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The Status-Quo Fundamentalism of the “Moderate” Arbiters of Reason
CNN’s boss displays a deeply ideological belief in his own superior objectivity that is pervasive among America’s elites – and makes him a willing henchman of a reactionary political project
On Friday, The Atlantic published a massive profile of Chris Licht, the man who took over as the CEO of CNN about a year ago, written by Tim Alberta. The author tries really hard to be fair, and Alberta is not particularly unsympathetic towards Licht and the challenges he has faced at CNN. And yet, the profile amounts to a devastating indictment of Licht – and of a worldview that is widely held among those who dominate the civic institutions of American life.
I have already written two long pieces on how justifications for CNN’s disastrous Trump town hall reveal the deeper pathologies and fallacies that have characterized the Trump discourse since 2016. The Atlantic profile provides plenty more evidence of how much Licht’s political diagnosis is shaped by myths of liberal “echo chambers” and the idea that Trump speaks for an “authentic” America that is rightfully aggrieved – how much he wants all of us to buy into those chimeras.
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It's really worth digging into Licht’s case one more time, however, because what stands out from this profile is the combination of naivety and arrogance – all coming on top of an ideological status-quo fundamentalism that stands in marked contrast to Licht’s self-perception as a reasonable actor untarnished by the “irrationalities” that supposedly plague everyone who disagrees with him. This peculiar mindset is pervasive among not just the highest ranks of media executives, but also among the country’s elite echelons in politics, society, and culture more generally.
Chris Licht has it all figured out. Or so he believes. The profile opens with Licht telling us he doesn’t spend much time thinking about how the media should adequately cover Donald Trump, because “It’s very simple.” Simplistic is a better word to characterize the answer CNN’s new-ish boss has to offer: “You cover him like any other candidate.” To be fair, those statements were made before the Trump town hall proved yet again how foolish such an approach is. But Licht is unlikely to learn the appropriate lessons from the debacle for which he is chiefly responsible.
In Licht, we encounter a particular kind of arrogance. He seems obsessed with the “truth” – “there’s only one truth,” he solemnly declares, and under his leadership, Licht vows, CNN will have “no agenda other than the truth,” it will be “a source of absolute truth” via “sober, fact-driven coverage” unaffected by ideology and subjective beliefs. Unfortunately, this kind of (willfully?) naïve performative neutrality is very characteristic of a media system that incentivizes constant demonstrations of “nonpartisanship.”
We would be in a much better place if the people in positions of influence and power were to let go of such simplistic notions of objectivity. At some point, Alberta asks Licht if he is a conservative. Licht’s answer is revealing: “I would never put myself into a category.” He has no problem putting his critics into ideological categories, however, of accusing them to be incapable of acting as anything but “members of their tribe”; but such categories are not for him, for he operates on facts and reason alone.
The political discourse is significantly shaped by a whole industry of people – most of them white men – who believe themselves to be beyond ideology, whose self-perception and claim to relevance is built around the idea that they are arbiters of pure reason. We find them as prominent members of the pundit class, as leading “objective” data journalism gurus, as media executives with an outsized influence on the public conversation. These self-proclaimed Arbiters of Reason operate from the conviction that they are capable of superior judgment across a wide variety of fields. They owe much of their prominent status to the idea that they are unbiased, dispassionate truthtellers, all about data and facts, brave enough to give us the unvarnished truth in a heroic effort against conventional wisdom and the dark forces of subjectivity. They feel capable and entitled to offer a firm assessment of *anything* – yet all too often just end up judging the world by whether or not it’s in line with their sensibilities.
Licht is adamant he’s just “asking the tough questions” – that’s the framework he and his “reasonable” brethren like to employ in order to present their endeavor as a brave mission of fact-finding and truth-telling: “Just asking questions.” It’s remarkable how reliably that gets them to accept rightwing grievances and perpetuate the language of reactionary moral panics. All he wants, Licht assures us, is “to have difficult conversations without being demonized” – but instead, he’s being “shouted down for having the temerity to even ask.” Even the CEO of CNN has to live in fear of being canceled – is there no more free speech in this country? In general, Licht reveals a disposition to welcome all the usual rightwing talking points: He rails against “virtue signaling” and laments to be living in a world where “some people” (but who?) are forced (by whom?) to “tune out” (from what?) because they have to hear things like “person capable of giving birth” all the time (citation very much needed).
It’s quite striking how much of their energy self-proclaimed centrist/moderate/reasonable people focus on the threat from the Left – and how seamlessly that concern degenerates fully into anti-“wokeism.” To nobody’s surprise, Licht has a problem with the emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Not simply the way DEI is being implemented in potentially unhelpful ways or co-opted by corporate interests; his skepticism is more profound. In the profile, Licht rather proudly explains how in his opinion, “A Black person, a brown person, and an Asian woman that all graduated the same year from Harvard is not diversity.” It’s important to grapple with the role of elite institutions of higher education in the constant reproduction of inequality; but here, that is weaponized to obscure and deny race as a central organizing principle in American life. Acknowledging the centrality of racial and gender identities, of how intersecting identities shape the individual’s status in society and perspective on the world, would undermine the core claim on which Licht’s self-perception of non-ideological reason is predicated. As the most fundamental critique of white male “objectivity” comes from leftwing identity politics, from exactly those “woke” radicals who are supposedly unserious and irrational, this is where the Arbiters of Reason tend to direct their ire.
It’s a recurring theme in how the “centrist” white male elites describe the world: an obsession with pointing out the supposed fallacies of leftwing “activism” or “advocacy,” a term Licht seems to use a lot. Their entire mystique is built on offering better judgment than those “biased” activists. This puts them on a steady rightward trajectory. The fact that their own supposedly superior political judgment is being questioned so vehemently by current events – by a town hall that eviscerates the “just the facts” approach to Trumpism, perhaps – does not change that.
Instead of engaging in critical introspection, they double down: Keep ridiculing the leftwing critique as irrational identity politics, keep downplaying the warnings about the dangers of rightwing extremism as hysterical, keep playing up the threat of “woke” radicalism and the “illiberal Left.” In his own tale, Licht, the powerful executive who was installed by mighty corporate interests, is David; his Goliath the “certain segment of society (the “woke” Libs) that has had an unfettered megaphone” from which he is bravely trying to regain control. And what does he get in return? He’s being called “a fascist right-winger” when all he wants to be is “an unbiased source of truth.” How unfair.
Isn’t the answer here that Chris Licht simply is a conservative? I believe the story is a little more interesting than that. Remember, he would never put himself into that category – and while we shouldn’t just take that at face value, it still matters. The fact that he has always considered himself to be if not liberal, then moderate, is important because it informs his assessment of what is happening on the “Left.” This is a dynamic that characterizes much of the self-proclaimed “reasonable centrist” industrial complex: If you are convinced to be just the right kind of reasonable/liberal/moderate, then experiencing reactionary impulses creates a kind of intellectual and emotional dissonance that is often resolved by declaring that which makes you uncomfortable “radical” and “extreme.” “I’m a true liberal – these people are radical, woke activists” feels a lot better than “I always thought I was pretty liberal, but I must say I’m feeling uncomfortable about these calls for equality and respect, especially when they question my superior judgment and societal status.” It’s a combination of performative and reactionary centrism, and no matter the exact mix between strategic, ideological, and psychological elements, the result is the same: An increasingly aggressive stance against the “woke” Left, ever more in line with reactionary politics.
It might be impossible to discern the exact extent to which someone like Licht realizes how much he is furthering the interests of the corporate overlords who tower over him, and how much his actions are in line with the interests of traditional elites more broadly. Licht’s perspective on the world always naturalizes existing power relations and only accepts the status quo as reasonable. To be fair, from an elite perspective – and that of a white male elite, in particular – this kind of status-quo fundamentalism is indeed rational and it makes sense to regard the “Left” as the bigger immediate status threat. It is true that an agenda seeking to move America from being a restricted, white men’s democracy that left existing hierarchies largely intact to a functioning multiracial, pluralistic, social democracy is a losing proposition for people who have traditionally been at the top.
For many of the status-quo moderates, this change has already gone too far. They want to turn the clock back a little bit, to a time before what they see as the current excesses of “wokeism” – to when the privileged position of wealthy elites was a little more secure. So, while I don’t think Chris Licht is a MAGA Republican, his perspective on American politics is shaped by an underlying ideology that makes it just much more plausible to see the Right as not that big of a threat – and the Left as radical, unreasonable, and acutely dangerous. We could have a much more fruitful political discussion if Licht and others like him could just acknowledge that – and spare us all the grandiose nonsense about “saving journalism” and defending “the truth” itself.
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