CEO Chris Licht ousted at CNN after a year of crisis
Updated June 7, 2023 at 9:36 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, having lost the support of the corporate patron who wooed him to the network, Warner Bros. Discovery chief David Zaslav.
Zaslav personally confirmed the news to staffers after published reports that Licht was out.
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.
But according to colleagues at CNN, Licht's drumbeat of criticism about CNN's past journalistic performance created a deep internal rift, as did his near-constant focus on how the network had operated under his predecessor, Jeff Zucker.
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, Kaitlin Collins, as he sought to unveil her new primetime 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 overheated focus on Trump found some sympathies within CNN, Licht's remarks about Covid coverage, contained in a recently published 13,000-word profile by The Atlantic's Tim Alberta, 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.
Substantively, Licht appeared to lead most tangibly by subtraction.
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 primetime star Don Lemon to a retooled morning show. The weekend show of Jim Acosta became more subdued in tone. All had been critics of Trump. (Licht fired Lemon in April after the host clashed with his female co-stars on the morning show.)
This is a developing story and will be updated.
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