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Licht, now on a charm offensive, told the Los Angeles Times his goal is to make CNN the “most trusted name in news” again, on both sides of the political spectrum. His first move in this direction? Adding Bill Maher to its Friday night lineup.
It’s a controversial Hail Mary play, as the cable news business continues to suffer from the inevitable comedown following the Trump era—whose nonstop scandals and gruesome trainwreck quality endowed the industry a years-long ratings boost.
Licht apparently feels the network needs another controversial showman—someone enraging and amusing in equal measure—that people can’t stop watching out of love, or hate. And Licht—the former executive producer of MSNBC’s Morning Joe and CBS’ Late Night with Stephen Colbert—has experience working with hosts that straddles both comedy and infotainment. To give CNN that late-night comedy “oomph,” he needs someone residing between John Oliver and Greg Gutfeld as a late-night host—someone less partisan but not exactly “centrist,” someone residing at the bottom of the proverbial horseshoe of political ideologies.
Bill Maher is that guy.
Populists are popular because they turn fear into trust. That’s why Licht is giving Maher a platform, and his predecessor—Jeff Zucker—offered Donald Trump a show in 2016.
Just like Trump, Maher has spread fear and doubt about vaccinations, once stating that this so-called “genius medical advancement” is actually a “risky medical procedure.” Both platformed anti-vaxx leader Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in their own ways. When the pandemic hit, both would eventually get the COVID vaccine, yet neither walked back prior support for the idea that vaccines can cause autism. Trump—to his credit, but also because he wanted to take credit—promoted the vaccine that was developed on his watch, even at the expense of getting booed by his own supporters. Maher, on the other hand, dismissed the vaccine’s effectiveness after catching COVID, and later said he didn’t want to get boosted.
Unable to tow his usual anti-vaccine line during the pandemic, Maher focused on the tyranny of masking—as if it wasn’t the only other alternative available to the supposedly experimental and dangerous vaccination he begrudgingly received. Maher’s luddism is even more infuriating when recalling similarly ignorant statements he made that dismissed the risk of a global pandemic.
“Stop scaring us with diseases we will never get,” Maher declared in 2003 as a “New Rule” on his HBO show. "Mysterious Asian diseases don’t come knocking on your door,” he confidently added.
Bill Maher sits at the bottom of the political horseshoe—where the far left and right distrust vaccines, GMOs, and see modernity as corrosive. Licht likely knows this, and embracing Maher as a face of CNN is as much a cynical calculation as was Zucker’s embrace of Trump.
It may prove to be a smart play for the increasingly irrelevant news channel. After all, neo-luddism is just about the only thing bringing Democrats and Republicans together these days. But it could easily backfire.
Part of why outlets like CNN and The New York Times saw such a boost during the Trump years was because demand for trustworthy news increased everywhere but Trumpworld. With a new election cycle incoming, Maher’s presence on the network could possibly repel that same demographic.
A common retort to critiques of Maher’s show is that it isn’t news, it’s comedy. This was a weak but valid excuse before, rendered invalid now that he’s being syndicated on one of the world’s largest 24-hour news channels: CNN.
Perhaps Maher will come to the realization that his provocative contrarian shtick is no longer either. Worse, his act is now being used by the establishment he rails against. Maybe he’ll do an about face. In fact, on some issues it seems like he already has, as he admitted last year to changing his mind and is now pro-nuclear power.
Hopefully Maher is starting to fear technological stagnation more than technological acceleration. It could be that—as the rational atheist he smugly identifies as being—he needs to believe in miracles—something only science and technology can deliver.