Chris Licht Made CNN Into the Ultimate Media Reality Show

The departure of CNN’s Chris Licht, following his turbulent year atop the cable news network, places a pause on one of the great media stories of the decade so far. But even non-media-junkies can appreciate just how strange and how strenuously rocking had been Licht’s time at the network: It played out across screens. The trouble with being the place that invented the 24-hour news cycle is that those hours can come back to bite when you’re the story.

There it was in politics, when Donald Trump’s “Town Hall,” with purported rising star Kaitlan Collins, gear-shifted into the first televised rally of the 2024 presidential cycle — with CNN’s air being used to depict an audience of Trump supporters cheering on his jibes. (No less an eminence than Christiane Amanpour, a CNN icon, registered her dissent in public.) There it was on the business pages, with Licht’s overseeing the dismantling of streaming product CNN+, on orders from Warner Bros. Discovery head David Zaslav, setting the tone for his tenure. There it was at the Oscars, when Michelle Yeoh used her best actress acceptance speech to rebuke anchor Don Lemon’s bizarre on-air comments about a woman’s “prime” years. There it was in the gossip pages, after a on the network’s flagship morning show, and then his ouster, leaked into the tabloids, and never seemed to be countered by any good news about the network. And, finally, there it was at length, with an all-access profile by the Atlantic’s Tim Alberta revealing Licht’s contempt for predecessor Jeff Zucker and the depths of his disdain for and, frankly, confusion about CNN’s mission.

The Atlantic profile ratified what had been apparent for a while. Licht was not the man for the moment. And, among many ironies, one rings out: What a moment! This ought to have been CNN’s time. They’d been granted some relatively placid years to work out their approach to a Trump revival in the 2024 cycle. And their rivals were, relative to past performance, somewhat less threatening. Fox News has been increasingly hobbled both by its settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s claims of election interference, by the emergence of behind-the-scenes off-message behavior among its stars, and by the unceremonious booting of its on-air protagonist, Tucker Carlson. And MSNBC, whose own superstar Rachel Maddow has downshifted to a weekly broadcast, can struggle to break through when it is not operating in opposition to a Republican administration.

And yet, under Licht, things didn’t just seem off: The network careened toward speed bumps. The voluble, say-everything Lemon moving to daytime, and being asked to share space was one foreseeable catastrophe; another was tasking Collins with single-handedly reining in the most dominant media presence of the century so far, all while stacking the deck against her with audience members and postgame commentators from the Trump team. Licht told his staff, after the Atlantic profile made impact, that he didn’t want to be in the news, but his decision to speak at all, let alone what he said into Alberta’s recorder, was yet another choice that revealed the lure of tempting catastrophe.

Put somewhat more charitably: One sees, in former “Morning Joe” and “The Late Show” leader Licht, a recognizable impulse to push toward the center of the conversation. On “Morning Joe,” Licht made a program that dominated its chatty niche by presenting an open forum for loud, freewheeling conversation among Beltway types; tasked with taking over Stephen Colbert’s flailing talk show, Licht stabilized it with a relentless focus on Colbert’s strengths in commenting on the Trump-inflected news, including and especially in live broadcasts around news events like presidential debates or the state of the union.

These experiences don’t make for a corporate leader, clearly. From the outside, Licht seems evidently unready to have run an entity of CNN’s scale (and to have been imprudent, at best, in his choice of confessor). But the scope and scale of his downfall perplex in part because what had been his strengths. Both “Morning Joe” and “The Late Show” were at the front of their lane in part by their eagerness both to lead the conversation and to sit at the center of it. At “The Late Show,” especially, Licht had been perceived as righting a ship, and doing so in partnership with the on-camera talent. There’s only one Colbert, and many more CNN anchors to navigate; only five hours a week of “The Late Show,” and many times more of the endless news cycle. But still: How could CNN have gone this wrong?

Media scholars will be chewing on the Atlantic profile, and its revelations of the particularities of Licht’s personality and character, for years to come. And for all that the moment seemed ripe for CNN to rise, given the state of the field, it’s also fair to note that even a more seasoned manager might have struggled to manage up to Zaslav, a notably driven executive whose experience lies far afield from news.

But none of that — not Licht’s personal animuses and quirks, not the dynamic within the still-finding-its-feet Warner Bros. Discovery colossus — needed to play out in quite so public a fashion. There will always be leakers (and Licht’s decision to grant as much access as he did to the Atlantic is his own), but the crisis was evident on CNN’s air. There is much to critique about Zucker’s own stewardship of the network through the Trump era, but it was, finally, a network that knew what it was and what it was trying to do: If you’re on board with that mission, watch. If not, don’t.

This CNN, given a year, couldn’t figure that out, couldn’t find a voice beyond the strident scream for attention at any cost; Licht may yet have a future in reality-TV programming. Licht wanted his CNN to become the center of the narrative, without thinking through what that story might look like, what it might tell about the priorities of its leader and how seriously he took the megaphone in its hand. And he got his wish: CNN is, today, yet again the story.

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