CNN Chief Tells Reporter He's Only Halfway Done With 'Gut Renovation' of Network

Chris Licht, who gave pink slips to vocally anti-Trump hosts, says network must have 'no agenda other than the truth'

CNN CEO Chris Licht (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CNN)
June 2, 2023

CNN CEO Chris Licht, who has fired left-wing hosts and worked to woo back Republicans, said that he's only halfway through a "gut renovation" of the network.

Licht, a 2022 Washington Free Beacon Man of the Year, sat with Politico reporter Tim Alberta for multiple interviews for a profile, including one soon after CNN hosted a town hall event with former president Donald Trump. The CEO, who took over last year following the resignation of longtime network president Jeff Zucker, said that his "renovation" of CNN would take at least another year.

When Licht came to power, he worked on wooing Republicans, an "audience neglected by the network for the past several years," the Free Beacon reported. He fired vocally anti-Trump hosts such as Brian Stelter and Don Lemon, saying they were "off mission." And he has adopted a "down-the-middle mantra" to "differentiate CNN" from what he considers the extremes of Fox News and MSNBC, Alberta wrote.

Giving a platform to Republicans, including Trump and his supporters, is "incredibly important, if we're going to understand the country," Licht said.

While CNN reporters once railed against platforming Trump, Licht hosted a town hall for him, which ended up as CNN's most watched candidate event in years. Before Trump went on stage, Licht even told the former president, "Have fun."

When Alberta asked about Licht's own politics, the CEO equivocated. "I would never put myself into a category," he said. "I think it depends on what we're talking about."

Licht did, however, show that he was more open to conservative and moderate ideas than was CNN's previous leadership. He blasted Zucker's coverage ban of the COVID-19 lab-leak theory, which multiple U.S. government agencies have since validated.

One section of the Politico article depicts Licht answering questions from University of Southern California students taught by a friend, Republican pollster Frank Luntz. A student challenged Licht's "down-the-middle" approach, saying that there is "one truth" on issues such as "how many deaths have been caused by COVID."

"We don't know how many deaths there were from COVID," Licht said, arguing that people with differing viewpoints could have "legitimate conversations" over the death toll.

"It had been unfair, he said, to paint everyone who had questions about the accuracy of death counts as 'COVID deniers,'" Alberta wrote.

Licht's moderate positions have satisfied few people, however. The town hall left both Republicans and Democrats, as well as many left-leaning journalists, angry at the network for a variety of reasons. Licht nevertheless told Alberta that he had no regrets about hosting Trump.

"I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night," the CEO said on an editorial call the morning after the town hall.

Many CNN personalities disagree. Network media reporter Oliver Darcy blasted his employer, while longtime CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour "chided Licht in a speech at Columbia's journalism school," Alberta wrote.

The situation has left Licht's "employees in open revolt," according to Alberta, with staffers "openly discussing the merits of quitting en masse" and "reaching out to rival media organizations."

Licht nevertheless believes he is doing the right thing by refocusing CNN on objective journalism.

"There has to be a source of absolute truth," he told Alberta. "There has to be something that you're able to look at and go, 'They have no agenda other than the truth.'"