- The Atlantic published a really tough article about CNN CEO Chris Licht.
- CNN’s goof was allowing The Atlantic’s reporter so much access for such a long period of time.
- Who thought that was a good idea?
So, who screwed the pooch at CNN?
The disaster I’m referring to is Tim Alberta’s devastating profile of CNN chair and CEO Chris Licht published Friday.
In Alberta’s lengthy depiction, Licht has a big idea — to make CNN more independent from partisanship again. But, according to the story, Licht hasn’t been able to articulate a plan to CNN staff and stars for how to do that in a way that attracts viewers and makes good, responsible TV journalism.
The lowlight is the Trump Town Hall, which followed months of Licht telling people how simple it would be to cover the former president, the story reveals.
And maybe, the story suggests, that’s because that big idea is not really Licht’s plan at all but one foisted on him by his boss, Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav.
Plus, the story makes Licht look like a weenie. Someone who puts on a show of being a tough guy but is aloof and shies away from candid conversations with his people. There’s one really rough moment where Licht is at the gym doing a workout and says, “Zucker couldn’t do this shit,” referring to his predecessor Jeff Zucker.
The day it was published, a bunch of Licht’s peers and other newsroom leaders from across the industry shared their horror with me over the story.
“I had to stop reading. It’s like watching a snuff film,” one told me. Others were equally shocked.
What went wrong at CNN, specifically inside its comms shop, to allow such a story to come to light?
I’ve spent the past 26 hours or so speaking to several people with direct knowledge of Alberta’s pitch to CNN for the story. They know how the project was green-lit in late Summer 2022 and they watched in horror as it wildly spun out of control in the following winter and spring.
These sources declined to comment on the record. And guess what? These people are professional spinners trained in crisis comms, and they have very craftily attempted to spin the crap out of me. Keep that in mind as you’re reading what comes next.
That said, I have been able to piece together a basic timeline of how this thing went down.
Licht got the job in May 2022 and made clear that his plan for CNN was to make it less partisan and better at “Capital J Journalism” again.
Alberta genuinely believed Licht’s ambition for CNN was a good one. In late May or June, he pitched a story to CNN comms “about whether trust in the media could be restored,” told through the lens of Licht’s first year in charge of CNN.
Through the summer, Alberta and Licht and CNN comms people talked about what the story might look like. Licht was especially enthusiastic, I’m told.
In August, CNN hired a new EVP & Head of Global Communications, Kris Coratti.
Coratti, Licht, and a deputy of hers named Matt Dornic decided as a team to do the story. A handful of sources tell me Coratti was skeptical of whether this was a good idea, Dornic was happy to do whatever, and Licht really, really wanted to do it.
You won’t catch Coratti throwing anybody else under the bus, though. Sources say Dornic feels like he’s going to get blamed for everything, and might try to throw someone else under a bus appearing to come for him. (“He’s Hugo from Succession,” says one source.)
So that’s how the story was approved.
But that decision isn’t really the one that led to disaster.
Lots of profiles are written by reporters who are given long interviews. Normally they are basically fine.
The really damaging ones are often the ones where reporters are given deep access over a long period of time. The reason that’s so dangerous is that it just creates a ton more opportunity for something bad to happen that the reporter will have to put into the story.
The most famous example is how Michael Eisner, when he was riding high running Disney, allowed James B. Stewart deep and wide access into the company for such a long period of time that before he was done, Eisner was dealing with a proxy war that would lead to his ouster. Stewart’s book, “DisneyWar” portrayed him as an out of touch and delusional executive.
Tim Alberta has his own history here. As one media executive told me:
“It was doubly shocking to me that they thought Tim Alberta was the best idea for this. The last big piece he did was this masterful takedown of Nikki Haley that continues to dog and define her. Like Licht she gave him lots of access. Like him (I assume), she came to regret it.”
There’s a universe in which CNN could have given Alberta a ton of access over a short period of time, maybe just a day or a week or a month or even two, and his story wouldn’t have had so many damning anecdotes and details.
Which means the real question is: Why the heck did CNN’s comms team give Alberta so many long interviews with so many people over such a long period of time? Couldn’t they have foreseen that bad events were headed CNN’s way?
Cable news as a sector is basically screwed, and it’s only getting worse because mostly old people watch it and they don’t live forever. Plus news across mediums is getting whacked right now by a post-pandemic, post-Trump environment when normal people are really happy to not give a hoot about current events for the next little while.
So how’d CNN screw up the timing thing?
Again, I asked a bunch of people with first hand knowledge, and again, I got so many different answers that I was reminded what it’s like to work with professional spinners spinning for the sake of their own careers on background.
Multiple CNN insiders told me their understanding is that the original plan for the story was that it was supposed to publish in the Fall of 2022, and be mostly about the launch of Licht’s brainchild, “CNN This Morning.”
These people say that Licht intended his masterstroke to be moving the very partisan and #Resistance-popular Don Lemon out of the opinion-focused prime time hours and into a more lighter setting of a morning show. That move, and its presumed triumph, was what CNN hoped would be the point of the story.
But then because things got backed up, they say, Alberta was forced to go on a long-planned book leave and by the time he came back, the morning show was an obvious disaster, and CNN was forced to give him more access over the months ahead.
Providing him more access only granted the universe more time and opportunity for inevitable disasters, including layoffs at CNN. So, in this version of events, the team kept giving Alberta more time and more access hoping he’d eventually be able to report on a win for CNN. But that never happened, and here we are.
That’s a tidy narrative and would explain a lot!
Unfortunately, I’m pretty sure that’s a story someone over there is saying to cover their butt, and it’s being taken as truth or close enough to truth by a number of other people over there, willing to have that person’s butt covered because they don’t want to see them fired.
Fair enough! These are just comms people doing their job at a company that’s got a lot of challenges beyond their control. It’s actually been sort of heartwarming to see sources who could kill each other over this close ranks and want to protect each other, when SOMEONE definitely screwed up.
Anyway, in the course of reporting this all out, I saw evidence that shows people at both CNN and The Atlantic expected all along that the story would run sometime in the middle of 2023.
Also, a person with direct knowledge of a publishing process discussed by multiple people at both CNN and The Atlantic tells me both sides knew from the beginning that this story was originally slated to be published in print in the summer of 2023. Its publishing schedule got moved up only recently, this person says, because of the disastrous town hall was such a great news peg.
So, if at this point you’re like: OK, but who the heck is to blame for this thing? I was right there with you after talking to all these people.
But then I remembered there is no way in the world a story like this happens without Licht himself being super duper into all of it. The deep access, the long timeline, everything.
Nothing I’ve heard from sources suggests he wasn’t, and a lot of what’s in the story and what I’ve been told suggests he was. He could have stopped it any time by breaking a promise to Alberta and closing access.
Alberta demonstrates exactly how an executive might do this, when, in his piece, he tells the story of how, after months of persuasion, he was finally scheduled to have an on-the-record interview with Licht’s boss, WBD CEO David Zaslav. And then, the night before, Zaslav’s personal comms person reached out to say oops, nevermind, it’s going to be “on background.” Alberta in turn rejected that offer because he wanted the interview to be on the record or bust, and the talk never happened. Zaslav saved himself from saying anything in print he might come to regret.
This was a move Licht could have also pulled at any time, and did not. That turned out great for readers! But for CNN’s boss himself, not so much.