From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. When reviewing CNN's recent run of mishaps ranging from mere dust-ups to dumpster fires, I recall Queen Elizabeth's famous description of 1992.
Queen Elizabeth: Not a year on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure. In the words of one of my more sympathetic correspondents, it has turned out to be an annus horribilis.
Brooke Gladstone: That dreadful year, her family driven by divorces, separations, and scandals had debased and devalued the monarchy. Who wouldn't be reminded of CNN? CNN's time of troubles lasted longer and lasts still. As does the monarchy's actually, but never mind, we'll date the start of CNN's horribilis run, as the New York Times did, to about 18 months ago when its biggest star is shown the door.
Chris Cuomo: Being number one at CNN was a very proud accomplishment for me. This is like, "Here's the next thing that I didn't see coming that doesn't seem to make sense."
Brooke Gladstone: Chris Cuomo was fired after helping his brother. Then New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, managed the PR fallout from charges of sexual harassment. The gov had been Chris's frequent guests when COVID was raging. Those guest spots were seen as both charming and dubious.
Andrew Cuomo: Some say I shouldn't come on this show because you harass me and provoke me.
Chris Cuomo: Too much fierce accountability? Want a pat on the back, Love Gov?
Andrew Cuomo: [crosstalk]. It's ad hominem attacks.
Chris Cuomo: Don't speak Spanish on my show. Do you think that you are an attractive person now because you are single and ready to mingle?
Brooke Gladstone: When Chris was shown choosing family over journalism, though he claimed CNN knew what he was doing, he was out. After that, an even bigger departure.
Speaker 4: A towering figure in the news and media landscape for three decades now out of a job. Jeff Zucker announcing his resignation from CNN where he's been president since 2013. In a memo to CNN staff on Wednesday, Zucker cited, "A failure to disclose a consensual relationship with my closest colleague," as the reason for his departure.
Speaker 5: This is an incredible loss. Jeff is a remarkable person and an incredible leader. He had this unique ability to make us feel special.
Brooke Gladstone: After Zucker helped vault Donald Trump to power by giving him practically unrestricted access to CNN's airtime, I exaggerate, but not by much, he seemed to acknowledge that offering Trump 24/7, though good business, was bad journalism. Maybe he just took umbrage at Trump's relentless abuse.
Donald Trump: Quiet.
Jeff Zucker: Mr. President-Elect,
Donald Trump: Go ahead. She's asking a question, don't be rude.
Jeff Zucker: President-Elect, can you give us a question instead of attacking us?
Donald Trump: Don't be rude.
Jeff Zucker: Can you give us a question?
Donald Trump: Don't be rude. No, I'm not going to give a question.
Jeff Zucker: Can you state categorically-
Donald Trump: You are fake news. Go ahead.
Jeff Zucker: Sir, can you state categorically-
Brooke Gladstone: Zucker supported his hosts and reporters in calling out Trump's lies and fulminating when they deemed fulmination appropriate. Here's Jake Tapper.
Jake Tapper: The campaign that Trump and his allies in the media and members of his family, and the Trump-allied websites and such are leveling with charges so heinous I'm not even going to say them, just nonsense, crap, tied into QAnon, tied into Pizzagate, tied into the worst things you could say about a person with no evidence, just completely made up is so disgusting and so beneath what this election-
Brooke Gladstone: That free hand put Jeff Zucker out of step with his boss, CEO, and president of CNN's parent Company, Warner Brothers Discovery, David Zaslav.
David Zaslav: Most of the news networks around the world and here in the US, they're advocacy networks.
Brooke Gladstone: Zaslav said he wished to forge a middle ground, or perhaps one less hostile to Trump's GOP, so he picked Chris Licht successful producer of morning shows and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert to take over the huge enterprise that is CNN.
David Zaslav: As there are networks here that are advocating right and left, Chris is going to be advocating for truth, he's going to be advocating for facts, he's going to be advocating for journalism first.
Brian Stelter: One of the biggest media stories of the week is right here. It's the end of this show. CNN has canceled Reliable Sources.
Brooke Gladstone: Brian Stelter was the host of CNN's Sunday morning media show for nearly nine years. Chris Licht pulled the plug last August. Stelter, as much of CNN's on-air folks had been forthright.
Brian Stelter: For two and a half years in the Trump presidency, and his racism is becoming more obvious, more frightening?
Brooke Gladstone: What Zaslov might call advocating.
Brian Stelter: There are millions of Black and brown Americans who know exactly what he means when he says, "Go back to where you came from." They've heard those words. There's no bigger story in the country right now.
Brooke Gladstone: Tucker Carlson would never.
Tucker Clarkson: Jeff Zucker runs CNN like a political campaign. Everyone at CNN has a role to second a campaign. The lowest level are the goons. Their job is to smack the people Jeff Zucker tells them to smack. One of these jolly screamers, Zucker's personal favorite, hosts a weekend show about the media. Every Saturday, he gives voice to his boss's weird obsessions and vendettas and calls-
Brooke Gladstone: Then there's Don Lemon. He left his primetime CNN show to become one of three hosts of the revamped CNN This Morning. Ratings tanked. Lemon was mismatched with his co-hosts and perhaps with morning shows in general.
Don Lemon: Nikki Haley isn't in her prime, sorry. When a woman is considered being in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s. That's not according to me.
Poppy Harlow: What are you-- Wait. Prime for what?
Don Lemon: It depends. It's just, prime. If you Google, when is a woman in her prime? It'll say 20s, 30s, and 40s. I don't necessarily agree.
Poppy Harlow: 40s, so I got another decade.
Brooke Gladstone: In April, Lemon was shown the door. Then in May, the deeply derided Trump Town Hall in New Hampshire with an audience of loudly enthusiastic Trump supporters, an election denier as a post-show guest, and lone moderator, Kaitlan Collins, trying to quench the great Chicago fire with a water pistol.
Kaitlan Collins: That's the question that investigators have, I think, is why you held onto those documents when you knew the federal government was seeking them and then had given you a subpoena to return them.
Donald Trump: Are you ready? Are you ready? Can I talk?
Kaitlan Collins: Yes. What's the answer?
Donald Trump: Do you mind?
Kaitlan Collins: I would like for you to answer the question.
Donald Trump: Okay. It's very simple to answer.
Kaitlan Collins: That's why I asked it.
Donald Trump: It's very simple that you're a nasty person, I'll tell you.
Brooke Gladstone: Things were not going well at CNN, which a year earlier had pulled the plug on CNN Plus after nearly five weeks and up to $300,000,000 down the drain. Revenues are down, ratings too, and then there was that Chris Licht profile in The Atlantic that made him look like a man desperately over his head and at odds with his staff on fundamental questions of journalism. He was fired this week and here we are. Brian Stelter, the former host of CNN's Defunct Reliable Sources has been closely following his old network's travails.
Brian Stelter: Brian, welcome back to the show.
Brian Stelter: Hi. Good to be here. Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: It was Licht who fired you, but you don't blame him for that. You wrote that you even laughed together about how nice he was when he fired you. What was that about?
Brian Stelter: I think Chris Licht was put in a somewhat impossible position when he was given the title of CNN CEO. As one of his own friends said to me, he was dealt a bad hand and then he played it badly. Yes, he is partly responsible, but there were larger forces at play within Warner Brothers Discovery, the parent company of CNN. There's a part of me that thinks the reason the show was canceled was because they just wanted to try to de-controversialize CNN, depolarize it, lower the temperature, bring the volume down.
Those may be admirable goals. That's why I point out that Licht was gracious when he was canceling the show. It wasn't as if we were at war, we weren't at odds, but I personally am very skeptical that you actually can lower the temperature.
Brooke Gladstone: Chris Licht, you say he was a good producer with good ideas who disappeared when he started at CNN because he was determined to be someone else, which is to say the CEO.
Brian Stelter: He came in with the swagger of a producer, but then retreated into the boardroom, into the C-suite. That may have been what Zaslav told him to do. I don't know. Looking back now with the benefit of hindsight, it was clear that Licht was making sure he was cultivating his relationship with Zaslav years before Zaslav called him and asked him to run CNN. In fact, Zaslav did not interview anybody else for the job.
Licht's failure, and I think he would admit this, is that he didn't manage down. He did not develop relationships inside CNN. He focused so much on managing up into the corporate structure that he did not ever really win the newsroom, win the programming team, win the executives or the engineers at CNN.
Brooke Gladstone: Do you think that John Malone had an influence on this as well?
Brian Stelter: John Malone was the mentor to Zaslav for many, many years. He was the most important person in Zaslav's professional life. He was the controlling shareholder of the company Zaslav was running. Now, that's no longer the case. Malone's position has been diluted. He's now just one of many board members of Warner Brothers Discovery, but he is a key shareholder because of that long relationship with Zaslav. He is also a Fox fan and a Trump donor.
John Malone: I would like to see CNN evolve back to the journalism that had started with actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.
Brian Stelter: He said that in November of 2021, and it was very offensive to the journalists who were working at CNN. He also complimented Fox and made people think that he wanted CNN to become more like Fox. Now, we haven't heard a lot from Malone since, but on the day that I was fired from CNN, the New York Times emailed him and asked, "Did you have something to do with Stelter's exit?" He said, "I wasn't directly involved." He also said, "I want CNN to be more centrist."
Brooke Gladstone: Let's move to the article that you called the 15,000-Word Defenestration of Licht. Given the internal struggles he had at CNN, why didn't he see it coming? What did he expect from this piece?
Brian Stelter: I think Licht felt misunderstood last spring and last summer when The Atlantic contacted him asking him to participate in this profile. I think he really, really wanted to make the case to a sympathetic journalist that his plan was the right plan and that he could revive CNN, that he could, quote-unquote, "Save journalism". Maybe even help save democracy. I know this sounds silly, but that was the original dream headline for the Atlantic piece. Licht's aids, they wanted a story that would say something like, "Can Chris Licht save the news?"
Brooke Gladstone: They thought that Tim Alberta would be well placed to write that because he felt CNN went too far in the Trump years?
Brian Stelter: That's right. I've talked to Alberta about this. He was sympathetic and is sympathetic to the vision and mission of CNN that had been outlined by Zaslav and Licht to try to moderate the tone and make it a trusted news brand for everyone. Now, whether that's possible or not, Alberta was interested in seeing Licht to try and seeing what would happen, but by the time Alberta was ready to actually write the story, the story at CNN was much worse than it was last summer. The ratings were lower, the morale was much lower. He had already "lost the room." Alberta was perfectly positioned to actually document all of that.
Brooke Gladstone: The article came out on a Friday. On the following Monday, Licht apologized in an all-staff meeting. You had inside access, and you reported on what happened for New York Magazine. What did he say and what didn't he say that maybe he should have said?
Brian Stelter: We have to recognize that by Sunday, many of the top anchors and journalists and producers at CNN had concluded Licht was a gonner, that there was no way back. Some people had even politely tried to tell him that. He was in denial. He was defiant. He believed that Zaslav would still let him have time to win people back, to win trust back. That's what he said Monday morning. He said, Monday morning, "I'm going to fight like hell to earn your trust back." He apologized for making himself the news and not CNN, but what he did not apologize for were his disparaging remarks about the past journalism of CNN, the Trump era, Jeff Zucker era, CNN.
Listen, I was there for that entire time. I'm not going to claim that Jeff Zucker was a perfect leader. I'm not going to claim CNN always had the perfect approach to covering Donald Trump. This stuff is really complicated and really hard, but even if you want to mock and ridicule the Trump-era coverage, even if you think it was atrocious, why would you tell that to a reporter? Why would you insult all those people? Why would you hurt all those staffers?
It was notable on Monday that Licht did not apologize. He did not go into detail about what he thought was wrong. Maybe that's because he wasn't sorry. I don't know. I found it so interesting that he even tried on Monday morning to say that he was going to stay in the job because if the folks you're supposed to be leading don't believe you and don't trust you and won't be led by you, you can still be a boss, but you can't be a leader.
Brooke Gladstone: What amazes me is I know there's been criticism of Zucker for becoming a offsite complaint box for everybody who was pissed off at Licht.
Brian Stelter: The New York Times called him a grievance switchboard.
Brooke Gladstone: He is the one who turned Trump from a reality star into a presidential candidate. He is the one who would focus the camera on an empty Trump podium even as his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was actually speaking. He was the one who found Trump to be catnip. I don't understand why he isn't paying for that still.
Brian Stelter: Number one, I think he is. You just raised those points. I think it's significant that he's one of the only media executives who has looked backwards and said, "We showed too many of those rallies. We went too far overboard." Yes, Zucker and others at NBC made The Apprentice what it was, but it was really, I believe, Fox that made Trump a political figure.
Brooke Gladstone: As somebody who was watching the coverage at the time, all the focus was on Trump at CNN as well.
Brian Stelter: Well, because Trump was the most incredible story of the decade.
Brooke Gladstone: Yes, but CNN helped make him. I guess this is something we could dispute, but Fox's audience was always going to like him, right?
Brian Stelter: The fact that we're still talking about it, though, this is the point. A decade later, we're still wrestling with these questions, and we should be. This is one of the most important debates in journalism. How and whether and when and where to cover Donald Trump, what to do, how to do it better. That's why I thought it was so strange that Licht said to Alberta, the Atlantic interviewer, he said, "How are we going to cover Trump?" That's not something I stay up at night thinking about. He said, "It's very simple."
Brooke Gladstone: It's very simple. Cover him like any other candidate.
Brian Stelter: I wish it were simple. It's actually one of the most complicated editorial challenges for the news business. There should be an ongoing dialogue at CNN about how to cover demagogues. Let me tell you, Brooke, there is an ongoing dialogue. There are fantastic journalists and standards and practices officials and producers and editors. They do talk about these issues. They do discuss it. A lot of them do have regrets about 2016, but, number one, they don't air it out to a random reporter doing a profile piece and, number two, they want to have that discussion in-house and they want to have it with the boss. The boss didn't seem to want to have that conversation.
Brooke Gladstone: What about the boss of the boss, David Zaslav? The departure of Licht is not going to change this impulse of CNN to make the news channel welcoming to MAGA Republicans.
Brian Stelter: Well, this is a thorny issue because when Zaslav says, "We want both sides to be represented, that we want Republicans back on CNN," I think most CNN staffers share those values and want to make sure they're covering the full story, the entire story. However, as you and I both know, there are not always two equal sides. Sometimes there are five or six sides. Sometimes it is highly misleading to pretend like both sides are equally reality-based and equally responsible. That's the part that Zaslav has not talked about in public.
Brooke Gladstone: I think CNN is too useful to the Republican party as a foil and an enemy to ever become a friendly place. If they come on CNN, it's to be able to use it as a punching bag, just as Trump did.
Brian Stelter: That is so interesting.
Brooke Gladstone: Sure. Republicans will come on so that they can yell at CNN face-to-face and bask in that dubious glory.
Brian Stelter: Then they can say they went into the lion's den. They're not afraid of a fight.
Brooke Gladstone: Owning the libs is the most important campaign gesture that these sorts of extreme Republicans can make.
Brian Stelter: This is where it gets so complicated about the Warner Brothers Discovery management team because they clearly want CNN to be news for everybody. To appeal to all Americans. The idea of owning the libs is by going on CNN, well, that wouldn't make sense under their strategy because CNN is not liberal.
Brooke Gladstone: You can't be a journalist without asking sharp questions and follow-ups and appearing adversarial when faced with blatant untruths.
Brian Stelter: It is possible that the Warner Brothers Discovery management team thinks you can. Thinks that you can put on a more plain vanilla version of the news. I've had staffers come to me concerned about this. One of them saying, "Is Licht's exit a real change in direction or is Zaslav just going to 'find someone more competent and less obnoxious to execute the same vision?'"
Brooke Gladstone: What do you think? I don't see how it can be a change in direction while Zaslav is still there.
Brian Stelter: I think almost anything can happen. What I mean by that is will Discovery own CNN in a year or two?
Brooke Gladstone: You're right. Prediction is a mug's game.
Brian Stelter: [laughs] In the meantime, you are nailing it on the head, which is, can it be 1995 again? Can we turn back the clock? Can we ignore the extremist attitudes that are infecting our politics? Can we pretend like we don't live in an age of AI-empowered disinformation? Can we act like weaponized propaganda and political radicalization are not warping our politics? I would say no. If it is possible to strip all the controversy away from CNN and make it a brand, make it a place for everybody from all parties, if that is possible, I'm on board. I am of thousands that are on board with that. Having lived this for the past nine years inside CNN, I don't see how that's possible. I don't know how we get back to that place.
Brooke Gladstone: I wonder whether or not the strong reaction against what happened in the Trump Town Hall serves as a cautionary tale. I thought it would but the reports about the Nikki Haley Town Hall on Sunday was that she was barely challenged at all by Jake Tapper, who was certainly bold in his views after the Trump Town Hall.
Brian Stelter: I think other cable and broadcast networks watched and learned from CNN's handling of Trump in the town hall and are going to do things differently as a result. Fox News, for example, all the interviews Trump is doing on Fox, even the friendly Chit chats with Sean Hannity, those are being pre-taped. They are not happening live. Fox presumably is doing so because of the fallout from Dominion and Smartmatic, and they're afraid of Trump defaming those companies or others alive on the air.
Brooke Gladstone: Now there's a cautionary tale you can't avoid.
Brian Stelter: 100% but I will tell you, my sources at Fox are having a field day laughing at CNN saying, "We're being more responsible what Donald Trump than CNN was." Those folks at Fox are enjoying this. I do think it is true that other networks like NBC and ABC were having some conversations about holding a town hall with Trump this spring. Those conversations changed as a result of the CNN event.
Brooke Gladstone: There was an internal CNN report that was released this week that looked at just how much viewers trusted CNN as a news source, and it was leaked to Semafor after The Atlantic article was released. It said there were something CNN that did lose the trust of its viewers, needless to say. What do you think of that report, where it came from, what it revealed?
Brian Stelter: I think it makes all the sense in the world that trust in CNN took a hit in the past few years. How could it not? When you have the president of the United States trying to basically destroy the network through his tweets and his statements and his behaviors, and when you have hopefully once in a lifetime pandemic where information is confusing and murky and evolving, where the science is hard to keep up with, and when awful decisions are being made in real-time. Of course, trust in news brands is going to suffer. Now, one of the points of this trust report is that trust did not just decline among Republicans. It also declined among Democrats and those who identify as independents.
I think Licht in some ways might have cloaked himself in that so-called trust report in order to explain and justify his moves. As David Graham wrote for The Atlantic on Wednesday, Licht wanted to turn CNN back into the neutral arbiter of truth that it once was or seemed to be, without understanding that such a role is impossible in today's fractured, polarized cable news environment.
I think that is the key here is even if you wanted to roll back the clock and try to go back to a day where everybody trusted CNN, first of all, that day never actually existed. It was ridiculed as the Clinton News Network and before that Chicken Noodle News. Second, there's no way to escape our feuding fragmented environment at least no way that I see out of this.
Brooke Gladstone: Yes.
Brian Stelter: Of course, trust levels are going to be lower, but what you have to do when trust levels are low? In my humble opinion, is show the audience you do have that you're there for them, that you hear them, that you stand with them against the liars and the dissembler and the disinformation artists. I think for all the critiques of CNN in the Trump years, many of them fair. I think what we were trying to do is we were trying to be louder than the liars in order to explain and debunk the nonsense that was out there.
We could argue and debate about whether we did it the right way, but I think the question going forward with this Zaslav era CNN, is whether he wants the anchors to be loud or whether he wants them to be quiet. We have seen some evidence that he wants them to be quiet, and it's easy to do that in 2022 when there's no campaign season really hot and heavy. In November 2024, if Donald Trump is once again running for president, once again losing, and once again claiming he's won an election, he lost, what does CNN do then? How loud does CNN get? I think that is an interesting and challenging question.
Brooke Gladstone: Brian, thank you so much.
Brian Stelter: Thank you.
Brooke Gladstone: Brian Stelter is a longtime media reporter and the former host of CNN's Reliable Sources. Coming up it seems impossible to apply the old rules of journalism to this strange new world, but it's long past time we've figured it out. This is on the media.