The Meteoric Rise of CNN’s Kaitlan Collins

From a Washington Post story by Jeremy Barr headlined “The meteoric rise of CNN’s Kaitlan Collins”:

Kaitlan Collins became CNN’s youngest-ever chief White House correspondent last year, at age 28. On Tuesday, she takes on an even more prominent role: co-anchoring a morning news show with strategic importance for the network’s future.

How fast was Collins’s rise? Just eight years ago, she was blogging about Miley Cyrus’s latest tattoos and Shia LaBeouf’s trip to rehab — the quintessential starter job of the digital media era.

But thanks to an easy screen-presence and hard-earned reporting chops, she has now catapulted to a co-anchor seat on the just-launched “CNN This Morning” — an attempt by new network leader Chris Licht to reinvent a block of programming that has long trailed its cable-news rivals in the ratings.

The big job required a move from Washington to New York, which had not been part of Collins’s immediate plan. It meant giving up a scheduled stint as president of the White House Correspondents’ Association in 2024, another honor typically reserved for more senior reporters.

But Licht pitched her on his vision for matching her up in the mornings with former prime time host Don Lemon, 56, and veteran anchor Poppy Harlow, 40. “I didn’t even think of saying no,” Collins recalled. “It’s a great challenge for me.”

In an interview, Licht called Collins “the absolute complete package,” praising her reporting skills and her on-screen delivery of the news.

“One of the great things about Kaitlan Collins was that she was not posturing for something else,” he said. “She was certainly not angling for anything. She was very happy doing what she was doing, and doing it well.” Collins will remain a reporter, as she requested of Licht, splitting her time between the Manhattan set and assignments around the country in the additional role as chief correspondent for the show.

Collins, now 30, started her career at the Daily Caller, a pugnacious, right-leaning website co-founded by Tucker Carlson, where she was promoted after two years from showbiz gossip to the 2016 campaign beat, and then in early 2017 to White House correspondent. While covering the Trump White House, she started getting booked for occasional talking-head appearances on CNN.

“I thought it was really nice that I was this reporter for a conservative-leaning website and I could go on CNN, and the question was not for me to explain Trump’s actions but it was, ‘What’s your reporting?’ ” she recalled.

That spring, she approached CNN’s then-president, Jeff Zucker, at a brunch event after the White House correspondents’ dinner to thank him for the opportunities. That began conversations that led to her joining the network as a reporter by the middle of 2017. “You could just tell there was something very special about her, even at a young age,” Zucker told The Post.

Her Daily Caller pedigree did little to overcome the Trump administration’s suspicions of mainstream media. In July 2018, Collins was barred from a Rose Garden news conference after persistently asking the president questions about Vladimir Putin and his former attorney Michael Cohen at an Oval Office photo op. When press secretary Kayleigh McEnany called her an “activist” a few weeks after the 2020 election, Collins pushed back from the front row and hit back harder on Twitter, writing: “It’s understandable why someone who hasn’t done their job — taking questions from reporters — in weeks would confuse someone else doing theirs with activism.”

Her colleagues took notice. “What I came to be really impressed by was just how unflappable she was in the briefing room,” said New York Times reporter ​​Maggie Haberman. “She’s tenacious and she’s aggressive, and people like talking to her.”

Including, it seemed, then-President Donald Trump. “Every time she was on Air Force One, he wanted to come to talk to her,” said a fellow White House correspondent who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships.

Collins has both conservative and liberal admirers — a tough act in a politically polarized age. “She makes it her business to know everyone and she has a kind word for everyone,” said longtime D.C. media veteran Tammy Haddad.

Yet critics on the left still bring up her early association with the Daily Caller as a cause for concern. And Collins endured a brief scandal in 2018, when the LGBTQ advocacy group Log Cabin Republicans resurfaced tweets she sent in 2011, while she was a teenage undergrad at the University of Alabama, using homophobic language. Collins offered a mea culpa: “It was immature but it doesn’t represent the way I feel at all. I regret it and apologize.”

Today, Collins maintains that her experience working for a conservative news website and growing up in deep-red Alabama provided a useful perspective on politics and the rise of Trump. “I think I learned a lot from that job,” Collins said.

When asked whether she thinks people have cast her politically because of her time working for the Daily Caller, Collins said she is “completely nonpolitical,” adding that “if people surmise things, that’s fine.” Said Licht: “I don’t even know what her politics are.”

But to succeed as a traditional morning show host, Collins will probably need to move beyond sober news reports and showcase her personality to viewers. An avid college football fan, Collins wore a Wonder Woman T-shirt during her Zoom interview with The Post. (Would she wear it on the air? She said she wasn’t sure.)

While morning shows have the potential to command big ad dollars, CNN’s morning show (known as “New Day” until this week) has regularly ranked third in key Nielsen categories, behind competitors “Fox & Friends” and MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” and far below the big audiences generated by morning shows on ABC, NBC and CBS. “My hope and belief is that we can create our own lane into something that is not being delivered now,” said Licht, who was heralded as a programming savant for his overhaul of CBS’s morning show, and helped create “Morning Joe.”

Collins was among the CNN stars outraged by the sudden ouster of Zucker in February. In an internal meeting, she grilled Jason Kilar, who oversaw the network’s parent company at the time, about the decision, according to an audio recording obtained at the time by The Post. (“I am absolutely not going to answer that line of questioning,” Kilar replied.)

Yet, despite her close ties to Zucker, Collins has forged a good relationship with Licht, who has been trying to reposition CNN as a more down-the-middle news brand since its merger with Discovery this year — a strategy that drew the ire of some CNN journalists and producers, especially after Licht’s dismissal of media correspondent Brian Stelter and White House correspondent John Harwood.

“I think Chris is doing a great job, and he’s very invested, and has very good news values,” said Collins. “And I realized that early on. If you’re a reporter who cares about reporting, that’s what you want.”

Jeremy Barr covers breaking news about the media industry for The Washington Post.

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