The CNN chief executive, Chris Licht, wanted the network’s New Hampshire town hall with Donald Trump last month to be “extra Trumpy”, according to a report on Licht’s attempts to remodel the news giant and how controversy over the Trump event continues to reverberate through US politics and media.
In a lengthy profile published on Friday, Tim Alberta of the Atlantic wrote: “Licht wasn’t scared to bring a bunch of Maga enthusiasts onto his set – he had remarked to his deputies about the ‘extra Trumpy’ make-up of the crowd CNN was expecting – and he damn sure wasn’t scared of Trump.
“The way to deal with a bully like Trump, Licht told his journalists, was to confront him with facts.”
But Trump, wholly unsurprisingly, threw facts out of the window.
The former president repeated his lies about the 2020 election being stolen; abused E Jean Carroll, the writer against whom he had just been found liable for sexual assault and defamation; insulted his host, Kaitlan Collins; and otherwise revved up a crowd which responded with glee.
Before the town hall, Alberta wrote, Licht’s wish for an “extra Trumpy” crowd caused internal concern. After the event, amid widespread condemnation, Licht told Alberta he did not regret the crowd because it represented the Republican base.
Trump does dominate the Republican primary for 2024, capitalising on unprecedented legal jeopardy to lead his closest challenger, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, by about 30 points in most polling averages.
Alberta shadowed Licht for months for the Atlantic as the executive attempted to redirect a network that took an adversarial stance when Trump was in power.
Licht said: “The mission was to go after this guy … Right or wrong. I’m not saying he’s a good guy. He’s definitely not. But, like, that was the mission.”
Trump, Licht said, “changed the rules of the game, and the media was a little caught off guard and put a jersey on and got into the game as a way of dealing with it. And at least [at] my organisation, I think we understand that jersey cannot go back on. Because guess what? It didn’t work.”
CNN, Licht said, should simply do “journalism” and aim to be “trusted … There has to be a source of absolute truth. There’s good actors, there’s bad actors, there’s a lot of shit in the world. There has to be something that you’re able to look at and go, ‘They have no agenda other than the truth.’”
He also said such an approach did not make him “a fascist rightwinger who’s trying to steal Fox viewers”.
Alberta was in the audience at St Anselm’s College. It was, he wrote, “no ordinary collection of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, as CNN had claimed it would be. Most … were diehards, fanboys, political zealots who were likelier to show up at a rally with a Maga flag than come to a coffee shop with a policy question. These folks hadn’t turned out to participate in some good-faith civic ritual. They were there to celebrate Trump’s continued assault on the media.
“… By the end of the event, it was essentially indistinguishable from a Maga rally. People throughout the room shouted, ‘I love you!’ during commercial breaks and chanted ‘Four more years!’ when the program ended.”
Afterwards, Licht gave Alberta his immediate verdict: “Well, that wasn’t boring!”
A week later, Alberta wrote, Licht ceded a “lone point … that the crowd should have been introduced to viewers … with a show of hands, perhaps, to demonstrate how many had voted for Trump previously, or were planning to support him in 2024”.
Otherwise, Licht was defiant. One of “the biggest misconceptions about that town hall”, he said, “is that I did it for ratings … I certainly didn’t do it for a profit, because it cost us money. And I certainly didn’t do it to build a relationship with Trump.”
Alberta’s Atlantic piece ranged far wider than the Trump town hall, following Licht even to a session with his personal trainer at a Manhattan gym, as he confronted problems including a misfiring morning show that led to the firing of the anchor Don Lemon.
In US media, the profile set off new detonations.
Brian Stelter, a media reporter whom Licht fired from CNN, called the piece “jaw-dropping” and added: “The consensus, among people who knew [the] piece was coming, is that it’s much ‘worse’ than they expected. Licht confided in Alberta the way a client confides in a therapist. Some CNN staffers are shocked.”
Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor, said: “It wouldn’t be fair to say a trained seal could do a better job running CNN than Chris Licht. It’s just that, after reading this piece, it feels like we should give the trained seal a shot.”
The writer Mark Harris called Alberta’s piece “brutal – a relentlessly observant eye-level portrait of the wrong man for the job struggling to come off as the right man for the job, convincing absolutely nobody except a boss who himself seems allergic to criticism.”
Licht’s boss, the Warner Bros Discovery chief executive, David Zaslav, first agreed to speak to Alberta, then declined to do so on the record.
People who knew Zaslav, Alberta wrote, “and who had observed his relationship with Licht, had depicted him as a control freak, a micromanager, a relentless operator who helicoptered over his embattled CNN leader. Zaslav’s constant meddling in editorial decisions struck network veterans as odd and inappropriate; even stranger was his apparent marionetting of Licht.
“In this sense, some of Licht’s longtime friends and co-workers told me, they pitied him. He was the one getting mauled while the man behind the curtain suffered nary a scratch.”
On Friday, Puck News reported that Licht was no longer in control of CNN business operations. David Leavy, a Zaslav lieutenant, was appointed chief operating officer.