From (David P.)@21:1/5 to All on Tue Jun 7 13:07:19 2022
CNN Enters the Post-Jeff Zucker Era. Bye-Bye ‘Breaking News’ Banners.
By Michael M. Grynbaum and John Koblin, June 5, 2022, NY Times
CNN’s ubiquitous “Breaking News” banner is gone, now reserved
for instances of truly urgent events. Snarky on-screen captions
— “Angry Trump Turns Briefing Into Propaganda Session,” for
instance — are discouraged. Political shows are trying to book
more conservative voices, and producers have been urged to ignore
Twitter backlash from the far right and the far left.
A month into his tenure as the new leader of CNN, Chris Licht is
starting to leave his mark on the 24-hour news network he inherited
in May from its prominent former president, Jeff Zucker. So far,
the Licht Doctrine is a change from the Zucker days: less hype,
more nuance and a redoubled effort to reach viewers of all stripes.
Running a network is a new challenge for Licht, a 50-year-old
lifelong producer who has never led an organization as big as CNN.
(His last employer, “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” had a
staff of about 200 people; CNN has roughly 4,000.) Some CNN
journalists say they wonder if he can navigate a sprawling,
unwieldy global news network past what has been a no good,
very bad year.
In December, the anchor Chris Cuomo was fired for ethical lapses,
prompting an investigation that ultimately led to Zucker’s ouster
in February over an undisclosed relationship with a co-worker.
Then, in April, the network’s new owners, Warner Bros. Discovery,
shut down the streaming platform CNN+ weeks after its $300 million
debut. On the same day, Licht announced the prospect of hundreds of
layoffs in his first formal address to staff.
Under Zucker, a micromanager who dictated headlines and whispered
in anchors’ ears during interviews, the network developed an
“Audience of One” culture. “What Jeff Wants” was the mantra, and
that often meant spectacle and drama. Licht is now tearing up that
playbook with a management style notably different from his predecessor.
“I’m not here to get into the weeds of day-to-day editorial decision making,” Licht told employees on his first day. His more hands-off
approach to coverage, and his sweeping pronouncements that CNN will “challenge the traditional philosophy of cable news,” have left his skeptics wishing for more specific direction from the top, not less.
Licht’s early moves, and the mood inside the network, were described
by several people with knowledge of the internal dynamics at CNN who
would speak only on the condition on anonymity.
Licht is aware of the criticism. “I am going to make decisions
slower than some would like,” he wrote in a newsroom-wide memo on
Thursday. “I know this organization has been through tremendous
change over the last four months, which is why I am approaching
this process slowly and thoughtfully as we look at all parts of
the operation.” (CNN declined to comment.)
One early focus has been morning programming, an arena that Licht
knows well from overseeing “Morning Joe” and his successful retooling
of “CBS This Morning.”
Licht told advertisers that he wanted to “disrupt” morning TV.
Internally, he has said he wants a more inviting, conversational
approach, and he believes CNN’s main offering, “New Day” — which Zucker created — lacks a clear identity, three people said.
In coming weeks, he wants to create a roster of “friends of the
show” who would make regular appearances on the program, the people
said. Among those being considered is Audie Cornish, the former
NPR host who had been slated to host a program on CNN+.
Licht also wants to revamp the Sunday night lineup, introducing
a new talk show from the former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, as
well as a new long-form newsmagazine program.
Licht is intent on dialing back partisanship on the air, telling
advertisers last month, “At a time where extremes are dominating
cable news, we will seek to go a different way.” At a recent meeting
in Washington with producers and journalists, Licht said he wanted
to book more Republicans and conservatives on political shows to
offer a wider range of viewpoints. Internally, he praised Dana
Bash’s recent interview about gun control with Representative
Dan Crenshaw, a Texas Republican.
In some ways, Licht is working to undo the showman-like tendencies
that Zucker, a former “Today” show producer, embedded in CNN’s
DNA over his 9-year tenure.
Zucker placed sportscaster-style microphones on pundits and
encouraged political anchors like Jim Acosta to embrace adversarial
reporting about Trump, leading to coverage that could seem like
advocacy. Oversized groups of partisan guests dialed up the moral
“It was so loud,” said Peter Hamby, a former CNN correspondent
and a columnist at Puck who writes about changes in cable news.
“They found a new outrage every single day. It made it difficult
for audiences to separate what was really an emergency and what
was a ratings ploy.”
The Zucker approach did have benefits. CNN enjoyed its most
profitable and highest-rated years under his tenure, though
viewership fell sharply after Trump left office. Many anchors
felt deeply loyal to Zucker, who championed his team amid attacks
from Trump, death threats and even pipe bombs mailed to CNN’s
offices. After Zucker’s exit, the anchor Don Lemon delivered a
tearful on-air farewell, saying, “We lost a man who was the
backbone, the glue and the spirit of this company.”
Some CNN producers and journalists became accustomed to awaiting
Zucker’s specific instructions. Licht is less inclined to
micromanage, an approach that is consistent with his producing
philosophy in past jobs. Licht has told associates that he prefers
empowering deputies to make decisions for themselves, even if
mistakes can sometimes occur.
On-air journalism is just one aspect of Licht’s new role; he
also has to make sure the network makes money. With ratings down
across cable, Mr. Licht has told colleagues that strengthening
CNN’s reputation as a fair-minded news outfit will help attract
blue chip advertisers.
With little experience on the corporate side of running a network,
Licht brought in outside help: Chris Marlin, a friend for decades
and a business executive who most recently worked at Lennar, the
giant Florida-based home constructors, Licht met Marlin, who grew
up in a trailer park in Arkansas, when he was 17 at a Washington
conference for high school students.
Marlin, who is combing the network for new sources of revenue,
has proved an object of curiosity and unease at CNN. Some
employees have taken to calling him “Fish Man,” a takeoff on
his maritime surname. So far, his ideas include expanding CNN
Underscored, a consumer-focused shopping guide, and extending
the CNN brand into foreign markets like China.
For everyday viewers of CNN, the clearest sign that the network
is under new leadership may be what’s no longer a fixture on
their television screens.
According to a new entry in the CNN standards guide, obtained
by The New York Times, a story must qualify as “‘stop what you
are doing and watch’ news” to secure the “Breaking News” label.
Even then, the guide says, the label should only appear onscreen
for one hour, unless there is an unfolding live story like a
school shooting, major hurricane or death of a world leader.
“Its impact has become lost on the audience,” Licht wrote in
his memo, adding that CNN should be “focused on informing, not
alarming our viewers.”