CEO Chris Licht ousted at CNN after a year of crisis
Updated June 7, 2023 at 11:06 AM ET
Chris Licht came into the top spot at CNN pronouncing he had a clear view of what was wrong with the cable news channel, the vision to fix it, and the corporate backing that would enable him to turn the ship around.
Barely more than a year later, with the channel's battered ratings further sagging, the formats for key shows still in doubt, internal strife at crisis levels, and journalists inside CNN still questioning what his vision is, Licht is gone, ousted by the corporate patron who wooed him to the network, Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav.
Zaslav made the decision over the weekend, according to a person with direct knowledge, concluding that Licht had lost the room. He personally confirmed the news to staffers on Wednesday after published reports that Licht was out.
"This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation, and Chris poured his heart and soul into it," Zaslav wrote in his message to staff. "He has a deep love for journalism and this business and that has been evident throughout his tenure. Unfortunately, things did not work out the way we had hoped — and ultimately that's on me."
Licht had argued that CNN had strayed too far from its roots, and spent much of his time publicly condemning the network's coverage of former President Donald Trump, the COVID-19 pandemic and many other key subjects. In so doing, he was echoing the mandate of Zaslav, who had taken over CNN as part of Discovery's acquisition of Warner Media last year, and Discovery's most important investor, the conservative media magnate John Malone.
"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 told CNBC's David Faber in November 2021, ahead of the acquisition.
A drumbeat of criticism of CNN's journalism alienated the newsroom
According to colleagues at CNN, the drumbeat of criticism about CNN's past journalistic performance led to deep resentment of Licht. That schism was furthered by his unwillingness or inability to solicit insights from people within the network and his near-constant focus on how CNN had operated under his predecessor, Jeff Zucker. Zucker was fired after the revelation of his affair with a top executive, but he retained the affection and respect of many within the network.
Licht's efforts to cement a shift in emphasis and tone, along with hopes of a revitalized programming approach, were never accompanied by a clear business strategy, however. Zaslav even touted CNN as a reputational asset rather than a source of growing profits.
That stood in contrast to CNN under Zucker's earlier leadership, when the network's business performance allowed it to invest more in its journalism, new original programming and its new digital offerings.
A widely slammed Trump event, a damaging exposé
Licht arranged a town hall in May with former President Donald Trump in New Hampshire to showcase a reporter he elevated to be a star, Kaitlan Collins, as he sought to unveil her new prime-time show. Instead, it was widely panned, both as an exercise in futility (Trump steamrolled Collins' efforts to fact-check him) and in pandering (CNN had staged it as a live event before an audience stocked with Trump fans).
While his views on the network's periodically overheated focus on Trump found some sympathy within CNN, Licht's remarks about COVID coverage, contained in a 13,000-word profile by The Atlantic's Tim Alberta posted last week, uniformly outraged his journalists.
In addition, people at the network took offense at Licht's challenging whether an African American woman who went to Harvard University would add to the network's diversity. CNN anchor Abby Phillip, whose parents are Trinidadian, graduated from Harvard, though it's not clear that Licht was directly referring to her.
Alberta's piece depicted Licht as spending vast amounts of time with an outside reporter while ignoring his own news staffers at gatherings. Licht was also quoted bragging about his ability to out-lift Zucker during an early morning gym session. And he appeared unable to shake his anger about his own treatment by the press. Licht had called in CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy to protest his coverage of the network and reportedly berated Puck media reporter Dylan Byers, who had previously held Darcy's job, for his constant stream of stories about his standing at CNN.
Zaslav last week named a trusted lieutenant, David Leavy, as chief operating officer at CNN. Ostensibly Licht's No. 2, Leavy was seen as someone who might steady the ship amid the turbulence.
In his statement to staff, Zaslav wrote that he would conduct a major search, inside and outside the network, for CNN's next leader.
Until then, a cadre of seasoned programming executives — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and Leavy — will be in charge, he said.
A year of dismissals and cancelations
Substantively, Licht appeared to lead most tangibly by subtraction.
Along with Zaslav, Licht killed CNN+, the channel's huge new push into streaming, just a month after its high-profile launch. Licht also canceled many of the original programs created under Zucker.
He fired media correspondent and host Brian Stelter and canceled the media criticism show Reliable Sources, at that time CNN's longest-running show. Licht also dismissed White House reporter John Harwood and shifted prime-time star Don Lemon. The weekend show of Jim Acosta became more subdued in tone. All had been critics of Trump.
Licht was unable to replicate his record of minting successes in the morning. He had created Morning Joe at MSNBC and the CBS Early Show; he also retooled The Late Show after Stephen Colbert's rocky first year and transformed it into a hit.
At CNN, however, the morning show drew small audiences to watch a frequently caustic Lemon, Collins and co-host Poppy Harlow. Licht fired Lemon in April after the host clashed with his female co-stars and contended that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley "isn't in her prime." Collins has been moved to prime time.
Meanwhile, CNN's ratings and financial fortunes took a hit. During the Trump era, the network rode the wave of controversies to annual revenues exceeding $1 billion. Revenues now hover around $750 million annually, according to people with knowledge.
The challenge for Licht's successor remains daunting. Trump's return to the political fray ahead of the 2024 race may juice CNN's ratings, along with those of its competitors. However, all three major cable news networks are subject to structural decline in ratings and many viewers' shift to streaming services. The audiences for viewers under the age of 55 are particularly small.
On Monday, Licht sought to regain his footing, apologizing in a conference call with CNN's staffers for paying attention to his own coverage in the press. "I should not be in the news unless it's taking arrows for you," he said. It was too late.
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