CNN Isn’t Centrist, But It May Become An Entertainment Brand – A year after it was taken over by new leadership, with former CBS producer Chris Licht now in charge of the network’s future, CNN hasn’t yet seen the dramatic bump in viewership the network needs to survive.
When Licht first came onto the scene, it had become famous for its staunch opposition to former President Donald Trump and its obvious leftward lurch. While the network has a long history of leaning left, it became the de-facto media branch of the Democratic Party for as long as Trump was in the White House – and the moment Trump left, that obsession with the Republican Party’s most outlandish political leader didn’t end.
But after Licht promised to turn the network’s fortunes around, very little seems to have changed, and talk of a new “centrist” approach from the network still hasn’t been realized.
What Was Promised
In February 2022, Discovery CEO David Zaslav announced that Chris Licht would become the new head of CNN after the merger of WarnerMedia and Discovery. In the following months, it became clear that Licht was planning on making serious changes to the network, including changing its perception among viewers and non-viewers. The first significant move for the network under its new leadership was to cancel the ironically named “Reliable Sources” with Brian Stelter – one of the most ardently anti-Republican shows on television.
By the summer of 2022, left-leaning news site The Guardian published an opinion piece by political commentator Robert Reich who argued that the changes occurring at CNN “look politically motivated” and suggested that the networks’ supposed shift away from the radical left “should concern us all.” Reich praised the ultra-partisan news host Brian Stelter, arguing that the much-criticized television personality was a “reliable source of intelligent criticism of Fox News” and other right-wing news outlets. He criticized Licht’s decision to cancel the show, while at the same time practically admitting that the move was necessary for CNN to survive financially.
“What’s motivating Licht? Follow the money,” he wrote.
Reich is one of many left-leaning pundits who have decried the changes at CNN, even as Licht claims that the network’s efforts to attract a wider audience were never about becoming centrist at all. In November 2022, Licht told the Financial Times that talk about his vision for CNN was wildly inaccurate.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about my vision is that I want to be vanilla, that I want to be centrist. That is bull****,” Licht said. “You have to be compelling. You have to have edge. In many cases you take a side. Sometimes you just point out uncomfortable questions. But either way you don’t see it through a lens of left or right.”
But despite Licht’s claim that CNN won’t shift away from the left, a Maru Group survey found that 58% of CNN viewers saw the network as more critical of President Joe Biden, and 45% arguing that the network was friendlier to former President Donald Trump. 40% also said that CNN had adopted a more centrist, or even right-leaning tone.
Tune in to CNN at any time during the day, however, and it’s hard to see exactly what those viewers were seeing. Perhaps, for Licht, removing Brian Stelter and ending his nationally televised obsessive, smug, and deceptive tirade against the former president was enough for viewers to think the network had gone soft on Trump.
Changes Are Still Coming
Rumors of a new, more moderate CNN may well be wrong, but change is definitely on the way for CNN. In April, reports suggested that CNN would launch a prime-time show featuring both former basketball star Charles Barkley and television personality Gayle King. The pair appeared together in an interview to talk about the plans, with Barkley insisting that the show would be “nonpolitical” while also touching on…politics.
“You know (Gayle King) is going to be a straight shooter. I’m going to be a straight shooter,” Barkley said. “I know she’s going to be fair and honest and you know I’m going to do the same thing.”
The move, should it come to fruition, might well broaden the network’s audience – essential for the long-term growth of the network – but won’t make it any more “centrist” for as long as the network’s other anchors and commentators continue their ultra-partisan coverage of any politician who doesn’t believe that men are women.
Rather than embracing a new centrist vision, then, CNN could soon rebrand itself as an all-encompassing news and entertainment network that functions much like Fox News. After CNN’s expansion into digital programming ended so dramatically, the network may mimic the successes of Fox News in the United States and the conservative-leaning GB News in the United Kingdom, both of which have embraced comedians and entertainment as a key part of its news coverage.
Until then, CNN’s hotly-anticipated townhall event with former President Donald Trump in New Hampshire will give viewers the best idea of the network’s new centrist – or non-centrist – credentials. The town hall is expected to air at 8 pm ET on May 10.
Jack Buckby is 19FortyFive’s Breaking News Editor. He is a British author, counter-extremism researcher, and journalist based in New York. Reporting on the U.K., Europe, and the U.S., he works to analyze and understand left-wing and right-wing radicalization, and reports on Western governments’ approaches to the pressing issues of today. His books and research papers explore these themes and propose pragmatic solutions to our increasingly polarized society.