When CNN’s parent company, Warner Media, merged with Discovery last November, John Malone, the libertarian billionaire who holds a controlling interest in the conglomerate, wasted no time making it clear there was a new sheriff in town. His first order of business—reforming the left-wing practices that have tarnished the news network’s brand and led to 58 percent of Republicans saying they no longer trust the outlet as a news source. Where better to start than at the top?
While conventional wisdom holds that CNN’s former chief, Jeff Zucker, was ousted over a sexual harassment scandal involving star anchor Chris Cuomo, insiders say the incident may have simply been a pretext. Cuomo’s foibles, combined with Zucker’s own affair with his chief marketing officer, gave Malone an easy opening to do what he knew would be necessary in order to return the network to its straight-news roots.
“I 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,” Malone, one of the original pioneers of cable TV, told CNBC. “I do believe good journalism could have a role in this future portfolio that Discovery-TimeWarner’s going to represent.”
While not nearly as well-known as his sometime “frenemy” Rupert Murdoch, the 80-year-old Malone has a reputation for fierce business acumen that industry-watchers say has not dulled with age. Variety, for instance, recently referred to him as a “mogul’s mogul” who’s no stranger to playing “multi-level chess while the rest of the industry [is playing] checkers.”
And like any successful player, Malone hasn’t been afraid to use the pieces on the board aggressively.
Conservatives had openly wondered how transformational a force Zucker’s replacement, Chris Licht, was likely to be at CNN, given his past as an executive producer for Stephen Colbert. Going by the ouster of first Zucker and then “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter, it looks like Malone instincts were right.
Immediately after taking over as CEO, Licht began evaluating anchors and reporters, as well as behind-the-scenes staff, in view of how much political bias shows up in programming. As Axios reported, for on-air talent, that has included treating interviewees respectfully, even if they’re conservatives, so as to avoid accusations of “PR stunts.” For on-air hosts and anchors, it has meant tamping down on editorializing. Regular viewers will note that morning anchor Brianna Keilar’s frequent criticism of competitor Fox News, for example, has all but vanished.
For producers and bookers, the regime change has meant segments that delve into nuance and complexity rather than trying to produce viral moments. It has also meant a directive to stop running “breaking news” chyrons over every other story. “[The breaking news banner] has become such a fixture on every channel and network that its impact has become lost on the audience,” Licht said in a note obtained by Deadline. “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers.”
Those initial steps accomplished, Licht began letting the rank and file know that incendiary language like using the phrase “the big lie” to describe President Trump’s claims he won the 2020 election, would no longer be tolerated. Mediaite said sources told them that Licht said on a conference call with management that such terminology mirrors Democratic Party branding and talking points too closely, making it harder for viewers to trust that CNN’s reporting is objective.
Of course, the big question was whether the CNN personalities that had become identified with left wing activism would still have a place at a network trumpeting its commitment to return to serious, measured news. We now know that in one prominent case, the answer is no.
“Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter had long been viewed as one of the key drivers of the overtly partisan shift that took place at CNN during the Trump presidency. He didn’t help his case that he could adapt to the network’s new mission when he sounded off about Malone’s views about CNN back in February before Zucker’s ouster. “The people who say the Zucker-era CNN was lacking in real journalism clearly were not watching CNN directly,” Stelter wrote in his newsletter. “My best guess is that they were watching talking heads and reading columnists complain about CNN. And yes, I’m including John Malone in this.”
Stelter then added, “That phrasing – especially the words ‘actually have journalists,’ which implied CNN currently doesn’t – was highly offensive to many staffers. I reported on Sunday’s ‘Reliable’ that it was disturbing to Zucker, too. Malone’s comments stoked fears that Discovery might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice.”
So it’s hardly surprising Licht decided CNN shouldn’t “stifle” Stelter any longer.
Stelter’s misery may soon have company though. Rumors are flying that CNN’s morning programming will also soon be receiving an overhaul and Jim Acosta, the reporter who made his name with rude antics during the Trump administration’s White House briefings, could soon join Stelter on the unemployment line.
Insiders say that no one’s job is safe right now and Licht is in the middle of an evaluation of the entire organization, including talent and executives. “He’s determined to tamp down spectacle and has discouraged the presentation of content in an alarmist fashion,” a source told Fox News.
The message seems to be getting through as formerly openly leftist anchors at CNN are suddenly playing it straight.
In June, regular Don Lemon viewers were shocked when he pressed White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre for answers about President Biden’s health and mental fitness, asking if he had the “stamina” to run for office again.
The spokeswoman seemed surprised to receive such a question from a previously friendly source and struggled to provide an answer, saying, “That is not a question that we should be even asking,”
Lemon later defended his sudden shift into the kind of traditional, adversarial questions reporters used to ask White House press secretaries. “I’m sure [Biden] is up to the job,” he said in defense of his question, “but it is my job as a journalist to ask.”