At some time in the next couple weeks CNN will begin to lay off staff, part of a slimming down strategy that is affecting the whole media sector but also a move that has shocked many at one of the household names in US news which now seems to be in crisis as it adjusts to new owners keen to slash costs.
The original cable news network – and still a well-known name across the globe – has been shedding viewers, coming in last in ratings of US cable news networks during the recent midterm elections.
At the same time, the cost-cutting new corporate management under the umbrella of Warner Bros Discovery has also indicated it wants to reel in a perceived left-leaning political bias in CNN’s coverage.
Welcome to the painful cable news reset of late 2022, a TV drama freighted with questions about democracy, bias and the role of commercial journalism in what is supposed to a post-Donald Trump realignment of values – a premise that may itself be premature given the former US president is running for the White House again.
Over the past year, incoming management at CNN outlined a course to return to a political middle ground and to the spirit of founder Ted Turner, who sought to “make news the star”. The course would be steered by CNN’s chairman and CEO, Chris Licht, and supported by Warner’s chief executive, David Zaslav, and libertarian cable king and shareholder John Malone.
“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 said last year. That seemed to conform to what public polls indicate many viewers claim to want – unbiased news. But few can agree on what that looks like or if it exists. Nor is it clear they would tune in if it did.
Add to that a splintering of audiences that shows no signs of abating, staffing dramas that saw some of CNN’s best known talking heads – Chris Cuomo, Brian Stelter, Jake Tapper – fired, dropped or shuffled, reduced cable carrier income and advertising revenue, $47.5bn in Time Warner-Discovery merger debt to help service, and a stock price that’s halved since April. CNN and Licht are now in an unenviable position.
“I hate to say it but when I look ahead, I see problems without end,” one CNN executive told the FT last week.
Licht, a former late night showrunner for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, looked to shore up confidence in his vision at an all-hands meeting with staff last week.
“I own the vision for this place,” he said, according to Insider. Under questioning from employees, Licht rejected the view that he is under guidance of CNN’s corporate parent. “I did not take this job to take dictation from anybody,” he said.
But in an interview with the FT, Licht appeared to push back on that previously enunciated vision of seeking a middle ground. “One of the biggest misconceptions about my vision is that I want to be vanilla, that I want to be centrist. That is bullshit,” he said. “You have to be compelling. You have to have edge. In many cases you take a side.”
It’s a debate that courses through newsrooms in search of audiences that may no longer exist in the way they once did. In this absence are arguments about where they would stand if indeed they did. “There is a mighty fine line between avoiding partisan hype, and journalism as difference-splitting, centrist triangulation,” noted Jon Allsop in the Columbia Journalism Review over the summer.
Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, believes Licht’s vision of serving a hypothetical news-consuming family – “everyone’s network” – is not easy to achieve.
“Chris Licht believes that CNN devoted too much time to Trump coverage and politics, and in looking for short-term ratings CNN became over-dependent, like a sugar-high, on Trump, politics generally and punditry. A lot of people would agree with that.”
But the reality may be that it’s hard for any media organization to turn away from an era of political discord because it has been so good for ratings and profits. Also, in the short-term at least, the discord does not appear to be going anywhere.
Projections by S&P Global Market Intelligence in August forecast that CNN’s profitability is on a pace to decline to $956m this year. That is still a hefty sum but it marks the first time it has fallen below a billion since Trump was elected.
An easy fix might be to ramp up opinionated content again but that is not the vision that Licht has enunciated. “He thinks of CNN as a powerful news brand and wants to protect it,” Rosen believes.
But what could be broken is an old view of news and particularly political coverage. Standing between two parties, similar in structure but standing for different ideologies, was only possible when both had similar aims – acquiring power on agreed terms of play. With the rise of Trump and the embrace by large swathes of the Republican party of election denialism, that model no longer works.
“The picture doesn’t fit the world if you have a candidate running against the system and trying to blow up what the other party is doing as a normal party. The press can try to say we’re in the middle between a war of extremes, but it isn’t that and it’s produced a crisis for consensus practice,” Rosen said.
And that’s what Licht, CNN and others in the media may now be facing. “The press has to decide how to do journalism in the presence of a threat to the democracy that permits the journalism we do,” Rosen said.
After President Emmanuel Macron pushed his unpopular pension bill through Parliament without a vote, demonstrations about the changes broke out again.