Can CNN really pivot to the center under Chris Licht?

CNN CEO Chris Licht attends The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Most Powerful People in Media issue celebration at The Pool on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

It’s a question being asked around virtual water coolers in the media world: Can new boss Chris Licht transform CNN back into the CNN of old?

A recent Axios report says Licht, the former executive producer of CBS’s “Late Night with Stephen Colbert,” intends “to give personalities that may appear polarizing a chance to prove they’re willing to uphold the network’s values so that they don’t tarnish CNN’s journalism brand.”

“For on-air talent,” the story continues, “that includes engaging in respectful interviews that don’t feel like PR stunts. For producers and bookers, that includes making programming decisions that are focused on nuance, not noise.”

By the CNN of old, we’re talking specifically about the era that existed from 1980 to 2001, when Bernard Shaw – the Marine-turned-journalist – was to the cable news network what Walter Cronkite was to CBS. Credible, meticulous and measured, Shaw never made the story about himself, never took a side in a debate. He just did what great journalists do: Get the story and get it right without fear of or favor to party or ideology. 

Even as a contributor to Fox News, CNN’s rival, I have the greatest respect for Shaw.

Getting the story sometimes meant Shaw putting his life on the line, as America witnessed the first night of the first Gulf War in 1991. Shaw, along with Peter Arnett and John Holliman, broadcast from behind a desk at the Al-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, beating the competition by being the only team to chronicle the moment.  

Yet Shaw’s perspective almost seems foreign when reading it today. Here he is in a 1991 interview with the Washington Post: “After you start reading your reviews, you run the risk of believing you’re important. That can create distortions in your perceptions, in your honesty. It can color your judgment. I’m a severe critic of myself.”

“You run the risk of believing you’re important.” That’s basically the exact opposite of the mantra we hear from some on CNN today. Contrast Shaw’s self-evaluation with the perspective of former CNN White House Correspondent Jim Acosta.

“Call me a showboater or a grandstander or ‘fake news,’ ” he wrote in his 2019 memoir, “The Enemy of the People.” “I will go to my grave convinced deep down in my bones that journalists are performing a public service for the good of the country. The country is better off with reporters in the White House briefing room asking the hard questions, even if we sometimes sound a little over the top. That noise is the sound that a healthy, functioning democracy makes.”

Acosta would exit his White House position when Donald Trump left the stage and Joe Biden took office. His weekend program, which isn’t billed as opinion but rather as a hard news offering in the form of “CNN Newsroom,” consists almost entirely of Democratic guests and activists along with hyperbolic speeches by Acosta that are difficult to separate from the rhetoric of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). And despite Trump being out of office for nearly 18 months, Acosta’s news program is still amazingly fixated on the 45th president instead of Biden, the 46th president, who just happens to be at an historical low in polling for a first-term president

So much for asking the hard questions of those in power.

“Kissing the ring will not make it [Trump] go away. Impersonating him certainly will not make it go away. He will find new ways to disgust you and betray you because there is no bottom. There hasn’t ever been a bottom and there never will be a bottom,” Acosta, as an anchor, “warned” Republicans recently. 

There’s obviously a business end to this as well. When Trump left office, CNN was averaging more than 2.8 million viewers in primetime. But without its central villain and without the credibility it once had, viewers left in unprecedented fashion. The network can’t even attract an average of 600,000 viewers in primetime, meaning viewership is down more than 80 percent since Biden entered the Oval Office. If Licht were to clean house, there won’t exactly be too many loyal viewers upset with the development. 

So this is the challenge Licht faces: Here you have Acosta, who generated as much press for the network and himself during the Trump years as anyone. And under former CNN president Jeff Zucker, that was seen as a very good thing when it absolutely should not have. Because while Acosta was hailed by partisan late-night hosts and journalists mostly hostile to the previous administration, CNN’s credibility – the credibility that Shaw and others built over decades – was quickly dissipating with every viral clip of Acosta not asking what he called hard questions but, instead, using Democratic policy positions to ask questions in the form of diatribes. 

Does Licht put Acosta back on the White House beat to challenge the Biden administration the same way he challenged Trump’s? Is Acosta capable of challenging Team Biden on myriad issues, ranging from 40-year-high inflation to record gas prices to skyrocketing crime to an immigration crisis? Or does Licht simply cut loose Acosta and others, such as chief media correspondent Brian Stelter, the “Reliable Sources”anchor who’s also mentioned in the Axios report as someone Licht apparently is keeping his eye on. 

Does Licht seriously mean business in attempting to bring CNN back towards the center? Time will tell. But based on the Axios reporting, someone appears to be sending a message to CNN’s talent and producers alike: The partisan playtime that existed for years under the previous boss is over. Start representing this brand the way this network once did or move on. 

Licht has the tallest of orders in changing CNN’s culture, where the only option ultimately may be to blow up the whole thing and start over.

Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist and a Fox News contributor.

Tags Chris Licht CNN CNN Jim Acosta Jim Acosta Joe Biden Media bias

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