CNN’s Chris Licht apologizes to staff as future is cloudy
CNN Chairman Chris Licht is trying to win back the support of his troops following a disastrous magazine piece about his first year at the network.
Licht expressed regret Monday to staffers about the Atlantic profile by journalist Tim Alberta, described by many media industry longtimers as an unusually damaging story about a prominent media executive.
The piece comes after a tumultuous period for CNN under Licht’s tenure that has been marked by cost-cutting pressures, programming missteps and declining audiences.
Executives and employees throughout CNN and its Warner Bros. Discovery were outraged by the story, and the top conversation internally is how much longer Licht can last in the job, according to several insiders who were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
Licht gave unfettered access for the Atlantic article, considered an unusual decision in itself when a company or network is undergoing a makeover. In the story, Licht disparaged CNN coverage under his popular predecessor Jeff Zucker while appearing to be oddly obsessed with him.
The story — “Inside the Meltdown at CNN” — also stated what many inside CNN say privately: that Licht has been an isolated leader primarily concerned with Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav’s mandate that the network be more hospitable to Republicans and address his perceived need to restore trust with viewers.
Based on his remarks he made at the network’s morning meeting, Licht recognized the damage the piece has caused internally.
“To those whose trust I’ve lost, I will fight like hell to win it back, because you deserve a leader who will be in the trenches, fighting to ensure CNN remains the world’s most trusted name in news,” Licht said.
Such a slice of humble pie coming from a chief executive is rare and a strong indication of Licht’s cloudy future at the network.
The drumbeats that Licht’s days may be numbered were heightened by last week’s announcement that Zaslav has dispatched one of his most trusted lieutenants, David Leavy, to serve as chief operating officer at CNN. He starts in the role on June 20.
The rationale for the move is that Leavy will handle business, operational and promotional activities across CNN, freeing Licht to focus on programming and editorial.
But the narrative circulating inside CNN is that Leavy will be getting working knowledge of the division so he could eventually take over in the event Licht cannot turn things around.
Leavy’s arrival is aimed at giving Warner Bros. Discovery time to figure out if Licht can be rescued, as Warner Bros. Discovery insiders believe Zaslav is loath to make another high-profile management change so soon. Warner Bros. Discovery wants to make that determination before the presidential campaign season — typically a strong period for CNN — gets into full swing.
Zaslav did issue a statement late last week after the Atlantic story, saying he still has confidence in Licht.
“CNN is a very important business for us, and, in fact, we believe that nothing we do is more important,” Zaslav said in a statement. “We aspire to be the news organization most trusted by viewers globally. 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.”
Nevertheless, Licht is now topping a growing list of issues that have plagued Zaslav since taking over as the big boss overseeing CNN, Warner Bros. film and TV studios and HBO.
The veteran executive has presided over layoffs of thousands of people.
Late last month, the company stumbled during its rebrand of the streaming service HBO Max, changing the name to Max to appeal to heartland consumers turned off by the coastal elite appeal of HBO. But the new app infuriated Hollywood talent by lumping directors, writers and producers into a single generic category called “creators.”
Despite the show of support for Licht, Leavy is acting like an executive who will be deeply involved in all aspects of the network. He has already reached out to on-air talent at the network and the agents who represent them, according to several people who have been contacted.
When Leavy talks with employees, he will likely hear about low morale under Licht’s leadership, which they have privately complained about for months, according to several insiders. Their unhappiness can be reflected in the number of unflattering stories leaked about the company, something that happened rarely when Zucker was in charge.
Leavy, 53, has no experience running a news organization but is familiar with Washington politics. Before joining Discovery in 2000, he worked as a press spokesman during the Clinton administration, including at the National Security Council, U.S. State Department and the White House.
Even before the Leavy announcement, Warner Bros. Discovery management was already concerned with CNN’s direction under Licht, who arrived in 2022 with a record as a successful TV producer thanks to his work on “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and “CBS This Morning.” During a CNN town hall with employees in March, Zaslav conceded that mistakes had been made.
The transition from executive producer to the chief executive of a nearly 4,000-person news organization has turned out to be perilously fraught.
Licht, 51, entered the job facing a string of challenges that were not of his making, including a soft TV advertising market, the shrinking number of pay TV consumers and numerous rounds of layoffs and cost-cutting due to the parent company’s enormous debt.
But Licht baffled people inside the company by choosing to make a new morning program his first priority when the network needed to bolster its prime-time lineup after losing its top-rated personality Chris Cuomo. “CNN This Morning” is often the least-watched show of the day and two of its three co-anchors have been moved off the program, including Don Lemon, who was fired following a backlash over making sexist remarks.
Lemon was delivering the kind of liberal commentary in prime time that made Zaslav unhappy. But Licht was told that moving Lemon to the morning, where the ability to banter spontaneously is a must, was not a good solution, according to one former CNN executive who was not authorized to comment.
Lemon faced a backlash over ill-advised comments about Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley being past her “prime.”
Warner Bros. Discovery executives were also irked that Licht said there would be no layoffs at CNN following the closing of its short-lived streaming service. Licht was forced to make more personnel cuts.
But the network’s troubles became a full-blown crisis following the May 10 town hall with former President Trump, who long ridiculed the network for being “fake news.”
The town hall format was panned internally and externally, as Trump was able to play to cheering supporters in the New Hampshire audience and deliver falsehoods at a faster rate than moderator Kaitlan Collins could fact-check.
Veteran CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour publicly denounced the decision to give Trump such a forum.
“My management believes they did the right thing as service to the American people,” Amanpour told an audience at Columbia Journalism School on May 18. “I still respectfully disagree with allowing Donald Trump to appear in that particular format.”
Licht and the company defended the decision to feature the former president with a prime-time appearance because polls show him as the Republican frontrunner for the 2024 race for president. But Amanpour’s colleagues shared her message on social media in solidarity, an outright rebuke of Licht.
While the town hall attracted more than 3 million viewers, the audience has left CNN in droves since, with the network finishing behind the small, right-wing network Newsmax on some nights in prime time. Veterans at CNN said the Nielsen data shows that its audience is clearly angry at the network.