CNN Chief's Republican Apology Tour

GOP officials say they're skeptical of Chris Licht's pledge to tamp down on-air partisanship

CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht / Getty Images
August 1, 2022

CNN's new CEO, Chris Licht, has been attending to an audience neglected by the network for the past several years: Republican lawmakers.

The network boss camped out in mid-July in a room on the first floor of the Senate side of the Capitol, S-120, where he asked GOP lawmakers to come talk with him privately. That arrangement avoided alerting the reporters who stalk the halls of the Capitol, sources said, and accommodated Republican lawmakers who preferred not to be seen hobnobbing with him.

Licht's message, according to one of the lawmakers who sat down with him as well as to several sources briefed on the exchanges: "We want to win back your trust."

The CNN chief spent between 45 minutes and an hour cajoling GOP lawmakers who no longer appear on the network to come back on the air -- and assuring them he'd praise producers for inviting them and communicate his displeasure if he doesn't believe they are treated fairly

"I think he does genuinely want that to happen," one Republican lawmaker told the Washington Free Beacon. "Put aside ideology, I think he thinks CNN sucks."

Licht met last week with the leaders of both parties, Axios reported, but his overtures to Republican lawmakers were more extensive than previously known. A CNN spokesman, Matt Dornic, declined to comment on the private meetings but said that "Chris has made it clear that his top priority is to make CNN a place for fair and respectful dialogue, analysis and debate. He believes our audiences deserve to hear from elected officials on both sides of the aisle and will continue to engage a variety of voices."

The charm offensive underscores Licht's effort to reverse the course set by his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, who was pushed out of CNN in February ostensibly over a consensual sexual relationship with a colleague. Zucker helped transform CNN into ground zero for the strident resistance to former president Donald Trump and Republicans more broadly, with personalities like Jim Acosta and Brian Stelter adopting nakedly partisan stances that would once have seemed strange in a newsroom—though it is now par for the course.

Since joining the network in April, Licht has made clear he is trying to do something different. Just weeks into his tenure, he announced the abrupt cancellation of CNN's much-vaunted digital media project, CNN+, just a month after its splashy launch.

But Licht has made few personnel changes. While he elevated Virginia Moseley to the network's top editorial spot, Puck's Dylan Byers has observed that "what's actually notable" about the changes he's made thus far "is that the leadership team is comprised of exactly the same people who were working under Zucker. One might disparagingly call it a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic."

Licht's pitch was a tough sell, sources said, given the hostility CNN anchors have expressed toward top Republicans. Among others, The Lead host Jake Tapper has floated the idea of banning from his show any Republican lawmaker who questioned the 2020 election results, asking in May 2021, "How am I supposed to believe anything they say?" a stance his CNN colleague Chris Wallace has dismissed as "moral posturing." Tapper, a former spokesman for Democratic congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, has continued to book Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who never conceded her 2018 race to Georgia governor Brian Kemp.

OutFront host Erin Burnett, meanwhile, skewered House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) for removing Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) from her leadership position: "He says he is for a big tent party that embraces free thought and debate," Burnett said in May 2021. "Wow. He has—in polite terms—gall." And Sunday show host Fareed Zakaria has argued that GOP senator Tom Cotton (Ark.) wants the United States to "imitate the Chinese Communist Party."

Pressed about how he would change course without making major personnel changes, Licht appears to be relying on the force of his authority and personality, sources said. "He kept saying, 'I'm in charge, I'm in charge, they answer to me,'" the GOP lawmaker said. "'They don't answer to the workforce, they don't answer to the viewers, they answer to me.'"

Licht also said that he is not focused on the ratings, at least in the near term, emphasizing that the bulk of CNN's revenue comes from cable-subscription fees rather than from advertising, and that his boss, Warner Brothers Discovery chief David Zaslav, is committed to dragging the network back to the center.