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Donald Trump will define the new era of CNN.
Wednesday, parent company Warner Bros. Discovery announced Mark Thompson, the former CEO of the New York Times and director general of the BBC, as the new CEO and chairman of CNN Worldwide.
Thompson is the network’s third president in 18 months, succeeding Chris Licht and Jeff Zucker.
CNN fired Licht in June after a chapter full of mishaps, internal drama, leaks, and viewership declines.
Zucker was forced to resign after failing to disclose an improper relationship with a subordinate. Before his ousting, he ran point on a nine-figure investment into CNN Plus, which lasted less than one month.
Nonetheless, how Licht and Zucker positioned CNN to cover Donald Trump defined their tenures.
Zucker helped elect Trump. CNN took Trump’s 2016 campaign seriously well before other mainstream or even conservative outlets did.
In 2015, competitors of CNN dismissed Trump in favor of more traditional candidates like Jeb Bush.
Meanwhile, CNN aired each of Trump’s speeches. The channel considered it breaking news when he spoke.
Literally. Chyrons read “Breaking News: Standing By for Trump to Speak.”
Trump’s overnight tweets led CNN’s morning show. The network aired his ride down the elevator as a generic B-roll.
At NBC, Jeff Zucker built Donald Trump into a reality star through “The Apprentice.” At CNN, Jeff Zucker built Donald Trump into a serious presidential candidate.
From here, CNN ran opposition to Trump. The hysterical coverage contributed to Trump’s talking point that the corporate press is an “enemy” and not a source of the people.
Trump frequently jabbed CNN as “fake news” during the 2016 campaign trail. Pinheads like Jeff Acosta and Fredo Cuomo lent credence to Trump’s claim.
And then came Licht.
Discovery tasked him to tone down the temperatures, to steer the channel back toward the middle of the political conversation.
Licht tried to cease-fire with Trump, who remained the most discussed figure in the news most days.
Reportedly, Licht hoped to “push hosts away from Trump-era ‘opinionated and emotional’ reporting and back to hard news.”
Licht fired fierce Trump critics like Don Lemon, Brian Stelter, John Harwood, and Jeffrey Toobin.
Most notably, Licht convinced Trump to sit down with CNN for a town hall in May. Yet the event ultimately sealed Licht’s fate.
According to the network’s media scribe Oliver Darcy, Licht “faced a fury of criticism” internally for the town hall.
The network experienced a swift decline among liberal viewers following the event.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a longtime friend of the network, called the town hall the moment “CNN lost control.”
Chris Licht lost his locker room and viewers for his decision to treat Trump like a candidate and not a foe.
CNN fired him weeks later.
Jeff Zucker used CNN to elect and then destroy Trump. Chris Licht was tasked to bandage the relationship between Trump and the brand.
That is how they are remembered.
Mark Thompson is up next. And it won’t be easy. Viewership is down. Tensions are high.
“Morale is in the shitter,” a CNN employee told Mediaite.
In August, the highest-rated show on the network, Cooper 360, ranked 26th in cable news with just 900,000 viewers.
CNN is now more competitive with NewsNation, an upstart cable news channel, than Fox News and MSNBC.
The ratings are particularly notable as volatile viewers have come to judge brands on how they cover Trump, be it favorably or maliciously. And there’s an audience for both.
Trump will undoubtedly remain the chief talking point at CNN during Thompson’s first year in charge.
He is facing multiple indictments and is the leading GOP candidate. Such a combination is unprecedented.
Donald Trump is unprecedented. And how the network covers him will once again define CNN.