Chris Licht is out at CNN, leaving the network at a crossroads

Chris Licht is out at CNN, leaving the network at a crossroads

At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, as clouds of smoke enveloped Manhattan, Chris Licht left his apartment building and took a half-block walk to Central Park to meet with his boss, David Zaslav.

Men had visited this park earlier. In early 2022, Mr. Zaslav used the same dire setting to offer him a job that Mr. Licht later described as a “calling”: the presidency of CNN, which Mr. Zaslav’s corporate empire would consider a media megadeal. I was about to achieve.

This time, the run was brief, and the message tough: Mr. Licht was fired after just 13 months.

His sudden exit was the latest rebuke to one of the world’s leading news organizations, whose unrelenting series of crises has decimated newsroom morale, eaten into profits and cast doubt on the viability of middle-of-the-road TV journalism in a polarized era. raises questions.

It was also a blow for Mr. Licht, a successful television producer with little experience managing a large organization, who had established CNN as a fair-minded voice for an audience disillusioned with cable news’s partisan scandal. Had resolved to remake as. Even as his troubles were mounting – falling ratings, a Don Lemon scandal and former President Donald J. A very critical town hall with Trump – Mr Licht told aides he was certain Mr Zaslav, whom he considered a mentor, would defend him.

This week, Mr. Zaslav’s support reached its limit.

Mr. Zaslav, Chief Executive Officer of Warner Bros. Discovery, told Mr. “For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate,” Licht told CNN staff on a call about two hours after he was fired. for recording his remarks.

“This job,” he said, “was never going to be easy.”

In a statement, Mr Licht said: “It was an exciting but incredibly challenging job, and I learned a lot over the last 13 months. I’ve been fortunate to have had a successful, fulfilling career, and I look forward to my Looking forward to the next chapter.

Although Mr Licht, 51, had faced criticism for months, his condition worsened late last week the Atlantic published a 15,000-word profile that extensively documented his stormy tenure. Mr. Licht had spent hours with the writer, Tim Alberta, and his irreverent comments that CNN had ramped up its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and that the Trump presidency has further rankled the network’s anchors and rank-and-file.

Mr Licht apologized to his staff on Monday morning – “whose trust I have lost, I will fight like hell to win it back,” he said. But Mr. Zaslav quickly concluded that his chosen CNN chief had irreparably lost the room, according to two people briefed on the decision. Anchors who have expressed doubts about Mr. Licht in recent days included Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, according to two of the people.

Mr. Zaslav did not consider other candidates before offering the position to Mr. Licht last year. “Chris poured his heart and soul into this work,” Mr. Zaslav said on the call. “It’s really unfortunate, and ultimately it’s on me. I take full responsibility for it.”

Three CNN veterans — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling — will lead the network until a permanent leader is chosen, a process Mr. Zaslav said could take several months. All three will work alongside David Levy, a top deputy to Zaslav, who was installed late last week as CNN’s chief operating officer. Several senior aides to Mr Licht were also sacked on Wednesday, including Christine Corati Kelly, his global head of communications.

CNN now faces a crossroads – once again.

Mr. Licht’s replacement will need to deal with a steady decline in cable news viewership, figure out the network’s streaming strategy and lead the 2024 presidential campaign.

The network has been in turmoil since late 2021, when its top-rated anchor Chris Cuomo was fired in an ethics scandal. Weeks later, its longtime leader, Jeff Zucker, was ousted after failing to disclose a workplace romantic relationship. Mr. Zaslav took office in April 2022 and immediately shut down CNN+, the three-week-old streaming service that was supposed to secure the network’s digital future, resulting in several layoffs.

Many network stars remained loyal to Mr. Zucker, who led CNN amid unrelenting attacks from Mr. Trump, and they were skeptical of Mr. Licht’s efforts to change the tenure of the network’s coverage. Mr. Licht fired Brian Stelter, a media correspondent, and Zucker Hire, who was often critical of Mr. Trump, and prompted Republican executives and conservatives to appear on the network’s programs.

He also chose an office on a corporate floor above the newsroom – an effort, Mr. Licht said privately, to empower his deputies. This had the opposite effect: subordinates wondered whether their boss cared about what they were doing.

From the moment he was named, Mr. Licht faced a powerful cadre of current and former staff members and allies loyal to Mr. Zucker and his vision for the network. Mr. Zucker turned into a quasi-complaint switchboard for this group.

Mr. Licht, who previously served as executive producer of “Morning Joe,” “CBS This Morning,” and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” has never run an organization anywhere near the size or complexity of CNN. It was a worldwide outlet with thousands of people. Crores in employee strength and annual revenue. Some early errors may be overlooked if offset by smart programming moves and ratings wins. But these were in short supply during his 13-month tenure.

His first bet was a new morning show hosted by Mr. Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, which Mr. Licht said would “set the tone for the news organization.” But “CNN This Morning,” which debuted in November, has struggled with low ratings and tensions on and off the set. Mr Lemon clashed with Ms Collins, and then sparked a national furore by saying on air that the woman over 50 was not “in her prime”. Two months later, Mr. Lemon was fired.

Meanwhile, Mr. Licht took his time — too much time, in the eyes of Warner Bros. Discovery executives — to fix up a prime-time lineup that was rapidly losing viewers. In February, he began an experiment with a mix of town halls and single-topic specials at 9 p.m., CNN’s highest-rated hour under Mr. Cuomo. It was futile, and CNN saw its lowest viewership in more than two decades.

But no editorial decision was more controversial than Mr. Licht’s decision to broadcast a live forum with Mr. Trump last month.

It was the former president’s first prime-time appearance on a major TV news network (other than those controlled by Rupert Murdoch) since 2020, and critics wondered whether Mr. Repeating the pattern of 2016. Mr. Zaslav defended the town hall, telling CNBC: “We need to have both sides represented. I think it’s important for America.”

The event proved chaotic: Mr. Trump unleashed a stream of lies – and even mocked the moderator, Ms. Collins, as a “bad woman” – to cheers from the studio audience, which turned to local was organized by Republican and civic groups.

The platform was widely criticized and some CNN viewers said on social media that they would no longer watch the channel. To the shock of its employees, CNN began dipping ever below conservative network Newsmax in total prime-show viewership, a once-unthinkable notion. CNN’s noted anchor Christiane Amanpour said in a speech that she and Mr. Licht “respectfully disagree” about the broadcast of the town hall.

Amidst the drama, CNN’s once-mighty financial foundation was eroding. Last year, CNN made a profit of approximately $750 million, down from approximately $1.25 billion the previous year. (The smaller number includes $200 million in one-time losses from CNN+.)

Mr. Licht’s allies said on Wednesday that he deserved another chance.

“Zaslav gave Chris two years; I wish Chris had been given the two years Zaslav promised him,” said Joe Scarborough, who created “Morning Joe” with Mr. Licht on MSNBC. “Chris’s best was yet to come. He learned a lot. He Because of what he has learned, he is going to be successful and will be much better.

Some CNN staff members first reported Wednesday’s announcement naughty child, as a reset opportunity. “I want CNN’s coverage on our journalism,” Mr. Tapper said in a text message.

On Monday morning, about 48 hours before his ill-fated walk in the park with Mr. Zaslav, Mr. Licht attempted to muster support with a newsroom that had turned against him in more ways than one. “CNN is not about me; I shouldn’t be in the news unless it takes arrows for you,” he told his staff on a morning call. “Your work is what should be written about.”

“This is the world’s greatest job at the world’s largest news organization,” Mr. Licht said. “And we have a lot to look forward to in the months ahead.”

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