Optimism Amid the CNN Chaos

The network is in choppy waters, but they could calm as merger kinks are worked out.

Rapid primetime scheduling turnover and the summer’s high-profile firings of journalists Brian Stelter and John Harwood at CNN have further soured what was already a very bad year at the cable news network.

Jake Tapper is the latest anchor to drop out of a primetime slot, following an emotion onscreen farewell by Don Lemon. CNN has announced a series of short-term nighttime hosts, but has yet to commit to a permanent replacement, leaving the network adrift for much of the crucial three-hour time slot.  

That trouble spot has emerged following Stelter and his media-centric Reliable Sources, the longest running show on the network being axed over the summer. Harwood’s dismissal quickly followed after the veteran reporter commended President Biden’s blistering critique of Donald Trump and his MAGA acolytes at a speech in Philadelphia. Their departures have deepened concern among CNN staffers and viewers that the network’s new owners, Discovery, are pushing for a sharp right turn at an outlet seen as a relatively centrist alternative to Fox News and MSNBC.

I would urge calm over worry, despite lamenting the losses of Reliable Sources, a venerable and rare media watchdog made by big media, and the Pulitzer-winning Harwood. For one thing, the growing pains at CNN shouldn’t come as a shock in light of the recent shakeup there. For another, the change in editorial tone just might be driven by a desired return to objective reporting in a cable news landscape rife with agitated opinionating.

The turmoil engulfing CNN is unfortunate, but I suspect it has more to do with the sort of bumpy transition period that too often follows mergers than with a tilt toward conservative politics. This has happened before in a slew of industries, including media—the AOL Time Warner fiasco springs to mind—and is the all-but-inevitable consequence of two distinct corporate cultures becoming one and the understandable fear of layoffs among employees.

Transparent and reassuring communication by new ownership is critical to easing merger pains. CNN staffers have on that note given varying scores to the new chief Chris Licht. Licht has held three all-staff meetings since taking over in May, and employees have pointed out that the loss of two journalists isn’t cause for huge alarm at a network with a 5,000-person-strong workforce. Yet a CNN producer told Vanity Fair, “I don’t think hiding up at the C-suite at Hudson Yards is doing anyone any good, including [Licht].”

I’m hopeful that Licht will find his footing, and also maintain as much independence as he can from Warner Bros. Discovery shareholders, like John Malone, whose politics of either extreme bent (conservative, in Malone’s case), should not steer content. The Warner-Discovery merger, led by David Zaslav, has been messy in the company’s other subsidiaries, including HBO. While that doesn’t absolve Lich’s shortcoming, it suggests the problems may come from above him. After the network’s embarrassing scuttling of the CNN+ app mere weeks after its launch, and the controversial dismissals of Stelter and Harwood, Licht should be doubly motivated to ingratiate himself with the CNN team and correct course.

What should that course be? One that reduces the importance of talking heads and infotainment and returns CNN to its original mission of gathering and reporting the news. I’ve written often about my disenchantment with the drift away from exacting journalism meant to inform and toward hammy celebrity anchors hoping to provoke. American public media is an outlier in bucking this trend.

A private entity like CNN can emulate those platforms without bleeding revenue. (Just look to Germany, where the public model dominates the ratings.) In fact, with ratings already in freefall at CNN, this could be a good time to experiment and see if audiences might just embrace a calmer, fact-driven news approach. Viewers have long turned to CNN for breaking news coverage, including the outbreak of the Ukraine war, even as the network legged behind in the primetime talking head competition. Maybe a non-partisan reinforcement of that foundation could reverse CNN´s fortunes and some distressing media trends.