pundits in recent months, including hosts in prime time who have pledged to emphasize facts over rhetoric. Still, the fledgling network’s ratings have been a fraction of that of CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. 

The apparent shift in strategy at CNN mirrors comments made before the recent acquisition by Discovery that came from Chairman John Malone, one of the country’s top media moguls. 

Malone said last year before the merger he “would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.”  

“I’m sure you have questions about what I’ve outlined above and more,” Licht concluded in the recent memo to staff, noting the June 16 town hall at the outlet’s world headquarters in Atlanta. “I hope to see many of you there and am eager to hear what’s on everyone’s minds.”

Tags Chris Licht Chris Wallace CNN CNN+ Donald Trump Jeff Zucker

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