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- This week, CNN CEO Chris Licht was fired after a scathing profile was published in the Atlantic.
- In the profile, Licht details his own thoughts about how diversity should be defined in the media industry.
- Licht has been criticized for adopting and promoting a form of “anti-woke centrism.”
The new CNN was going to be a lot less partisan. Or, at least, that was the plan.
As the now-ousted CEO Chris Licht explained it mid-way through his rocky year-long tenure, the CNN he envisioned would appeal to “normal” viewers (“normal,” but not “vanilla, centrist, or boring.”) More “rational” conversations,” and less “inflammatory” journalism.
But as the network soured on the anti-MAGA set, Licht seemingly had no problem welcoming voices sympathetic to far-right issues — like NRA-approved firearms reporter Stephen Gutowski, and, of course, Trump himself, in a controversial town hall.
In a scathing profile for the Atlantic, journalist Tim Alberta noted that Licht wanted the CNN town hall with the ex-president to be “extra Trumpy,” writing that Licht “wasn’t scared to bring a bunch of MAGA enthusiasts onto his set.” Licht’s team went as far as scrubbing the words “SEXUAL ABUSE” from a chyron after Trump was found liable of sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll in seeming deference to the presidential candidate, Alberta reported.
Meanwhile, it was widely noted that Jim Acosta’s weekend show became more subdued in tone and Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources,” where he often called out lies and misinformation, was canceled. As Licht’s boss, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, put it, “Republicans are back on the air.”
In that effort to make CNN more palatable for “all” viewers, who comes to mind, and who gets overlooked?
In Alberta’s profile, Licht claimed to be operating under his own idea of “diversity,” one that does not include “virtue signaling.”
“A Black person, a brown person and an Asian woman that all graduated the same year from Harvard is not diversity,” Licht told Alberta, repeating a statement he made at a conference that stirred controversy among his own DEI staff at CNN.
“I think ‘Defund the police’ would’ve been covered differently if newsrooms were filled with people who had lived in public housing,” Licht continued. When pressed by Alberta to elaborate on why, Licht responded, “They have a different relationship with their need with the police.”
But where are those correspondents?
(When approached by Insider, CNN did not offer a comment.)
In a tweet following the Atlantic article, media exec Franklin Leonard posed the question, “Personally I wonder how many residents of public housing CNN has had on as guests to discuss defund the police, or how many people who grew up in public housing Chris Licht has hired since he took the job.”
The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. wrote that, rather than reject a political viewpoint, Licht had embraced “anti-woke centrism.”
Diversity in action
During Licht’s tenure, his on-camera hires included analyst John Miller, a former police official who led the NYPD during its controversial program of allegedly monitoring Muslims in the city post-9/11. Miller spent much of his life and career in New York City and married into the prominent Lehman family.
He also brought on medical correspondent Dr. Tara Narula, who not only graduated from Stanford, but finished her residency at Harvard.
Don Lemon, conversely, whom Licht unceremoniously fired, attended a Catholic school in a still-segregated Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where his father fought to integrate the public transport system. He attended LSU as a Republican where he voted for Reagan, and built his career in Birmingham, Alabama.
Licht also terminated the shows of on-air personalities like Lisa Ling, the child of Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants, and W. Kamau Bell, who spent his childhood in places like Mobile, Alabama, and has faced public discrimination for his interracial marriage. Neither graduated college.
Even when Licht made hires that fit parts of his own definition of “diversity,” they often countered other aspects of his own principles.
Former Representative from New York Mondaire Jones, another commentator brought on during Licht’s reign, also attended both Stanford and Harvard. Jones also grew up in public housing, raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs.
For what it is worth, Jones was a vocal advocate of the “Defund the police” movement, before softening his stance during a reelection.
The diversity Licht did seem to value was geographic diversity, which can be a coded way of saying “not from the liberal coasts.”
Licht championed Kaitlin Collins, a well-liked former White House reporter who previously worked at the Daily Caller and grew up in Alabama. He added her to the morning show alongside Lemon and Poppy Harlow.
After Lemon’s exit, Licht chose Collins as a primetime anchor over Laura Coates, much to the ire of staffers who expressed frustration that the network’s pivot under Licht was happening at the expense of journalists of color.
Zaslav, the WarnerBros. Discovery CEO who remains the ultimate boss at CNN, reportedly told friends that gender and racial diversity would not be a “top priority” in hiring his leadership team. Instead, he would just focus on hiring “the best” people.
That supposedly color-blind mentality is often expressed by those who don’t understand the added value of perspectives brought on by true racial diversity.
In the Atlantic profile, Licht refers to his favorite analogy to explain his form of “absolute truth” journalism: “We can debate whether we like rain or we don’t like rain, as long as we acknowledge when it’s raining outside.”
Yet, that “truth” is rarely as black and white as Licht seems to imply.
In the US, police outside the White House denied using tear gas, while protestors reported being attacked. In Asia, the Hmong people reported watching their communities be targets of chemical warfare, while scientists at Harvard claimed the yellow rain was nothing more than bee pollen.
When the “truth” becomes centered on a Western, male point of view, we lose the perspectives, the voices, and ultimately the freedom of expression of everyone else.