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A look at Chris Licht's first few months as CNN's chairman and CEO


This week brought news of the death of CNN founding anchor Bernard Shaw, known for pursuing the news and avoiding flash. And in recent days, CNN's new leader has made moves that he says will return the cable channel closer to its news-driven roots. Some of his changes have sparked concerns inside and outside the network. And for more on that, we have NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.


CHANG: OK. So tell us, who is CNN's new CEO and chairman Chris Licht, and how does he want to reshape CNN exactly?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Chris Licht came over after stints at CBS where he oversaw the Colbert "Late Show." And he had also been at CBS News, and before that, MSNBC. He's promising in this incarnation at CNN that he's going to make the channel less opinion driven, less perhaps focused on Donald Trump as the one true story that they really rode during the Trump era. This has been a passion of Discovery CEO David Zaslav and Discovery's biggest investor, John Malone. Let's not forget that they just took over Time Warner and CNN recently.

Licht says he's not going to pull any punches, doesn't mean that they're going to stop reporting. If anything, he wants to really focus more on news than opinion. He made the rounds with Republicans as well as Democrats on Capitol Hill and at the Biden White House, making this case about how he sees CNN. And he also promises, without specifying, he says CNN's got to be more entertaining and better TV. And over time, that's going to improve ratings, too.

CHANG: OK. So what specific changes are we going to be seeing on the air?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, perhaps the most recent appointment has been of John Miller. He's a senior New York Police Department official who also has a strong history in news. He helped to interview Osama bin Laden in the late '90s, but has been focused on counterterrorism in recent years and has been the source of some criticism from Muslim groups for that. Licht also dispensed with the services of media critic and host Brian Stelter. He killed the show "Reliable Sources." They say they're reformulating how they're going to cover the media.

And I think there are a lot of questions about the morning shows. Licht had real success creating "Morning Joe" over at MSNBC, creating what is now "CBS Mornings" as a reformulated show there. And there are questions about what that's going to look like. Of late, Brianna Keilar, who had been known for doing these long videos kind of breaking down and eviscerating Donald Trump's falsehoods and lies, you know, recently has spent a lot of time lately going after President Biden for his address last week in Philadelphia, in which he termed the MAGA wing of the Republican Party a threat to American democracy.

CHANG: Well, amidst all these changes you're describing, I saw that CNN's White House correspondent John Harwood announced that he's leaving. I'm curious, does Harwood's departure fit into this bigger story?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, let's pause and play a little clip from earlier in the day, on the same day that John Harwood announced he was going to depart CNN. Harwood was talking live on the air about the very same Biden speech. And he said that Biden was right in arguing that the MAGA part of the Republican Party was a threat to American democracy.


JOHN HARWOOD: Now, that's something that's not easy for us as journalists to say. 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. But that's not what we're talking about. These are not honest disagreements.

FOLKENFLIK: Harwood knew at the time he was saying that on the air that he was going to be leaving the network. He just hadn't said so publicly yet. But the episode encapsulated, I think, the tension between the CNN that's been and the CNN that's evolving. Licht says there's nothing wrong with what John Harwood was doing. He wants to reshape the team that's covering the White House, to focus more on reporting and less on analysis. But Licht is also not filling out for viewers of CNN, or particularly for the staff at CNN, exactly what his moves are representing at the moment. There are a lot of people - well, there are a lot of conservatives who are very happy to hear what Licht is saying. There are a lot of people who fears he's trying to defang CNN, which was so critical of Trump in so many ways, often, you know, to its detriment, that if you defang CNN, it becomes either a Fox lite or just kind of neutered. Licht says, no, no. Watch and see. Trust me. We're going to get back to our roots.

CHANG: That is NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

FOLKENFLIK: Thank you, David.

CHANG: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.