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CNN chief Chris Licht puts a stamp on network with new morning show lineup

CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Don Lemon photographed at the 2022 White House Correspondents' Dinner. They will co-anchor a new morning show, along with Poppy Harlow, currently a daytime anchor.
Shedrick Pelt
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Getty Images
CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Don Lemon photographed at the 2022 White House Correspondents' Dinner. They will co-anchor a new morning show, along with Poppy Harlow, currently a daytime anchor.

New CNN Chairman and CEO Chris Licht has been making headlines for his moves to change the network's reputation for being hostile to former President Donald Trump.

Before joining CNN, however, Licht made his name in the business by reimagining morning shows for MSNBC and CBS, leading to Morning Joe and what's now called CBS Mornings, making them livelier, more focused, and more substantive. Now he's seeking to make his mark on CNN's early-day fare, announcing that he'll team star host Don Lemon (who will relinquish his prime-time slot), with dayside anchor Poppy Harlow and Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins. The new show will debut early next year.

In a statement, Licht promised a "game-changing" morning show for cable news. The hosts "are each uniquely intelligent, reliable and compelling; together they have a rare and palpable chemistry," Licht said. "Combined with CNN's resources and global newsgathering capabilities, we will offer a smart, bold and refreshing way to start the day."

The hosting duo on CNN's current show New Day, John Berman and Brianna Keilar, will take on new anchoring duties at the network.

CNN's Poppy Harlow speaks onstage at the TIME100 Summit 2022 in New York City in June.
Jemal Countess / Getty Images for TIME
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Getty Images for TIME
CNN's Poppy Harlow speaks onstage at the TIME100 Summit 2022 in New York City in June.

Veteran journalists depart under the new chief

Since joining the network in May, Licht has made clear what he doesn't like about CNN: Too many reporters and anchors act as analysts and commentators, he told associates. Too many commentators simply pump up the volume.

This stance also reflects the stated convictions of CNN's new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav (who hired Licht) and its most important single investor, John Malone. Last October, Malone signaled to CNBC that he wanted to see CNN's journalism become more down-the-middle.

"I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with and, you know, actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing," Malone said.

Licht has promised CNN will never pull punches on his watch and told staffers that they will have to trust him — but also to wait and see. In the meantime, much of CNN's lineup has experienced listless ratings.

In recent weeks, Licht dispatched both chief media correspondent Brian Stelter and his Sunday media-analysis program, Reliable Sources. Gone too is veteran White House correspondent John Harwood, whom, Licht told colleagues, brought more insight than original reporting.

On the day his departure was announced, Harwood memorably declared that President Biden was correct in a recent speech in Philadelphia to call the pro-Trump core of the Republican party a threat to democracy. Harwood told viewers that was a tough declaration for a journalist to make.

"We're brought up to believe there's two different political parties with different points of view, and we don't take sides in honest disagreements between them," said Harwood, a distinguished Washington correspondent whose father was a senior editor at the Washington Post. "But that's not what we're talking about. These are not honest disagreements."

Licht had also made a pilgrimage to Capitol Hill in July to woo Republican lawmakers to the idea that CNN would be a forum in which their arguments could be heard fairly. The conservative Washington Free Beacon reported his appeal was absorbed skeptically.

A shift perceived on the air as well

Lemon is among the CNN personalities seen as viscerally opposed to Trump. He has often used his nightly show to criticize the former president's rhetoric and actions. In condemning Trump's embrace of racist claims that former President Barack Obama was not born in this country, Lemon addressed Trump on the air, asking why Obama got under his skin. "Is it because he's smarter than you, better educated, made it on his own, didn't need Daddy's help?"

Lemon is clearly still on board as a major player at CNN; Licht has told associates the host is a highly talented broadcaster.

One of his new partners, Collins, frequently pressed Trump administration officials, including the former president, while a reporter attending White House briefings. (In 2018, the Trump White House communications director - the former number two official at Fox News - sought to bar Collins from covering a White House event.) She previously covered the White House for the conservative Daily Caller website, founded by Fox News's Tucker Carlson. She will serve as co-host and chief correspondent on the program.

In making Morning Joe into a success at MSNBC, Licht played upon the rapport of its hosts (the two primary ones eventually married) and presented a more moderate Joe Scarborough from his days as a conservative Republican lawmaker in Congress. At CBS, Licht blended sophistication, insider knowledge and common sense, with Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell, in a formula that lifted substance and ratings. (Rose left in a cloud of scandal and the show has been rebuilt anew.)

CNN's liberal critics see a strained effort by Licht to pull the network back to a notional center that no longer exists. And they've pointed to incidents in which Keilar, known for extended videos dissecting Trump's hypocrisies, devoted significant air time to blasting Biden's speech about Trump and democracy as too divisive. Similarly, longtime correspondent Jeff Zeleny and anchor Jake Tapper mused that perhaps Biden could invite Trump to accompany him to the funeral events for British Queen Elizabeth II. (Tapper said it would be clever to invite Trump knowing that Trump would probably not want to accompany Biden because he would not want to be seen as subordinate to his successor.)

Wrote Guardian columnist Arwa Mahdawi, "The way CNN is going I wouldn't be surprised if they make Trump their new election integrity analyst next week."

Question marks remain at CNN over what's ahead

Licht, who declined an interview request for this story through a spokesperson, has told colleagues he wants to move away from the drama of the Jeff Zucker years at CNN, both on and off the air. But staffers there have been curious — even anxious — about what that affirmatively means for the network. In a note to staff, Licht said he would reveal plans for the 9 pm-midnight (eastern time) slate of shows.

One of Licht's fresh hires: former New York Police Department deputy commissioner John Miller, as a counter-terrorism analyst for the network. Miller is also an experienced journalist; he obtained a rare interview with Osama Bin Laden while at ABC News in the late 1990s and, in between stints in the NYPD, also served as an analyst at CBS News.

Yet that stirred intense criticism from Islamic and civil rights groups, as Miller has publicly denied the existence of an earlier program inside the NYPD to surveille Muslims. The program, which yielded no leads or terrorism prosecutions, was brought to light by reporters at the Associated Press.

Ironically, Licht arrived at CNN after a stint at CBS where he oversaw the evolution of Colbert's foundering Late Show to tap into the host's rapier-like political and liberal sensibility. It now frequently sits atop the late night ratings. Licht's stints at MSNBC and CBS created a record to date that is far from conservative — or pro-Trump. Today, Licht told staffers, "the next chapter of CNN is beginning to shape."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.