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Billionaire John Malone loves Fox News. But he owns a bit of CNN.


CNN is in flux. It has a brand new proprietor, and a brand new boss, who guarantees to remake the information channel and has advised workers to be ready for “a time of change.”

Most of these adjustments have but to manifest. But one of many first ones — canceling its long-running Reliable Sources present and pushing out anchor Brian Stelter — have already unsettled some CNN workers and viewers.

But the larger query floating over one of many world’s largest and most necessary information organizations is why it’s altering. Is it as a result of the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, its new proprietor, needs an overhaul? Or is it on the behest of a conservative billionaire investor within the firm who sits on its board?

That billionaire is John Malone, a legend within the cable TV enterprise and one who has deep and longstanding ties with David Zaslav, the CEO of WBD. People near each males insist that Zaslav is remaking CNN as a result of he needs to for each enterprise and editorial causes, and never as a result of Malone has advised him to.

But complicating that narrative is the truth that Malone has repeatedly wished, in public, for CNN to remake itself. And his prescription occurs to sync with the brand new CNN agenda: A plan to steer the channel away from what Malone and others name a liberal bias they are saying muddles opinion and information. And to shift it towards a supposedly centrist, just-the-facts bent.

“I want to see CNN evolve.”

In November 2021, Malone sat down for an hour-long interview with CNBC, the place he held forth on the state of the pay-TV enterprise — the place he made his $10 billion fortune — and loads of different subjects.

One of them was CNN — on the time, owned by AT&T, however scheduled to develop into a part of WBD, an organization that Malone would personal a bit of together with a seat on its board. Malone waved away one little bit of recurring hypothesis — that WBD would wish to promote CNN — after which supplied some programming recommendation for the brand new firm:

“I want to see CNN evolve again to the sort of journalism that it began with, and really have journalists, which might be distinctive and refreshing,” he mentioned. Then he urged a mannequin: “Fox News, in my view, has adopted an fascinating trajectory of attempting to have ‘information’ information, I imply some precise journalism, embedded in a program schedule of all opinions.”

Malone’s feedback didn’t resonate a lot past a few locations: At Fox News, which responded with glee, and inside CNN, the place they sounded alarm bells.

Those bells began ringing once more final week when the corporate pushed CNN media reporter Brian Stelter out of his job. As I’ve reported, some people in and outside CNN believed there was a direct through line between Malone’s perspective on CNN and Stelter’s departure. The concept: Stelter, a frequent critic of Fox News, was let go both at Malone’s direct urging or by managers who needed to please the investor.

That concept is hotly contested by workers and executives at CNN, WBD, and Liberty Media, Malone’s holding firm. “It’s not in line with John’s character or type that he could be doing that,” says Liberty CEO Greg Maffei.

There’s additionally a center floor between the 2 arguments: Malone meant what he mentioned however didn’t assume he was meddling along with his soon-to-be property.

“I don’t assume John would assume it reputable for him to present particular path on protection or personnel. But I don’t assume he would restrain himself from saying what he thinks on general content material. And he most likely wouldn’t view his feedback as revealing a bias,” says former Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes, who’s recognized Malone for the reason that late Seventies.

What we do know: Malone made his feedback in November. In February, Zaslav introduced he was hiring TV producer Chris Licht to run CNN after which the group promptly started messaging its plans to “push CNN again to exhausting information, and away from red-hot liberal opining.” And now one of many faces most frequently critiqued by CNN’s right-wing competitor Fox News is out of a job.

“He’s in awe of John.”

Malone is well-known within the pay TV world, the place through the Nineteen Eighties and Nineteen Nineties he held extra energy than arguably every other govt or investor. And for some time, some TV watchers knew who he was as effectively, when he turned a stand-in for all the things folks hated about cable TV on the time. Al Gore memorably known as him “Darth Vader” on the Senate flooring.

But that was some time in the past, and until you’re paying quite a lot of consideration to company media possession, you could not know who he’s at this level. Let’s sketch it out.

Malone, who was raised in Connecticut and graduated from Yale with levels in economics and engineering, traveled west and made his fortune by getting in on the bottom flooring of the cable TV enterprise within the Seventies.

In its earliest years, cable was offered as a strategy to ship broadcast channels in areas the place regular TV antennas wouldn’t work, just like the Rocky Mountains. Malone constructed up his Denver-based firm Tele-Communications Inc. right into a cable Goliath by rolling up a collection of small mom-and-pop operators utilizing debt financing. Along the way in which, he used his energy as a distributor to extract possession stakes in cable TV programmers like Fox News and QVC. He cashed out by selling to AT&T for $48 billion in 1999.

Since then, Malone has purchased and offered and swapped firms and stakes in firms again and again, all the time with a watch on retaining his taxes as little as potential. He now owns a portfolio that features significant possession in all the things from satellite tv for pc music service SiriusXM to baseball’s Atlanta Braves to Live Nation, the ticketing and live performance big. And till final 12 months, he was the main drive behind Discovery, the cable programmer greatest recognized for actuality TV exhibits like Deadliest Catch. He plucked NBC govt David Zaslav to run Discovery in 2006.

That relationship has given Zaslav a robust mentor. It has additionally made Zaslav very rich, via a series of giant stock-based compensation packages. The two males have been in fixed contact by way of cellphone calls and walk-and-talks through the years.

“Anybody who underestimates the quantity of area that [Malone] occupies in David’s strategic thoughts and emotional bandwidth has simply not adopted the final decade,” says one in all Zaslav’s buddies. “He’s in awe of John,” says one other Zaslav pal.

The two males do have very totally different politics: Zaslav has been a constant donor to Democrats; Malone is conservative/libertarian whose bona fides embody a former board seat on the Cato Institute, the libertarian assume tank, and a $250,000 donation to Donald Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee. (Two years later, Malone had pivoted: He advised CNBC that Trump generated an excessive amount of chaos and shouldn’t have a second time period. “Look, I believe quite a lot of the issues Trump has tried to do — figuring out issues and attempting to resolve them — has been nice. I simply don’t assume he’s the precise man to do it,” he mentioned.)

Malone has additionally mentioned he admires Rupert Murdoch as a enterprise frenemy and shares a political viewpoint with the Fox News proprietor: “Rupert is type of like I’m. He’s a libertarian, however he thinks we should always have a robust navy,” he advised the Financial Times in 2017.

But in contrast to Murdoch, who loves each proudly owning information retailers and getting his arms soiled operating them, there’s no report of Malone stepping into the wonderful particulars of the properties he owns.

Which brings us again to the bizarre nature of his pronouncements about CNN final fall. While Malone has beforehand talked about his affection for Fox News — the US “wants Fox News or one thing prefer it. Because in any other case, all the things’s leftist,” he advised FT — it’s uncommon for him to opine about programming decisions in his personal portfolio of properties. You’ll be hard-pressed, as an illustration, to search out him commenting on the music acts Live Nation books for its venues.

And that’s why some individuals who know Zaslav are satisfied Malone has advised Zaslav his theories in regards to the path he’d like CNN to go. And that given their relationship, Zaslav could be all ears. Under that concept, Malone — who now owns a small sliver of Warner Brothers Discovery as an alternative of a lot of Discovery — wouldn’t have to explicitly inform Zaslav the way to run CNN. He would simply broadly lay out his view of the world, which Zaslav put into place by hiring Licht, who had produced Morning Joe on MSNBC, the CBS Morning News, and most just lately The Late Show With Steven Colbert.

“I’m not in management or instantly concerned.”

That argument raises actual hackles at varied corners of the WBD, the place defenders of each Zaslav and Licht say the 2 males aren’t taking marching orders from Malone — it’s simply that all of them agree.

Mostly agree, that’s: Licht’s supporters acknowledge that Malone’s feedback holding up Fox News as a paragon of journalism could be searing for CNN workers, as an illustration. But they’re aligned on the concept that a CNN that occupies a center floor between Fox and MSNBC is nice for American democracy in addition to WBD’s enterprise prospects as a result of then CNN can seize an viewers that doesn’t need partisan information from the left or proper.

The concept that Fox News is a journalism outlet, versus cynical pandering within the type of a information channel that often reviews information, isn’t price debating right here. But in the event you wanted convincing, you might, say, learn Jane Mayer’s piece about the channel’s complete immersion with the Trump White House.

Or, extra pointedly, you might ask Chris Wallace, the longtime Fox anchor who left for CNN final 12 months, saying that he may not abide the channel’s protection — notably the way in which it handled Trump’s 2020 election lies and the January 6 riots. Working as a journalist at Fox had develop into “increasingly unsustainable,” Wallace mentioned.

Malone, who declined an interview request for this story, seems to have been stung by the furor that erupted in media circles when Stelter was let go final week. In an e mail to the New York Times, he mentioned he had nothing to do with Stelter’s departure, including that whereas he needed “the ‘information’ portion of CNN to be extra centrist…I’m not in management or instantly concerned.”

Malone doubled down on that argument in one other Times story a few days later, complaining that CNN had melded opinion and information, and holding up “Fox News host Bret Baier… [as] a reliably centrist newscaster.”

Which, once more, echoes what new CNN boss Chris Licht has been telling workers he needs to do along with his community — to take away the notion, which he thinks is correct, that CNN has a liberal bias, and that an excessive amount of of its programming has develop into “outrage porn.”

I’m with Licht, by the way in which, in the case of critiquing CNN’s reliance on breathlessness normally. And an early choice he made to tamp down its use of “breaking information” branding for nearly each merchandise it talks about is a wonderful thought.

But arguing that CNN misplaced its manner through the Trump period looks as if a misguided critique, on condition that CNN, like each different information outlet, was coping with an unprecedented circumstance — Americans had elected a president who routinely lied about all the things and whose destruction of democratic norms had been capped off by an effort to overturn a free election.

I believe it’s additionally necessary to know how 24-hour cable TV information operates: Viewership spikes when there’s a real information occasion, however past these uncommon moments, information channels wrestle to retain viewers. Which is why all of them gin up pretend urgency about no matter they assume their viewers will reply to.

Pre-Trump, CNN’s resolution was to deal with jaw-dropping however not terribly necessary occasions and speak about them incessantly — see, as an illustration, its round-the-clock coverage of the “Poop Cruise,” which concerned a Carnival cruise ship and…poop. Or the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian airliner, which prompted CNN anchor Don Lemon to ask if a black hole might be the culprit.

So in the event you had been cynical sufficient — like me — you might merely describe Trump as a endless poop cruise, assured to create new content material day by day.

And I don’t understand how Licht can clear up that systemic downside, with or with out Trump. And at the same time as he guarantees to characteristic extra reporting over bloviating, CNN already boasts a robust and well-supported newsroom, which is why it will possibly do wonderful protection in Washington and around the world. I additionally don’t assume that Licht is ever going to persuade a Fox News fan — whether or not it’s Malone or anybody else — that CNN is now a centrist information outlet, regardless of who he hires or fires. But no matter adjustments he does make could also be significant, particularly because the US heads right into a charged election cycle.

It’s potential, by the way in which, that none of this may matter a lot to CNN’s proprietor in the long term. Some business sources I’ve talked to argue that regardless that CNN makes round a billion {dollars} a 12 months in revenue, it received’t imply a lot to the long-term way forward for Warner Bros. Discovery.

That’s as a result of WBD has a lot larger issues. For starters, like each huge media firm that makes most of its cash from conventional TV, its viewers are departing day by day free of charge and paid digital choices. And WBD has particular challenges. Like a inventory value that values the mixed firm at $33 billion — lower than half of what Time Warner alone was price in 2016 when it offered to AT&T. It additionally has an enormous pile of debt to service, which is likely one of the causes Zaslav is chopping initiatives and employees.

Malone has constantly argued that huge media firms have to consolidate with the intention to attain the size they’ll have to compete globally — and by merging his Discovery with Warner Media, he’s already made a step in that path.

But it’s potential to see one other transaction down the highway, the place WBD picks up one other asset, and Malone’s energy will get much more restricted. Or possibly it merely sells itself to an even bigger participant, and Malone will get out of the enterprise altogether.

At that time, it wouldn’t matter what he thinks of CNN. But no matter CNN has develop into by then will probably be essential for the remainder of us.

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