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CNN and the Inventory Problem
A few thoughts on a devastating Atlantic profile of CNN'S CEO.
Every once in a while a reporter finds themselves assigned to a real-time, cannot-look-away drama which perfectly suits their skill set. Indeed, this is the kind of assignment that cable news networks dream about. Unfortunately for CNN, the reporter was the Atlantic’s Tim Alberta and the blockbuster story was the myriad ways that Chris Licht has bungled his stewardship of the cable news network since taking over last year. Alberta was given significant access to Licht and CNN over the past nine months and boy oh boy does he capture Licht’s hubris in its myriad forms.
The whole story is a must-read, but there are really two ways to think about it. The first is the juicy pointillist details, the second is the bigger picture. Let’s dish the dirt first! Where to begin:
Licht telling Alberta in the fall of 2022 that when it comes to covering Trump, “The media has absolutely, I believe, learned its lesson.” Licht continued, “I think they know that he’s playing them—at least, the people in my organization. We’ve had discussions about this. We know that we’re getting played, so we’re gonna resist it.” Seven months later, after the clusterfuck that was Trump’s town hall, the best Licht could come up with in response was, “Well, that wasn’t boring!”
Licht developing an emotional bond with his personal trainer Joe Maysonet and being so petty in comparing himself to his predecessor at CNN, Jeff Zucker, that Alberta was able to write this sentence: “At Maysonet’s instruction, he squatted down to grab a long metal pole lying flat on the ground. ‘Zucker couldn’t do this shit,’ Licht said through clenched teeth, hoisting the pole with a grunt.”1
Don Lemon just totally being Don Lemon for large swathes of the story. In particular, during one rehearsal for his ill-fated morning show, “[Lemon] changed into a white jacket, the collar made of fur, with a turtleneck underneath. “‘What the fuck is he wearing?’ Licht blurted out. Nervous chuckles echoed around us.”
The general comedy of Matt Dornic, CNN’s senior vice president of communications and Alberta’s minder for much of his coverage, desperately trying to spin and smooth over the obvious tensions that were brewing as Licht made mistake after mistake.
Licht falling into a online black hole of reading criticism about himself online, to the point where, at a CNN holiday dinner, Licht blew off most of the on-air talent to check out his phone: “he was reading a critical story about him in Puck.”
Licht’s curious decision to move his office away from the center of CNN action and then refusing to really acknowledge that he had erred — in that or in any of a hundred other ways.
Warner Bros. Discovery head honcho David Zaslav micromanaging Licht to the point where Licht’s agency has to be in question (Alberta uses the word “marionetting” at one point).
Alberta’s entire piece is sprinkled with that kind of detailed gold.
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The deeper story, however, is to divine what the big takeaway should be from Licht’s tenure to date. Because as much as Licht fucked up CNN’s morning show and Trump’s town hall, it is worth remembering that the network was not exactly in a great place before he came on board. There was the CNN+ fiasco, there was Zucker’s inappropriate work relationship, and there was prime time anchor Christopher Cuomo pretending that ethics were not a big deal across a wide variety of behaviors. Just as Twitter was not in great shape when Elon Musk bought it, CNN was not in the pink of health when Licht came on board.
However, like Musk, it appears that Licht inherited an unwell patient and then prescribed leeches as a remedy. To me, at least, this paragraph gets at the core of CNN’s problem:
Licht was no fascist. But he was trying to steal viewers from Fox News—and from MSNBC, for that matter. To succeed, Licht said, CNN would need to produce more than just great journalism. Reporting the news in an aggressive, nonpartisan manner would be central to the network’s attempt to win back audiences. But television is, at its essence, entertainment. Viewers would always turn on CNN in times of crisis, Licht told me. What he needed to find out was how many would turn on CNN for fun.
And here’s the problem for Licht and CNN: no one under the age of 75 will turn on CNN — or any cable news network for that mater — for fun. Younger generations will rely on social media to capture the lurid highlights of any cable news segment. Short of a real-time breaking news story, watching CNN is not on anyone’s to-do list. Licht’s ham-handed effort to cater to Fox News viewers has alienated the MSNBC demographic. And his attempt to woo those Fox watchers is bound to fail because those viewers do not want to watch the news, they want to hear reassuring conservative platitudes.
That said, Licht is correct in noting that viewers will turn on CNN in times of crisis — at least, I think he’s right. This means that one should view CNN as like inventory — something that is absolutely necessary in case of emergencies but otherwise operates as a deadweight loss.2 Licht gets at this when he tells Alberta that it is fine if CNN is not profitable: “This is a reputational asset for the company. It is not a profit-growth driver,” Licht said. The trouble is that Licht can’t then define “reputational asset” to Alberta.
Licht’s problem is that every single thing he has done since taking over at CNN has devalued the network’s “break glass in case of emergency” value while adding zero to the fun side. It’s just a massive clusterfuck.
If Licht is correct about how CNN is valued, then the template that they need to consider is neither MSNBC nor Fox News but PBS. Bolster the reportage of straight news, try to develop opinion shows that have credible representatives from the different streams of American politics, prepare like crazy for the known news pegs and lie in wait for the unknown ones. It’s not sexy, but it’s CNN’s best way forward.
Oh, and Licht will need to be fired. The other primary takeaway from Alberta’s profile is that Licht is in way, way over his head.
You know that some variation of this exchange would happen if a large organization ever hired Nassim Taleb to be the CEO.