David Zaslav

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Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav backed CNN CEO Chris Licht during Thursday’s investor conference as tensions rise at the network over its decision to air a live Donald Trump town hall full of his supporters.

Zaslav said Licht is “working really hard” to improve CNN’s brand and image, citing a recent YouGov poll that said trust in CNN improved by 11 percentage points last year. For context, trust in Republican-leaning Fox News improved 17 points and trust in Democratic-leaning MSNBC improved 16 points over the same period. Confidence in CBS, ABC and NBC also improved more than CNN.

Zaslav emphasized CNN’s desire for more balance on the network, citing a common refrain that he wants to make sure CNN is not an “advocacy network.”

“We have to show both sides of every issue,” Zaslav said.

Zaslav continues to support CNN’s decision to host Trump’s town hall, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Trump conducts the first public opinion polls win the 2024 Republican nomination for president. Zaslav told CNBC earlier this month that Trump, who continues to falsely claim he was a victim of election fraud in 2020, should absolutely appear on CNN.

“He is a pioneer – he must be in our network,” Zaslav he said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We are delighted to have him join our network.”

Amanpour criticizes ‘double-sidedness’

His comments came a day after veteran CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour publicly questioned the notion of covering “both sides” of the political spectrum unless both sides were factual. Amanpour spoke Wednesday at the Columbia Journalism School commencement.

“Be truthful but not neutral,” Amanpour told the graduates. She said the line was “her mantra”.

“Bilateralism is not always objectivity. It will not lead you to the truth. Drawing a false moral or factual equivalence is neither objective nor true. Objectivity is our golden rule and consists in considering all sides and hearing all the evidence, hearing everyone.” and report everything, but do not rush to compare them when there is none to compare.”

Amanpour said she met with Licht this week to express her disappointment at the broadcast of Trump’s town hall in the format in which it happened. She said Licht told her it was “a little short of execution,” according to CNBC reported earlier this week. Amanpour recorded a live audience cheering should not have been allowed Trump’s every sentence calling this behavior “appalling.”

At one point, Trump called town hall host Kaitlan Collins a “disgusting person.” Amanpour said she would drop the mic and walk away if he did that to her.

Amanpour said airing the taped interview with Trump would be a better solution because it would allow CNN to better fight Trump’s “disinformation and propaganda machine.” Trump faces numerous criminal investigations and was found guilty earlier this month of sexually abusing and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll. Trump has denied Carroll’s allegations. He was also indicted in New York for allegedly falsifying business records.

Amanpour is the first prominent CNN journalist to publicly criticize Licht and Zaslav’s decision to air the town hall. Several of her colleagues jumped to support her comments on Twitter, showcasing an undercurrent of dissent within CNN’s ranks.

‚ÄúSpeaking truth to power is a fundamental part of our job, but speaking truth to power that signs your checks?@amanpourshow everyone how it’s done” he tweeted Nima Elbagir, CNN’s chief international investigative correspondent.

CNN anchor Sara Sidner he tweeted “she’s real” about Amanpour, which CNN correspondent Erica Hill it sounded.

CNN Hong Kong anchor Kristie Lu Stout told Amanpour delivered “a master class in journalism.”

Falling ratings, growing dissatisfaction

Licht inherited a base of CNN employees largely built by former chief Jeff Zucker and his predecessors. As a leader, Zucker was popular with many current employees and ran the network in a hands-on style that Licht deliberately avoided.

Zaslav’s mission for CNN was to shift its “left-leaning” image to a more neutral brand, he reiterated Thursday. In his comments Thursday, he offered up a number of Republicans CNN has interviewed recently.

Still, the changes aren’t helping CNN’s ratings. The network is total audience on Tuesdays at 7:00 PM ET and 8:00 PM ET followed not only Fox and MSNBC, but also the much smaller conservative channel Newsmax.

CNN profit fell below 1 billion dollars last year, This was reported by The New York Times, which recorded a six-year low. Falling ratings won’t help its ad revenue this year. Warner Bros. Discovery held its initial presentation to ad buyers this week. Licht spoke at the event.

As the business struggles, Zaslav’s comments about CNN being more down-the-middle politically, especially when it comes to Trump, irked journalists who don’t equate combative lies with partisanship.

It’s unclear whether CNN staff members’ expressions of displeasure with Licht and Zaslav’s recent decision will amount to anything more than public rants.

But as the network grapples with declining viewership and millions of Americans tuning out traditional TV each year, eating into CNN’s revenue and profits, Zaslav may have an unwanted distraction on his hands that can only get worse as the U.S. moves closer to the president’s presidency in 2024. election.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

WATCH: CNBC’s full interview with Warner Bros. CEO Discovery by David Zaslav



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