As you’ve likely heard, CNN CEO Chris Licht was fired today, not so much because of that headline-grabbing Atlantic article but because of a string of failures and reverses which might have simmered and percolated for a few months longer if a minor-defenestratory masterpiece had not wrapped them together with a bow in a way that was impossible to ignore. Of course, it’s part and parcel of being a big-shot media executive to go out in a blaze of glory, or ignominy, as the case may be. Nothing new there. What stands out is that Licht appears to have essentially zero supporters as he free falls to his end.
We know the big reason Licht is out: a theory of the case and a strategy that bore no real connection to the realities of today’s politico-media ecosystem, especially for cable news.
But there’s another factor playing into Licht’s downfall.
From the start of Licht’s tenure at CNN, a key element of his plan seemed to be to let a pall of uncertainty and fear spread through the operation. And no rush, mind you — let it seep slowly into every fiber. A few people were fired, including some really good ones. But the total number was actually quite small. Many more, however, were allowed to twist in the wind for months. Were they getting canned? Were they “too liberal”? “Too voicey”? No one seemed to know. Media death watches actually kicked up for a number of high-profile hosts and reporters, with their on-air delivery scrutinized for hints of efforts to shade a performance to save their jobs, to dance for Licht’s approval.
People in and out of CNN would ask, “what’s going on? What’s the plan? Who’s getting the ax?”
The answer from Licht would be, usually figuratively but sometimes literally, “Well, you’ll find out, won’t you?”
It was as though Licht heard Adam Serwer’s seminal observation, “the cruelty is the point,” and thought: That’s a great management insight!
I have a pretty clear idea where Licht’s CNN rebrand strategy came from. I’m much less clear where this approach to management, this posture came from. It looked to me like an effort to ingratiate himself and his network with the network’s enemies, with Fox viewers and Trump, making the libs and elites at Fake News CNN cry a bit, making them scared. That’s definitely the language of Trumpism.
Whether that was Licht’s aim I can’t say. It was simply my impression watching it unfold. I don’t know. What I do know is that that’s a bad, bad way to make friends. You can have sympathy with someone even when they’re doing things you disagree with or even strenuously oppose. But that’s clearly not the case here. As I said above, there’s no chorus of supporters on the way down. If you’re gonna roll that way you need to be certain you’re 100% bullet proof because no one is going to catch you or even lend a hand on the way down.
As we can see, Chris Licht was not at all bullet proof.