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Chris Licht’s CNN Exit: What Led To It

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Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav on Wednesday announced the departure of CNN chief Chris Licht following more than a year marred with controversy at the top of the network.

Licht had been under fire following the publication of a profile by The Atlantic Friday that was dubbed disastrous by media critics and raised questions about whether he could continue to serve in the job.

His departure comes at a pivotal point for CNN, ahead of next year’s presidential election cycle, one of the most important seasons for news organizations.

Last June, while he was just a few months into the job, Licht agreed to allow journalist Tim Alberta access to cover his first year at the helm. The end product exposed Licht’s vulnerabilities and the turmoil within CNN, leaving many to question his judgment in agreeing to the article in the first place.

Licht apologized to staff and vowed to fight to win back their trust during the network’s 9 a.m. editorial call Monday.

“CNN is not about me,” he reportedly said. “I should not be in the news.”

He also announced he would move his office to the same floor as the newsroom in what appeared to be an effort to seem more accessible to staff.

But Licht inevitably became the story and, despite his earlier conviction that his boss, Zaslav, had his back, it seems the writing was already on the wall.

“For a number of reasons, it didn’t work out. And that’s on me,” Zaslav told staffers Wednesday, according to Axios’ Sara Fischer.

Licht has not commented on his exit.

Just a day before the Atlantic profile went live, CNN announced David Leavy, a top Zaslav lieutenant, would join CNN as chief operating officer.

“The move, which Licht characterized as his own decision, was in fact an unequivocal vote of diminishing confidence by the parentco in Licht’s ability to manage a business that has endured substantial ratings declines, revenue losses, and reputational damage since he took over,” Puck’s Dylan Byers wrote last week.

Leavy will continue to oversee the business side of CNN, as a team of seasoned CNN executives will succeed Licht in the interim period: Amy Entelis, executive vice president for talent and content development at CNN Worldwide; Virginia Moseley, executive vice president of editorial at CNN U.S.; and Eric Sherling, executive vice president of U.S. Programming.

In the lead-up to Licht’s exit, prominent talent, including Anderson Cooper, Erin Burnett and Jake Tapper, had shared concerns about his leadership, according to The Wall Street Journal.

In the words of CNN’s own media reporter Oliver Darcy, Licht had “lost the room.”

The Atlantic Profile

The Atlantic’s 15,000-word piece “Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” which included excruciating detail about Licht’s tenure, ultimately led to his downfall.

Licht, a former executive producer at CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” was tapped by Zaslav to lead CNN in an effort to revamp it and position it more to the political center, as he lamented that Republicans didn’t want to come on the network.

During a media conference in May, Zaslav remarked that CNN had succeeded in bringing back GOP voices and moving away from being “an advocacy network,” according to Deadline.

Zaslav’s vision for CNN stood in contrast to the direction CNN’s former president, Jeff Zucker, had led the network during the nine years he served at the top of the organization.

Zucker, who was beloved by staff, resigned last year, citing his undisclosed relationship with colleague Allison Gollust, who eventually also exited the news organization.

His announcement shocked employees at CNN who had come to appreciate his hands-on approach. Zucker is believed to still stay in touch with many people at the network who call him to seek his counsel about the state of CNN, according to The New York Times.

As was reported by The Atlantic, Licht, during his year at the top of CNN, was preoccupied with critical media coverage of his leadership that he believed was orchestrated by Zucker himself.

His preoccupation with his predecessor is laid bare in The Atlantic’s piece when Alberta accompanied Licht to the gym.

“Zucker couldn’t do this shit,” Licht told Alberta while lifting a metal pole at the instruction of his trainer.

But Licht also conceded that his biggest mistake was trying to set himself apart from Zucker instead of taking the time to gauge what his predecessor did well.

“I was intent on trying to draw a line of difference between the old regime and the new regime,” he told The Atlantic. “I should have just sort of slowly come in, without making these grand pronouncements of how different I was going to be.”

In the piece, Licht also shared many of his misgivings about CNN with Alberta, including in regard to the news organization’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the beginning it was a trusted source — this crazy thing, no one understands it, help us make sense of it. What’s going on?” he said. “And I think then it got to a place where, ‘Oh wow, we gotta keep getting those ratings. We gotta keep getting the sense of urgency.’”

Former CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter reported that many journalists at CNN took issue with those comments, while Licht has since tried to explain to some that his criticism pertained to the final stages of the pandemic and, in part, stemmed from research the network commissioned that showed some viewers distrusted CNN because of that coverage.

Notably, the only two people who spoke positively of Licht on the record in The Atlantic piece were Republican pollster Frank Luntz and Licht’s personal trainer, Joe Maysonet.

Zaslav, who appeared to be the audience of one Licht had been set on pleasing, refused to sit down for an on-the-record interview with Alberta, after several back-and-forths. He only issued a statement — one Alberta chose not to include in his piece — that wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Licht.

“We set a high bar for ourselves and while we know that it will take time to complete the important work that’s underway, we have great confidence in the progress that Chris and the team are making and share their conviction in the strategy,” the statement read, according to The Washington Post.

The Trump Town Hall

Licht had hoped the town hall he organized with former President Donald Trump in New Hampshire last month would help reset his leadership and “make believers out of his critics,” according to The Atlantic.

“Instead, it turned his few remaining believers into critics. I had never witnessed a lower tide of confidence inside any company than in the week following the town hall at CNN,” Alberta wrote.

During the event, Trump continued to push falsehoods about the outcome of the 2020 election; insulted E. Jean Carroll, the woman who won a defamation and sexual battery lawsuit against him; and called Kaitlan Collins, the moderator of the event, a “nasty person.”

The event was widely condemned within the network, including by Christiane Amanpour, one of its most well-respected anchors.

“For me, I would have dropped the mic at ‘nasty person,’ but then that’s me,” she told an audience at Columbia University’s Journalism School.

Licht, however, defended the call to platform Trump, telling his staff he thought the country was “served very well” by the spectacle.

He also reportedly chastised CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy for his critical coverage of the event in the outlet’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter.

Licht’s Programming Failures

One of Licht’s first programming moves last year was revamping the network’s morning show. He folded “New Day” and created “CNN This Morning,” starring Don Lemon (who had up to then hosted a show in the network’s prime-time lineup), anchor Poppy Harlow and then-Chief White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins.

Five months later, Lemon was fired by the network after a series of missteps, including a segment in which he said GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley was “not in her prime.”

Licht also reassigned Collins to the 9 p.m. anchor chair, which had been vacant since the firing of Chris Cuomo in late 2021. Licht had experimented with placing Jake Tapper in the time slot in the lead-up to the 2022 midterms but that never became permanent as the program drew poor ratings.

Harlow is the only anchor left on the morning show and is now joined by a roster of rotating co-anchors ahead of a likely revamp.

Licht had tried to make further additions in an effort to boost the network’s output. He redesigned the dayside shows, launching a new, more dynamic format that has anchors moving around the studio instead of seated behind desks. He launched a new Sunday newsmagazine titled “The Whole Story With Anderson Cooper,” featuring reporting from CNN talent, and had announced a new weekly program starring Gayle King and Charles Barkley titled “King Charles,” which is set to debut in the fall.

CNN’s Low Ratings And Diminishing Profits

Apart from having little success with his programming moves, Licht also had to contend with the network’s lower ratings and diminishing profits.

Last year, CNN drew in $750 million in profits, a significantly lower number from the $1.25 billion the network recorded in 2021 before Licht was appointed, according to The New York Times. The 2022 figure, however, was also affected by the decision to shut down CNN+, which cost the outlet $200 million in “one-time losses.”

CNN’s ad revenue is projected to fall by about 5%, to $562.6 million, this year, Variety reported, citing Kagan, a market-research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence.

This, coupled with the network’s poor ratings, which see it finishing fourth behind Newsmax in some time slots, have contributed to the frustrations with Licht and poor morale among employees.

But Zaslav’s efforts to rebuild CNN, an asset that contributed over a billion in profits to its parent company in previous years, may not work here.

“Warner Bros. Discovery needs CNN’s cash flow,” Variety’s Brian Steinberg wrote Tuesday. “To be sure, it’s tough to revamp a cable network, and Zaslav has hard-earned knowledge from doing so in the past. But changing CNN is like repairing an airplane while it’s already in flight. Everyone can see what’s happening, and if executives aren’t careful, the whole thing might crash.”



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