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Why did CNN do it?
It gave the biggest demagogue of our era an hour of prime time, in front of a fawning audience of admirers. Here’s why.
Why in hell did CNN give Donald Trump a full hour of prime-time television before an audience of ardent supporters who applauded every lie and laughed at every sexist insult?
The germ of an answer could be found last August, when Chris Licht, CNN’s new chairman and CEO, canceled Brian Stelter’s Sunday show, “Reliable Sources,” which had been a reliable source of intelligent criticism of Fox News, right-wing media in general, Trumpism, and the increasingly authoritarian lurch of the Republican party.
Licht also fired Stelter and his staff.
The show had been commercially successful. It was doing better than several of CNN’s prime-time shows.
Around the same time, Licht told CNN staff they should stop referring to Donald Trump’s “big lie” because the phrase sounded like a Democratic party talking point. Licht also told the staff he wanted more “straight news reporting,” along with more conservative guests.
Follow the money. CNN’s new corporate overseer is Warner Bros. Discovery Inc, whose CEO is David Zaslav.
Zaslav has been pushing Licht to reposition CNN to be a network preferred by “everybody … Republicans, Democrats.”
But CNN was never going to be the network preferred by Republicans. Fox News has that sewn up.
Besides, facts, data, and logic are no longer relevant to the Republican base.
The anti-democracy movement in America is among the biggest issues confronting America today. Is reporting on it considered “straight news” or “opinion?” Wouldn’t failing to report on it in a way that sounded alarms be a gross dereliction of duty?
How is it possible to report on Trump and not speak of the big lie, or say they’ve broken norms if not laws?
So, what’s motivating Zaslav? Keep following the money.
The leading shareholder in Warner Bros. Discovery is John Malone, a multibillionaire cable magnate. (Malone was a chief architect in the merger of Discovery and CNN.)
Malone describes himself as a “libertarian” although he travels in right-wing Republican circles. In 2005, he held 32% of the shares of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. He is on the board of directors of the Cato Institute. In 2017, he donated $250,000 to Trump’s inauguration.
It’s unlikely that Malone instructed Zaslav to tell Licht to fire Stelter. Power isn’t exercised that clumsily in large corporate media bureaucracies.
It’s more likely that Licht knew what Zaslav wanted, and Zaslav knew what Malone wanted. A source told Deadline’s Dominic Patten and Ted Johnson that even if Malone didn’t order Stelter’s ouster, “it sure represents his thinking.”
When you follow the money behind deeply irresponsible decisions at the power centers of America today, the road often leads to right-wing billionaires.
Last year, Stelter wrote in his newsletter that Malone’s comments about CNN “stoked fears that Discovery might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice.”
Last August, on his last show, Stelter said:
“It’s not partisan to stand up for decency and democracy and dialogue. It’s not partisan to stand up to demagogues. It’s required. It’s patriotic. We must make sure we don’t give platforms to those who are lying to our faces.”
Sadly, there are still many in America — and not just billionaires like Malone — who believe that holding Trump accountable for what he has done (and continues to do) to this country is a form of partisanship, and that such partisanship has no place in so-called “balanced journalism.”
This belief is itself dangerous.
After I first criticized Licht for the direction he was pushing CNN, he phoned me. He was angry that I doubted his motives, and said he took the top job at CNN because he “believes in journalism.”
When I mentioned the particularly challenging time American journalism now finds itself in — with Trump, most of the Republican Party, and most Republican candidates for office denying that the 2020 election was won by Joe Biden, thereby on the way to undermining America democracy — Licht agreed that it’s challenging. He said, emphatically, that this was why he is so deeply committed to restoring CNN’s credibility as an “unbiased” source of news that “people can feel they can trust.”
Well, Chris, after what you did last night, you can forget the public’s trust in CNN.