CNN chairman and CEO Chris Licht spent Thursday morning defending his network’s town hall with U.S. President Donald Trump from critics — including much of his own staff.
During an internal staff call, Licht told CNN employees he was aware of the backlash to Wednesday’s raucous 70-minute with Donald Trump. But he pointed out that the event made news, pinning Trump down on issues including Russia’s war in Ukraine, abortion, the Jan. 6, 2021 riots, and election results.
“There is so much that we learned last night about what a second Trump presidency would look like,” he said, saying the network held him accountable “in a way that no news organization has done literally in years.”
Licht added that “while we all may have been uncomfortable hearing people clapping, that was also an important part of the story because the people in that audience represent a large swath of America.”
“The mistake the media made in the past is ignoring that those people exist just like you cannot ignore that President Trump exists,” Licht said. “So the idea of doing so, I believe, is an overcorrection of the days when we gave him unfettered rally coverage and showed podiums.”
Wednesday’s town hall was the culmination of Licht and Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav’s year-long effort to reposition CNN as a friendlier place for conservative politicians and viewers.
But the town hall illustrated the limits of that strategy, as Trump himself repeatedly positioned CNN as a sparring partner, not a neutral platform, and painted its most promising young star as an adversary.
Since arriving at the network last year, Licht has sought to elevate moderator Kaitlan Collins, a well-regarded former White House reporter who previously worked for the conservative Daily Caller. But if network executives were hoping that Collins could extend an olive branch to more right-leaning viewers, Wednesday’s event did her no favors. She regularly interjected to correct Trump, but was overwhelmed by the former president’s refusal to concede. By the end of the event, the president had dubbed her a “nasty person,” to cheers from the crowd.
CNN probably got a notable ratings boost from the event. But the network’s nightly news viewership is built around liberals, many of whom made their distaste for the town hall clear on social media. And given conservatives’ antipathy towards CNN, it is unlikely that one contentious event with the president will bring them back into the viewership fold.
The View From CNN's Staff
The ordeal also further damaged the CNN CEO’s standing among rank-and-file at the network.
Five CNN employees told Semafor how upset and disturbed they were by the event. Several said they were frustrated by Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, as well as the decision to fill the audience with many of his supporters who applauded the president’s criticism of their colleague.
The sentiments were reflected on air by people like former Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who said on CNN after the town hall that he was “not going to pretend like it was easy for me to see the former president get this forum tonight — to lie to the American people over and over and over again.”
The criticism also came through in the network’s media newsletter Reliable Sources, which Licht seemed to respond to directly in his comments on Thursday morning.
“It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote — a line that Licht sought to rebut in his own remarks.
“I absolutely unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night,” Licht said during Thursday’s call.