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The MRC's Childish War On CNN: The Chris Licht Saga, Part 2

After a profile in The Atlantic blew the lid off Chris Licht's mismanagement of CNN and sealed his fate, the Media Research Center was somewhat sad to see him go -- then it relapsed into Jeff Zucker Derangement Syndrome.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 10/20/2023

Read Part 1 here.

The Media Research Center had been rooting for Chris Licht to humiliate anyone at CNN who wasn't sufficiently pro-Trump, while also pressuring him to force the channel to become a Fox News clone.

Then came a massive profile of Licht in The Atlantic, which demonstrated that Licht was mismanaging CNN by fundamentally misreading the channel, thinking (like the MRC) that it is much more liberal than it actually is and demanding this his employees pull things further right. Unsurprisingly, chief cheerleader/tormentor Curtis Houck declared that the victim of the Licht profile was Licht, and he devoted a lengthy June 6 post to defending Licht's methods and blaming CNN employees who still fondly remember former boss Jeff Zucker -- whom the MRC has a serious complex about -- as the real bad guys:

Starting Friday with a 15,000-word tome The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, CNN boss Chris Licht’s legitimacy took on a deluge of water with one story after another seeking to end Licht’s tenure beset by a disastrous morning show, a lack of network cohesion, and sagging ratings.

Licht was hired by Discovery head honcho David Zaslav to move CNN to the center and away from the permanent hysteria, but he had one problem: His predecessor and former puppetmaster Jeff Zucker.

Between Alberta’s story and others from former CNNer Brian Stelter (writing in New York magazine), Axios, the Daily Beast, The New York Times, Puck, and Semafor, they revealed a fatal error by Licht, which was a refusal to clean house of Zuckerbots that, while seismic, would have allowed for real changes. Instead, Zucker undermined Licht through his team of minions.


And, based on any recent NewsBusters blog on CNN, it’s easy to see how so many Zuckerbots have felt no need to change their tone as, if Licht ever did become a micromanager like Zucker, they could just whine in the press.

Houck went on to gush that "Licht gave an admirable answer about what the mission of CNN should be," adding:

Licht further denounced his network (and the press writ large) for their all-hysteria, all-the-time, Trump-centric approach as “everything is an 11” (on a scale of one to 10) and, in turn “it means that when there’s something really awful happening, we’re kind of numb to it.”

Likely to the chagrin of CNNers who read the piece, Licht said the press made it their “mission go after” Trump by “put[ting] a jersey on and got into the game” to actively fight Trump out of “visceral hatred”.

Licht added that, by doing so, no one’s “mind” was being “change[d].” He also believed Republicans should be welcome (though Alberta pitched a hissy fit over allowing any Republican who voted to object to the 2020 election results).

He continued to put Zucker’s version of CNN on blast, touching on everything from COVID to CNN being a bubble to elitism to liberal definitions of diversity fixating on race to policing to transgenderism (click “expand”):


In one particular anecdote, Licht spoke to a group of college students and blasted MSNBC as “trafficking in hysteria” and Fox News as “a duplicitous propaganda outfit,” but insisting it’d be seen as “noise” if CNN kept obsessing over Fox.

Houck, meanwhile, didn't appear bothered by the fact that Fox News takes an "all-hysteria, all-the-time" approach with all things Biden and is, in Licht's own words, "a duplicitous propaganda outfit." He also didn't explain why Republicans shouldn't be criticized for voting to object to the 2020 election results given that they have yet to present any credible evidence to justify it.

Houck demanded that Licht fire anyone who he and the MRC didn't like for failure to be right-wing enough, offering a convenient hit list:

Licht should be given credit for pointing CNN in the right direction. But that’s where the praise should stop.

Alberta portrayed a man fixated on wanting to do things differently (even grunting about Zucker at the gym). But if Licht wanted to do that, he and boss Zaslav should ripped CNN down to the studs.

Imagine if Warner Bros. Discovery had come in and not only had Stelter and John Harwood been axed, but also disingenuous leftist journos and pundits such as Alisyn Camerota, Laura Coates, S.E. Cupp, Daniel Dale, Jamie Gangel, Brianna Keilar, Andrew McCabe, Donie O’Sullivan, Abby Phillip, Arlette Saenz, Sara Sidner, Jim Sciutto, Bill Weir, and, of course, Jim Acosta and Oliver Darcy.

Houck concluded by further complaining that Licht didn't clean house to his satisfaction and expressing an additional fit of Zucker Derangement Syndrome:

Given this tsunami of negative stories, there are a host of conclusions. One, even media executives fall victim to treating national journalists as their friend when they should know most (if not all) will sell out their best friends for a story.

Second, Licht and Zaslav’s mismatched strategy of talking big changes but not cleaning house came back to bite them. It’s hard to have a company pulling in the same direction when most of the workforce actively hates because you’re not Daddy Jeff.

That leads to a third point: Never underestimate Zucker's vindictiveness.

Next: Has Licht watched a second of his own network? Aside from covering more stories, an occasional Republican appearance, a vapid new line-up, and new lower-third, nothing has changed on the bias front.

And, finally, Licht made a mistake he could have avoided if he watched more than a few minutes of Zucker’s CNN (or asked any of us at NewsBusters): Please fire, don’t empower, Don Lemon.

A few days later, an update was added to Houck's post noting that "Licht left the company amid a mountain of resistance and controversy."

That's right: None of what Houck hope would come to pass but Licht effectively got fired a few days after the Atlantic profile -- which threw a wrench in the MRC's hope that Licht would fire CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy for reporting the truth about CNN's town hall debacle with Donald Trump. The MRC managed to be both sad and gleeful about the development. Houck wrote in a June 7 post:

In news first broken Wednesday morning by former CNN media reporter Dylan Byers of Puck, embattled CNN chief executive Chris Licht is stepping down from the network and parent company Warner Bros. Discovery after a tumultuous tenure marked by his inability to have buy in from a far-left employee base still loyal to their former puppetmaster, Jeff Zucker.

Warner Bros Discovery chief executive David Zaslav told staff of the change and said in a statement that he has “great respect for Chris, personally and professionally” and correctly added that “[t]he job...was never going to be easy, especially at a time of huge disruption and transformation.”

According to The Washington Post and others, longtime CNN executives Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling will lead the network with newly-minted chief operating officer David Leavy also playing a key role.

Licht, who was hired in March 2022 and began a month later by killing off the bloated CNN+ after hilariously low interest at its launch. It was all downhill with Licht promising to change the culture at the network after years of ardent, vicious punditry and a singular obsession with Donald Trump and, well, not much else (despite umpteen other stories around the world).

All the while, he made a litany of mistakes. Along with refusing to clean house of Zucker loyalists, Licht’s drab scheduling changes failed to improve ratings.

Yes, we remember how bizarrely giddy the MRC was when CNN+ was shut down after little more than a month, which was more a function of new owners deciding to kill it before it had a chance to be successful than any faults of its own. And, yes, Houck is still hanging the anti-Semitic "puppetmaster" slur on the Jewish Zucker. Also note Houck accusing CNN of having a "far-left employee base," something he doesn't even bother to substantiate. He continued:

As he did in his review of the massive Atlantic profile of Licht that ended up being the final nail in his CNN coffin, Houck insisted that Licht was doing the right thing, just not hard and fast enough, attacking anyone at CNN who missed Zucker and resisted Licht's changes as being part of a "mob":

In the end, Licht’s public promises and perhaps too-eager expounding on his applaudable view of what journalism should look to The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta like was a death knell as he and Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav refused to clean house of a employee base still fixated on being told what to do and follow the snobbery Zucker micromanaged from his control room and newsroom office.

Refusing to accept the fact Licht hammered home that their network’s brand and trust had taken a hit and needed to be restored, the mob was allowed to grow.

Zaslav’s challenge going forward will be whether he can find someone that, a, wants the job and, b, concurs with his vision (shared by influential shareholder John Malone) that CNN spent recent years throwing away its reputation in the name of feigning outrage and a fixation on destroying Trump.
By contrast, we don't recall Houck ever criticizing micromanagement of Fox News employees by executives such as Roger Ailes, and he certainly hasn't complained that Fox News is "throwing away its reputation" in the name of feigning outrage and a fixation on destroying President Biden (and Hunter). He concluded by whining that "In the interim, expect CNN employees to feel liberated to return to flashing more of their visceral hatred for Trump and conservatives," while remaining silent about Fox News hosts expressing their visceral hatred of Biden and liberals.

Houck then appeared on Tim Graham's podcast later that day, where he repeated his previous talking points on Licht and CNN while refusing to apply those same standards to Fox News. Both Graham and Houck made sure to keep up its nasty attack on Darcy as a "Benedict Arnold" because he escaped the right-wing media bubble.

Jeffrey Lord spent his June 10 column complaining about Licht's firing and laughably portraying CNN's content as "far-left":

Suffice to say, as the dismissal of CNN CEO Chris Licht this week illustrates vividly, CNN staff and employees are long gone from Ted Turner’s founding vision. The star at CNN now is supposed to be woke leftism, not journalism. In today’s world the entire point of CNN’s woke lefties existence is to present the news in a decidedly far-left fashion. And if you disagree with that - as Chris Licht did - they are coming for you.


The entire Atlantic piece, not to mention the magazine itself, is all about virtue signaling woke leftism. That’s fine as far as it goes. Free speech is a good thing. God Bless America.

But the problem vividly illustrated both in the Atlantic article and the firing of Chris Licht mere days later as a result is that the American left is intolerant of dissent. It is populated by would-be media totalitarians who will brook no dissent in the world of what they see as an exclusive left-wing platform. It is no small thing that when Licht had CNN host a town hall with Donald Trump, CNN’s ratings soared. And CNN’s employees rebelled.

Graham returned for a June 11 post to complain that CNN deserves competent management:

Fox News media reporter Brian Flood reported that former New York Times columnist and podcaster Kara Swisher proclaimed Warner Bros. boss David Zaslav "needs to get the f—k out of the way" and "let the professionals take over" and try to fix CNN.

Zaslav's pick as CNN CEO, Chris Licht, was pushed out this week after the CNN employees were in revolt after CNN's town hall with Donald Trump. After that show, CNN's ratings dipped even lower, losing to Newsmax on some nights.

"I think they can be news without having to declare constantly they're centrist," Swisher said on her "Pivot" podcast for New York magazine. "That was... very much David Zaslav. Let me just say, I think Chris was a proxy for him."


Swisher recently tweeted Rupert Murdoch and his "minions" are a "coven of toxic ghouls."

Graham made no effort to disprove that last point.

Houck served up a June 15 post whining that CNN employees are happy Licht is gone (complete with yet another Zucker "puppetmaster" smear):

Puck’s Dylan Byers ended last week with some scuttlebutt on his ex-employer following the axing of CNN boss Chris Licht that, as we’ve repeatedly documented (see here and here), came down to a Mean Girls-like disgust and smear campaign by the litany of CNN employees Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery head honcho David Zaslav not only failed to jettison for loyalty to former puppetmaster Jeff Zucker, but gain buy-in for CNN to be more centrist and less toxic.

According to Byers, the inmates are ebullient over Licht being canned and replaced (at least for now) with a triumvirate of longtime CNN executives that have left them with “feelings of relief and optimism” and able to return to how they behaved during the Trump presidency. What children.

The thin-skinned CNN employers were said, as per Byers, to be nearly uniform in possessing “widespread feelings of relief and optimism, a sense that their long national nightmare has finally come to an end.”

How self-important are these people? Byers added that “[s]ome” CNNers cited “the lifting of the” smoke in New York from Canadian wildfires “as a fitting metaphor for their own condition.”


Despite Byers reminding readers Zaslav and those around him haven’t shown any signs of wanting CNN to change (for the better), it’s nonetheless a eye-rolling endeavor for anyone who has to stomach this network.

Of course, Houck's idea of CNS changing "for the better" means turning it into another Fox News. Houck did eventually concede that CNN employees did learn to hate Licht for good reasons that had nothing to do with alleged loyalty to Zucker:

Earlier in the piece, Byers added new color on why Licht initially lost trust as, after CNN had insisted they would be immune from layoffs by their parent company (except for CNN+), Licht was clotheslined by news from corporate that, actually, CNN would have to lay off scores of employees in late November.

This, Byers explained, caused CNNers to see Licht as “a hypocrite, a leader who could not be trusted, maybe even a patsy.”

So maybe Houck hates Zucker to obsessively to be able to see past him and perform an honest, unbiased examination of things at CNN that are divorced from his employer's desires to destroy the network for not being Fox News.

The MRC also published a June 19 syndicated column by Cal Thomas lamenting that Licht's firing "makes my point" that the media is too liberal -- but he refused to attack Fox News as too conservative.

New leader, old Zucker derangement

The fact that Zucker hasn't been a CNN executive for well over a year hasn't kept the MRC from regularly freaking out over him, so Houck spent a July 27 post cheering an attack piece on Zucker -- and, yes, using the "puppetmaster" slur yet again:

Having published a piece in April detailing Don Lemon’s decades of insufferable behavior inside CNN, Variety’s Tatiana Siegel blew the lid Monday night off Jeff Zucker, the former CNN boss and puppetmaster whose allies engaged in a blatant smear campaign against his replacement, Chris Licht. Siegel explained how Zucker and a team of allies undermined Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery executives with hopes to buy CNN using shady foreign moguls.

Once the piece went live, the onslaught was on with Zucker’s team, Puck “partner” and former CNN media reporter Dylan Byers, The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, and CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy all chiming in to trash Siegel.

The 4,300-word tome painted an odious picture of Zucker having “spent the past year traveling the globe to meet with potential” investors to steal CNN back and even though it’s “likely” to “fail...his battles with Zaslav and his behind-the-scenes attempts to undermine Licht” to the point he “isn’t worried about damaging CNN as he attempts to ram his way through it.”


She briefly focused on Alberta’s now-infamous profile of Licht, claiming “sources maintain it was never pitched as a profile” as it was instead billed “as a broad story about restoring trust in the media” with Licht as a test subject. Once he agreed, she said the two only met four times, quotes were used that were meant to be off the record, and embellished.

Houck went on to mock those who pointed out the article's errors:

Starting with Alberta, he was furious someone would pushback on the piece seen as a tactical strike on Licht by adversaries, tweeting: “Dear [Tatiana Siegel] 1) I met w Licht on 7 different days 2) I used zero off-record details or quotes, as our [Fairness and Standards] team can attest 3) His trainer overheard portions of 1 interview 4) Licht is quoted extensively in a neutral context (sorry it wasn't positive enough for you/him)”.

For Byers’s part, he repeatedly claimed he didn’t want to opine, but that was a crock based on the insults he leveled. After mocking Zucker’s undermining of Licht and thoughts of buying CNN as “secretly plotted” “double-barreled revenge fantasy,” Byers dismissed it as “heavy cake,” “problematic,” “sophomoric,” and “utterly implausible.”

His best excuse? “Siegel’s assertions about Zucker’s attempt to court a certain investor would be followed by an on-the-record denial.” Well, that settles it then, Dylan!

Byers was joined at the hip by Darcy, whom he noted also had concerns as Siegel’s report fetched “heightened scrutiny”.

On Zucker’s company investing in Puck, Byers insisted he “was wholly unaware of that conversation”.

Best of all, Byers relayed an afternoon coffee meeting “with an entertainment industry C.E.O. here in Los Angeles” in which this person bemoaned negative media coverage, to which we should all point and laugh at as irony and/or a taste of their own medicine[.]

For all his criticism of Alberta's profile of Licht, Houck identified no errors in it. And Houck failed to follow up with the fact that Variety later revised the article in response to the complaints. But apparently falsehoods get a pass at the MRC as long as they are made about a designed enemy. Zucker Derangement Syndrome lives.

Graham exhibited both a continuing Licht hangover and leftover Zucker derangement in an Aug. 28 post that complained about the resurfacing of Don Lemon, who was fired by Licht (and whom the MRC has always hated):

Justin Baragona at the leftist Daily Beast was very excited that fired CNN host Don Lemon surfaced to discuss his ouster on Kara Swisher's Pivot podcast. The big takeaway was that Lemon felt "vindicated" that CEO Chris Licht was let go after letting him go. In other words, the boss who claimed a devotion to changing CNN's tone to be less viciously anti-Trump and anti-Republican was defeated by the remaining internal forces of Jeff Zucker.

Swisher wondered if Lemon felt vindicated over Licht’s departure in June. Lemon brought up the massive Tim Alberta piece on Licht:
“Yes, I do,” Lemon replied. “Read the story, and you speak to the people who are there, and I think people get what happened. All you have to do is read The Atlantic story, read the subsequent stories that came out, and you know, how it played out. They’re gone now. So do I feel vindicated in that sense? Yes, I do.”
Swisher's on Team Lemon on this. In June, she argued on her podcast that CNN overlord David Zaslav "needs to get the f—k out of the way" and "let the professionals take over" and try to fix CNN.


Lemon, who Baragona underlined " has vacationed with Zucker recently and retained Zucker’s girlfriend (and former CNN executive) Allison Gollust as a comms specialist," predictably gushed over Zucker’s Trump-trashing regime at CNN and said nobody could run the network better.

Graham didn't explain why he and the MRC are still obsessed with Zucker -- he hasn't been with CNN for nearly two years.

When a replacement for Licht was named -- longtime media executive Mark Thompson -- Curtis Houck spent an Aug. 31 post ranting about him, with an added dose of Zucker derangement (though failing to include Thompson's full name):

Publicly revealed on Wednesday, WarnerBros. Discovery tapped former BBC Director-General and former CEO/president of The New York Times Company to lead CNN as it continues to struggle not only with ratings, but improving its image from the days of the Jeffrey Zucker-led circus that lived for spewing venom at Donald Trump and the GOP writ large.

Word had leaked out Tuesday night, thanks to Puck “partner” (and former CNN media reporter) Dylan Byers, who gushed that the man “with a reputation for restructuring legacy media assets and pursuing innovative growth strategies” will look to fix the “disastrous thirteen-month run” caused by Chris Licht (when it was arguably due to much of the blood-thirsty workforce out to avenge their Dear Leader Zucker’s ouster).


In a story at the said paper, former Times executive editor Dean Baquet praised CNN for making “the perfect hire” of someone who “understands change” and will feel “very comfortable.” For his part, Thompson reportedly said in a note to CNN employees that he’s optimistic about CNN given its “great brand and the strength of its journalism.”

If you haven’t laughed at yet at all this, this is your cue to do so.

Houck then had to go back more than a decade to find something to attack Thompson with:

A trip through the NewsBusters archives brought up some interesting findings. Shortly after he left the BBC (which ran from 1979 as an entry-level staffer until his departure as top boss in 2012), it came to light that longtime personality Jimmy Savile had sexually abused hundreds of people (including underage children and while on the job) with allegations people at the network knew and covered it up.

Thompson insisted he had no knowledge of Savile’s behavior and was also not involved in the network’s spiking of an investigation into Savile that was set to air in October 2011 on BBC’s flagship news magazine, Newsnight.

By contrast, the MRC refused to condemn longtime Fox News chief Roger Ailes for the culture of pervasive sexual harassment he allowed to persist there. Rather than remind people of its double standard, Houck concluded: "Given this track record, look for CNN’s far-left inmates who currently run the asylum to feel right at home and continue their heavily divisive, Trump-centric, and toxic rhetoric."

A Sept. 16 post by Graham complained that CNN is moving on from Licht:

In a new interview for a cover story in People magazine, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper talked about the brief Chris Licht era, that “morale was hurt by all the drama, and that’s unfortunate, but I think things feel like they are back on track.”

Cooper says incoming CEO Mark Thompson "sounds great." He said “It's never great to be in a place where you read the paper in the morning and there are stories about where you're working.”

None of this was actually in the magazine (it was online). The cover story was all about Cooper's "bliss" with his two young preschool sons at age well as some plugs for Cooper's podcast and his forthcoming book on the Astor family.


Two weeks ago, Cooper was more candid in the New York Times Magazine about his distaste for Licht's apparent crusade for a less crusading approach to Trump and the news. "I don’t know what Chris Licht’s analysis was. I don’t have much confidence that I actually know what he was thinking....I mean, I read things in the paper, but I’m not sure what the point of it all was."

When asked if Licht failed to explain his vision to his stars, Cooper acknowledged he understood it. But hey, Cooper thinks he’s objective!

Then again, Graham thinks Fox News is objective, so he's not exactly one to judge.

Graham returned for an Oct. 10 post to whine that Thompson wasn't going to be as pliable as Licht to the MRC's anti-CNN narratives:

Wall Street Journal reporter Isabella Simonetti underlined how new CNN chief executive Mark Thompson is cozying up to the Jeff Zucker-loving bias brigade at CNN. On his first day on Monday, he spoke to employees in a video message. He said CNN needs to step up its digital game, saying conventional TV “can no longer define us,” and said its journalists shouldn’t be "distracted" by debates about balance or false equivalency.

“For most people under retirement age, the first place they turn for news is their phones, not their TVs. And news players who can’t or won’t respond to that revolution risk losing their audience and their business,” Thompson said, adding "this company is still nowhere near ready for the future...TV is vital and there’s urgent work to do there, especially as we rebuild prime time. But TV is also too dominant at CNN and digital too marginal.”

Thompson urged CNN to define the news, not just react to it. “And let’s not second guess ourselves or get distracted by complicated arguments about balance or whataboutism or false equivalency. Let’s cover political news proportionately and fairly, but not be frightened of our own shadows.”

Whatever criticism CNN employees are absorbing from the right or from the center, the on-air product hasn't displayed any serious tendency to abandon its Zuckeresque tilt against Trump and Republicans in general.

Graham concluded by huffing, "CNN has a left-wing partisan Democrat base that needs to be pleased, and that's who CNN's journalists are looking to please." We don't recall Graham ever criticizing Fox News for having a right-wing partisan base that needs to be pleased. Indeed, Fox News was trying to do exactly that when it lied to its viewers about election fraud -- lies that caused Fox News to pay $787 million to Dominion in a defamation lawsuit -- but Graham handwaved those lies because the channel is so effective in appeasing that base of which he is a part.

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