“I Really Hope That We Don’t Both-Sides Democracy”: Where Is CNN Headed?

On Friday morning, John Harwood, a veteran White House correspondent who spent decades reporting for top outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and CNBC before joining CNN at the beginning of 2020, told viewers that President Joe Biden was right to call out the MAGA-fied Republican Party’s threat to democracy—and explained why journalists might be uncomfortable admitting it. “We’re brought up to believe there’s two different political parties with different points of view, and we don’t take sides in honest disagreements between them,” Harwood said. “But that’s not what we’re talking about. These are not honest disagreements. The Republican Party right now is led by a dishonest demagogue. Many, many Republicans are rallying behind his lies about the 2020 election.” 

A couple hours later, Harwood announced he was leaving the network, a move interpreted by many as more evidence that CNN was shifting away from aggressively calling out the GOP and right-wing media for undermining democracy and instead moving into what could be perceived as politically neutral territory. Harwood’s exit was not tied directly to what he said on Friday—I’m told he was informed weeks earlier that the network wanted to go in a different direction. Nevertheless, the high-profile departure came on the heels of new CNN chief Chris Licht firing Brian Stelter, who literally wrote the book on Donald Trump and Fox News’ “dangerous distortion of truth,” and axing Reliable Sources, a media-criticism show that was also the longest-running program on the network. Stelter has reportedly told people that he was made a sacrificial lamb to signal to the right that the network was changing course. And calls to “boycott CNN” flooded social media after Harwood’s exit, with Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama adviser and a Pod Save America cohost, jumping off the news Wednesday to argue that “corporate media won’t save democracy.”

Licht reportedly wants CNN to turn down the decibel levels from the Jeff Zucker years and focus on straight news. He recently embarked on a “Capitol Hill diplomacy tour,” as Axios put it, meeting with both Democrats and Republicans, including House leader Kevin McCarthy, one of the 147 members of Congress who last year voted to overturn the presidential election results. Trump, perhaps sensing an opportunity, posted Sunday on Truth Social that “if ‘low ratings’ CNN ever went Conservative, they would be an absolute gold mine, and I would help them to do so.”

On a company call last month, Licht told staffers, “There will be more changes, and you might not understand it or like it.” Such comments came just after powerful Warner Bros. Discovery shareholder John Malone told the Times how he wanted “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist.” So it’s understandable that Stelter’s and Harwood’s abrupt exits have rattled viewers and unnerved staffers, one of whom wondered to The Washington Post if a “purge” was playing out, adding: “They seem to be sending a message: ‘Watch what you say. Watch what you do.’”

Some CNN staffers have bristled at such ominous language. “The purge of two?” one CNN producer scoffed when I reached out this week. The producer continued: “The White House unit is obviously the most visible and most high-pressure unit in the place, so it’s hard to know what the dynamics are. I don’t think it’s as simple as he’s a liberal, so let’s cut back on liberals.” Rather than believing a, quote, unquote, “purge” is the problem, this producer sees the issue being the lack of communication coming from the top, which has left staffers to speculate.

That feeling was echoed by others inside the network. “You have this external narrative happening, and there’s no public pushback against it,” a CNN staffer told me. “It just feels a little chaotic right now. It feels like everyone’s trying to read tea leaves and figure out what’s going on. What is missing since Jeff’s absence is a singular, central voice telling us what to do every day.” In the meantime, they said, people are trying to “read into the mandate and act accordingly,” but “nobody really knows what that is.”

Zucker, who famously greenlighted The Apprentice while running NBC Entertainment, only to turn into one of Trump’s biggest media antagonists while the ex-reality star occupied the White House, was known for his hands-on approach to daily programming. “It’s a really tense environment right now. Communication is a real issue, and I think it feels more dramatic because Jeff was so communicative. So it’s this full 180,” another staffer said. “I think everyone wants to give [Licht] the benefit of the doubt, but at the same time it’s hard to keep your head down and do your work—as he wants us to—when every day a shoe drops.” 

Licht is expected to hold a digital town hall later this month. However, since the Stelter firing, management has so far failed to address internal concerns and counter public perceptions that the network is caving to the right, even as the media scrutiny piles up. As Recode reported, the shadow of Malone—the billionaire conservative and mentor to Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav—now “looms over CNN.”

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