The honeymoon is over for new CNN president Chris Licht, who got the job earlier this year after Jeff Zucker was shown the door. Zucker, a favorite of CNN talent, was supposed to be the one who guided everyone over the rainbow bridge as they said goodbye to one conglomerate (WarnerMedia) and hello to its even larger successor (Warner Discovery). Zucker, it was thought, would also help smooth the transition to new CEO David Zaslav, a notorious budget hawk who favors cheap reality shows.
Instead of Zucker, though, it's Licht — a Zaslav confidant — who will be handling CNN's transition. Licht arrived from CBS, where he engineered Stephen Colbert's Late Show turnaround after doing the same with the network's morning news program.
Already the trades are reporting unrest behind the scenes at CNN. One insider says the bubbling discord is coming from Zucker loyalists who are "sitting shiva for Jeff," but it doesn't take an insider to guess the current tension level at the all-news channel. Things are set to change in a big way at CNN and everyone knows Licht is the change agent.
Which brings us to a significant date in history. It was 15 years ago today — June 27, 2007 — that Chris Licht had a front-row seat for what turned out to be a defining moment at the company that employed him at the time, MSNBC. It had only been a few months since Don Imus, MSNBC's original morning man, had been given the heave "ho" and now the AM shift belonged to an MSNBC anchor named Mika Brzezinski and her new on-air partner, former GOP congressman named Joe Scarborough, who previously had a show on the network that was being produced by Licht. The new show was called Morning Joe.
Brzezinski, who had turned 40 the month before, and whose father was Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, spent her 20s and 30s working up the TV news food chain. She ascended rapidly at the CBS affiliate in Hartford (the same station where Gayle King's star rose in the 1980s), scoring her a network job in 1997, though not an especially glamorous one — it included anchoring the overnight news. Licht, 35, was new to cable news, having joined MSNBC in 2005 after a producing career in local news (LA and the Bay Area).
At nights, MSNBC had come to rely on Keith Olbermann, whose nightly scourgings of the Bush administration had earned him a lot of press and an audience with good demographics. Olbermann was a total disconnect from Imus, whose audience was old, split across two platforms (cable and radio), and fond of the I-man's often sexist, racist humor.
Olbermann may or may not have been MSNBC's future, but Imus sure felt like its past. He had saved MSNBC's bacon that first decade, a lone beacon of stability when the No. 3 cable news channel was churning through formats and hosts. Still, the end of Imus, as painful as it was, probably was inevitable. If you're looking for parallels to today, there's one.
In the early months of Morning Joe, the talent and producer followed a process that had existed for years prior to their arrival. The MSNBC news desk was located on the lower floors of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, tantalizingly close to the (ahem, top-rated) NBC Nightly News set and staff. MSNBC editors were often seen working in the background on the open-newsroom set, and it was they who decided what stories Mika would lead with in her top-of-the-hour newscast. All of that held until June 27, when she was handed a story about Paris Hilton being let out of jail. It was the lead story.
The first time she got the story, she decided to read it under protest. "I have an apology … for our lead story," she told viewers. "I didn't choose it." With that, she began reading the story. She got three words into it when her deskmates — Scarborough and sidekick Willie Geist — groaned loudly.
"Oh!! She's not a journalist anymore," Joe declared mockingly. After a pause, Mika said softly, "I hate this story and I don't think it should be our lead." While she cast a pensive glare off camera, Scarborough — with whom she had instant chemistry and wound up marrying in 2018 — yelled, "That's a copout! Go to your second story. Take control of your life!"
For whatever reason, news desk producer Andy Jones gave Brzezinski the Paris Hilton story again to lead off the show's second hour. Now Scarborough was openly defying her to read it. "I want to lead with the Paris Hilton story!" he said. Instead, Mika tried to set the copy on fire with a cigarette lighter. It didn't work, so she tore it up instead. By hour three, the "moment" was taking on the ritualistic feel of kabuki. Jones handed her the script … it led with Paris Hilton … and she walked it over to a shredder that was conveniently steps away and on camera.
On his first day as CNN's boss, Mika Brzezinski's former producer Chris Licht sent out a memo that read, in part, "Sadly too many people have lost trust in the news media. I think we can be a beacon in regaining that trust by being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics in journalism."
The knock on Licht is that he's never handled an operation as big as CNN. So what? To viewers every TV network is the same: it's a show — in the case of CNN, a show that never ends. There may be thousands of people behind the scenes, but what counts is what winds up on the air.
Funny that it took an outsider like Licht to point out what millions of viewers have known for a long time — CNN has run that BREAKING NEWS banner way too much. Licht recently put out another memo in which he discussed his efforts to break CNN producers of that bad habit. There will be more such battles in the months ahead, but I think Licht can win most of those. All he has to do is keep asking, like Mika Brzezinski did when handed a story about Paris Hilton: Why are we doing this?
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.