When Chris Licht took over as CNN chairman earlier this year, the network’s staffers had difficulty discerning his vision for the network. Licht signaled broad shifts, including what The New York Times described as a move toward “dialing back partisanship on the air.” But while ominous signals abounded as to what precisely that meant for the network’s employees – John Malone, a board member of CNN’s new parent company, had suggested in 2021 that CNN should look to Fox News as a model – Licht provided few specifics. There was enough confusion among the network’s rank-and-file that CNN host Erin Burnett, moderating Licht’s first staff town hall in May, channeled her colleagues’ anxiety to ask, “Will there be avenues for us to understand your thinking?”
Licht has provided one such avenue over the past several weeks: He has spoken through the firings of on-air talent perceived as providing insufficient deference to the right. Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter, a harsh critic of Fox and former President Donald Trump’s treatment of the mainstream media, lost his job last month. Veteran White House correspondent John Harwood, who had denounced Trump’s attacks on democracy, was shown the door on Friday. In each case, media reporters stressed that the firings were part of what the Washington Post termed Licht’s “strategy shift,” with the chairman purging journalists that were perceived as critics of Trump and his allies “to present a new, more ideologically neutral CNN.”
The message Licht’s firings send to CNN journalists is crystal clear: Too much criticism of the right, which remains united behind Trump and champions the election denial that triggered the January 6 insurrection, may cost you your job. And to inoculate themselves against that critique, some at the network are seemingly going out of their way to channel right-wing attacks against President Joe Biden.
Take Brianna Keilar, co-anchor of CNN’s New Day morning show. After a series of reports that her job was on the line due to her past coverage of Trump and Fox, Keilar grabbed headlines for her multi-day fixation on the optics of Biden standing in front of two U.S. Marines while delivering his Thursday speech on his predecessor’s threat to democracy.
Keilar, a CNN veteran who worked her way up from general assignment reporter to her current position, had denounced Fox misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines and January 6, among other topics. Such reporting might have earned plaudits under Jeff Zucker’s CNN regime, but it is an apparent black mark for Licht, who reportedly seeks a doomed “truce” with the right-wing propaganda network.
Reporting on the cancellation of Stelter’s show on August 18, the Associated Press included this inauspicious paragraph: “Licht has made it known internally that he’s not interested in conflict between CNN and Fox News on the network. The CNN ‘New Day’ anchor Brianna Keilar had also attracted attention for detailed critical pieces on Fox, but they have stopped since Licht took over.”
The next day, Hollywood Reporter recalled that Licht had promised advertisers in May that he would “reimagine” CNN’s morning show. “Whether that reimagining includes New Day anchors John Berman and Brianna Keilar is unclear for now, but few inside CNN expect them to remain on that show long-term,” according to that report.
Then on August 31, Puck’s Dylan Byers named Keilar as one of the CNN journalists “who built their personal brands by going to war with Trump” and are now on the chopping block. Byers, who initially broke the news of Licht’s selection as CNN chairman, cited his “well-placed sources.”
Things looked bleak for Keilar. But the next night, while Biden was speaking at Independence Hall about how “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic,” Keilar tweeted, “Whatever you think of this speech the military is supposed to be apolitical. Positioning Marines in uniform behind President Biden for a political speech flies in the face of that. It’s wrong when Democrats do it. It’s wrong when Republicans do it."
Keilar’s tweet drew immediate criticism from Democrats. But under the Licht paradigm at CNN, that is to her credit. She followed up her tweet the next morning with an on-air segment, then authored a lengthy analysis piece for CNN’s website headlined, “Biden’s use of Marines during Philadelphia speech adds to debate over politicization of the military.”
The CNN anchor’s repeated criticisms of Biden are drawing positive coverage from right-wing outlets, generating purportedly counterintuitive headlines like Democrats melt down after CNN hosts criticize Biden speech (New York Post), CNN Anchor Brianna Keilar Criticizes Biden For Marines In Philadelphia Speech. White House Responds (Daily Caller), and Liberals fume at CNN reporters who mildly criticized military presence at Biden speech: 'This is embarrassing' (FoxNews.com).
Nor is the trend limited to discussions of Biden’s speech. Also over the weekend, CNN correspondent Sara Sidner drew some attention from the right by tweeting that there are “serious questions that should be asked about” Biden’s adult son Hunter.
Whether Keilar and her colleagues are making cynical calculations to appeal to the new regime or have just internalized the right-wing spins on events of the past few months, the result is the same: CNN airing commentary that seems to be aimed at bolstering the network’s bona fides with Republicans.
Licht’s goal may be to make CNN more “neutral” and less “partisan.” But it is very difficult for CNN’s reporters worried about losing their jobs to project a nonpartisan mien, particularly given the naked radicalism of the right and the inclination of its propagandists to smear any reporter that doesn’t hew to its own standards. It’s easier, however, for them to simply provide some false balance by leaning into the talking points Republicans use to attack Democrats; fill their panels with conservatives willing to defend the worst excesses of the Trumpian right; and maybe offer some breathless reporting of the speeches of Trump or his successor.
Licht’s strategy thus has CNN pivoting right back to the brand of programming that paved Trump’s path to the White House back in 2016. There’s one major difference: This time, the network’s leaders know the stakes – and they are busy casting off anyone who might be willing to tell their viewers what those stakes are.