Peter Bart: As Ukraine Fights, Cable News Channels Struggle To Rediscover Their Mission

For the past seven years, Chris Licht’s favorite comic has been Stephen Colbert. As the new chairman of CNN, Licht’s focus has instantly shifted to the brilliant ex-comic from Ukraine named Volodymyr Zelensky, whose heroics are the story of the hour.

“Give CNN one great news story and all my network’s problems will instantly disappear,” Ted Turner, CNN’s founder, once assured me.

The ultimate news junkie, Turner, now 83 and struggling with dementia, surely is mesmerized by the Ukraine drama, both on camera and off. The brutal Russian invasion has not only pulled cable news out of its doldrums but also put the spotlight on the behind-the-scenes chaos playing out at CNN and its rivals. Managements are changing mid-stream and so are their underlying narratives.

The bravery of the cable news reporters and cameramen reminds us of their ability to change history, even as they report it. Also of the turmoil of their corporate parents.

In a management shift unique in its clumsiness, Licht, Colbert’s executive producer, will replace CNN’s abrasive news oligarch Jeff Zucker, and, perhaps inevitably, also some of his talented, if geriatric, anchors.

But that won’t happen until May, when Licht will take his job and also get a new boss in David Zaslav, who becomes CEO of Warner Bros Discovery. Licht has not worked in news for more than six years, but he started in local news. Zaslav, to be sure, has never run either a Hollywood studio or a news channel — but created the Discovery empire and helped invent CNBC and even MSNBC in his younger years.

Because of the laws governing acquisitions, neither has as yet had the opportunity to study the numbers or business plans of CNN, which itself has been investing heavily in its newly planned CNN+ streaming service. This venture, which has entailed the hiring of Chris Wallace from Fox News and Audie Cornish from NPR, will again focus debate on the key question facing all the news channels: Should cable news be in the business of objective news coverage or should it be a champion of either the right or left?

No network embodies this conflict more distinctly than Fox News, which has used Ukraine to brandish a major ad campaign stressing the network’s reach and its objectivity. Even pro-Trump polemicists like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity have re-attuned their rhetoric for wartime.

MSNBC, too, has tried to focus on war coverage while bringing its shrill progressive warrior, Rachel Maddow, back from hiatus. She, in turn, re-summoned Hillary Clinton for back-to-the-future commentary. CNN squats in third place in the ratings race while MSNBC is well behind Fox News.

The extraordinary moment-by-moment drama of the war, and of Zelensky’s leadership, has nonetheless afforded the news channels one last shot at capturing the news narrative. “None of us really know where people get their news, especially young people who are steeped In TikTok,” concedes the news chief of a major network. “Ukraine miraculously is now delivering the eyeballs.”

It was in 1970 when the combustible Turner started acquiring first radio, then TV stations and became persuaded that news was a good gamble. A great talker but a disinterested listener, Turner’s instincts were liberal, his logic disorderly. His employees were at once loyal, yet exasperated.

Under its new leadership, can CNN re-capture the adventure and innovation of the Turner era? Its new boss, Licht, has demonstrated his savvy for talent relations, reinventing CBS This Morning under Charlie Rose and Gayle King, then reimagining Colbert’s Late Show. Before that he orchestrated Joe Scarborough’s morning news circus.

But Licht has never managed an enterprise with thousands of employees. Or with an organization embroiled in mind-boggling scandals such as the firing of Chris Cuomo, or of a news icon like Zucker.

As Ted Turner would remind us, CNN needed a war to re-focus on reporting the news. It next needs a steadying hand and a point of view.

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