Licht's lessons learned were the most shallow entertainment executive take on "journalism" you could imagine, and Christiane Amanpour had some serious advice for CNN.
May 20, 2023

It looks like the turmoil inside CNN will continue for a good long while yet, after company heads poisoned the airwaves with an alleged "town hall" promoting indicted Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, the first U.S. president in history to attempt a coup rather than give up power.

That town hall proved to be every bit the lie-riddled, sedition-agnostic disaster network critics warned it would be, leading to a follow-up from inside the company insisting that while network CEO Chris Licht admitted some regrets, he still thinks it was a good idea and that the transparently predictable outcome could have been avoided if the network had changed up a few camera angles or used remote feeds for some of the post-event commentary.

Licht's lessons learned, in other words, were the most shallow entertainment executive take on "journalism" you could imagine. None of what happened during CNN's self-sponsored Trump rally was surprising. Trump lied constantly, and about everything, and he repeatedly again used hoaxes to defend his own attempted coup and even the insurrectionist mob that attacked Congress on his behalf.

It was all made worse by CNN’s decision to sit an audience hand-picked based on their continued support for him, even after the Jan. 6 insurrection, his indictment, and a sexual assault judgment, giving the appearance that any of those things were defendable acts so long as Trump could find someone to cheer for them.

So how bad are things inside CNN right now? Well, high-profile chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour absolutely blasted her network for hosting the "town hall" in her commencement speech to students at the Columbia University School of Journalism on Wednesday.

Interestingly, it's CNN's Oliver Darcy who wrote up the article quoting from Amanpour's most biting remarks. Darcy himself was reportedly subjected to a "dressing down" by Licht and CNN executives for his own "too personal" response to Trump's long parade of CNN-hosted lies during the event. It might be the case that Darcy's new piece is a bit of passive-aggressive followup. It'd be nice to think so, anyway!

The good news here, though, is that there are people inside CNN who understand what CNN did wrong. Unfortunately, they're all journalists, and CNN leadership hasn't given a damn about what journalists think since the days of nonstop car chases and Wolf Blitzer hiding under furniture. Amanpour has CNN's faults so pegged that it makes you think maybe she's the one who should be in charge of the network.

“I would have dropped the mic at ‘nasty person,’ but then that’s me,” Amanpour told the crowd, referring to Trump's sneering reply to CNN's host when he got a question he didn't want to answer. And why wouldn't a network do that? It might be one thing if the line had come out of nowhere, but not as the capper to Trump lying his ass off through the whole evening. The portion Darcy quotes at the most length, though, shows that Amanpour (and Darcy) both know what news means, even if nobody in the executive suites still gives a damn:

“Maybe we should revert back to the newspaper editors and TV chiefs of the 1950s, who in the end refused to allow McCarthyism onto their pages,” Amanpour suggested. “Unless his foul lies, his witch hunts and his rants reached the basic evidence level required in a court of law. His influence gradually decreased with all but his fervent colleagues and cults.”

“So maybe less is more,” she suggested. “Maybe live is not always right.”

“Some of the very best and even most fiery, compelling interviews are, in fact, taped and they are edited, not to change the context or the content or the truth or the intent, but to edit for filibuster and a stream of disinformation,” Amanpour added.

There is, in fact, no "journalistic" justification for spreading known lies to the American people. It is not a thing. The point of news is to inform, not to disinform; the whole point is to hold the powerful to account and to ensure they cannot lie to the public for the sake of boosting their own personal power.

Amanpour is right; the McCarthy era did indeed see McCarthy achieve great power by appealing to conservative paranoia with lie-fueled "witch hunts" little different from the omnipresent ones today. But the point of the "free press" is to discredit liars, as eventually happened with McCarthy.

What Amanpour did not say, at least not explicitly, is that CNN intentionally took steps to ensure its hosting of Trump would produce disinformation. Continuing to host the event even after it was clear that Trump was again spreading anti-democratic disinformation was a choice, but there was never a chance that the plug was going to be pulled because Licht and network executives premised it from the beginning on the notion that Trump's lies had to be privileged—that they had to be given equal weight to everyone else's reality.

Warner Brothers Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who, like Licht, does not know or give a particular damn about reporting the news, defended Licht during an investor conference on Thursday. He "emphasized CNN's desire for more balance on the network" than in previous years, reported CNBC, and argued that CNN should not be an "advocacy network" but instead "show both sides of every issue."

It's a statement that comes from incompetence. A news network need not show "balance" by balancing truth and falsehoods. That is a fascistic approach. It is not "advocacy" to inform the public that a very powerful man running for president has just lied to them. It is, again, the whole point of journalism.

The free press is expected to make value judgments about which "sides" of an issue to feature. Thatit is uncontroversial. There are no Zaslav or Licht-backed town halls in which the head of a murderous Columbian drug cartel is given a platform to argue that it is "good" to murder U.S. officers who stand between his product and his customers. There is no CNN special pondering whether Americans ought to be buying more fentanyl as an economy-boosting measure. Licht would presumably not green light a series exploring "both sides" of child rape.

Why? Because one side of the argument is transparently harmful and malevolent. There is no both sides. There is no both sides to violent insurrection or to propaganda dispensed to justify the overthrow of the public.

There is not much chance that any of us will be able to convince upper Warner Brothers Discovery management that Amanpour would be a far more competent head of CNN than Licht has proven to be. Nobody in a position of authority inside the company gives a damn whether their actions harm the nation or don't.

The ratings, though, might start to convince them. CNN hasn't yet recovered from the Trump town hall debacle; the network's ratings are being challenged even by Newsmax as Newsmax' straight-propaganda lineup sucks in far-right viewers while CNN's other potential demographics recoil from CNN's propaganda-lite approach.

It's one thing to promote the architect of an attempted coup in an effort to goose ratings. It's quite another to do it for gain whatsoever—and that appears to be the approach CNN's executives are currently patting their backs over, and doubling down on.

The network might want to look at Elon Musk and his now conspiracy-riddled $44 billion money pit, if they're still thinking the sedition-agnostic approach will be bringing in new viewers. It ain't, and the network is taking an axe to its own reputation for no good reason at all.

Published with permission of Daily Kos

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