the media

Can Chris Licht Survive at CNN?

Staffers’ confidence is shaken, but the CEO is vowing to “fight like hell to win back their trust.”

Chris Licht. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images
Chris Licht. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Reporters learn early in their careers to think two or three steps ahead. That’s why, while the media commentariat was talking about CNN CEO Chris Licht last Friday, some of CNN’s best-known journalists were thinking ahead and calling David Leavy.

Precisely 24 hours before The Atlantic published “Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” a 15,000-word defenestration of Licht, the cable news network announced Leavy as its new chief operating officer. The press release listed June 20 as Leavy’s start date. But the truth is Leavy started immediately — he had no other choice. He knew the article was about to hit. His boss David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, needed him to survey and repair the damage.

Leavy, who was Zaslav’s chief corporate operating officer, emailed multiple CNN anchors right away and vowed to meet with them as soon as possible. And then came the phone calls: delicate conversations with CNN personalities who signaled that they have lost confidence in Licht as a leader. Some top anchors want him out. “I feel like a quarterback without a coach,” one anchor commented Sunday.

That anti-Licht sentiment is shared by many in the CNN rank and file, and has existed to some extent for months, but The Atlantic article cemented it. In the words of three employees: “He’s over.” “He’s done.” “There’s no coming back from that profile.” However, the staffers don’t know whether Zaslav agrees. Licht clearly sees a way forward: On Sunday evening, to the surprise of some employees, he was in Iowa, overseeing the production of a town-hall broadcast with GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley. He plans to address the CNN staff on Monday morning.

Most of the 40-plus people whose insights informed this column, texted and called me over the weekend because of my history at CNN. I covered media news and anchored the Sunday-morning program Reliable Sources for nearly nine years. I was shown the door in August 2022 but have remained in touch with Licht, Zaslav, and other key players at the company. This is the first time I’m reporting on CNN at any length since leaving.

The network is at an inflection point, and Zaslav will determine its future. He has been vocal — much more in private than public — about how he wants CNN to evolve. Some say this reflects his passion for the brand; others say it amounts to inappropriate interference. Licht has told deputies that he has defended CNN’s editorial independence.

Many CNN staffers feel the news operation isn’t broken and thus doesn’t need Zaslav or Licht to fix it. Zaslav, who seems not to agree, has channeled his views through Licht, sometimes loudly enough that others could overhear him doing so over the phone. But now Zaslav is telling associates that Leavy is bringing adult supervision — a seeming indictment of Licht. In the words of one host, “Something has got to give.”

On April 11, 2022, the day Warner Bros. Discovery was born, Zaslav could have visited HBO, the Warner Bros. studio lot, or any number of prized assets. But he chose to visit CNN first. Zaslav and Leavy, his longtime right-hand man, toured CNN’s New York offices at Hudson Yards in the morning and visited the Washington, D.C., bureau at night. Zaslav talked up CNN as a “national treasure” and praised the network’s coverage of the war in Ukraine. When asked about the status of the brand-new CNN+ streaming service, “Zaslav responded that it would be up to incoming chief Chris Licht to decide on future strategy,” Insider reported that day.

Zaslav had started to recruit Licht to take over CNN months before then-network president Jeff Zucker’s ouster meant the job was vacant. He believed Licht was a “wunderkind,” impressed by Licht’s years producing Morning Joe, CBS This Morning, and The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. He didn’t interview anyone else for the job, a fact that insulted Zucker’s lieutenants but signaled that Zaslav thought a total overhaul was necessary.

Post-Zucker, CNN staffers longed for another larger-than-life, I-have-your-back leader — as many saw Zucker. They thought they might have one in Licht. May 1 was supposed to be Licht’s first day of work. But when Zaslav decided to shut down CNN+, he tasked Licht with announcing the decision and laying off the employees. It was April 21. Licht didn’t even have an office yet.

If I sound sympathetic toward the position Licht was placed in, that’s because I, like many CNN employees, had been. Everyone could tell that he was carrying out someone else’s orders. But the goodwill dried up quickly because, in the words of a Licht confidant, “he was dealt a bad hand, and then he played it badly.” That’s the story Tim Alberta told in The Atlantic in devastating detail.

Alberta rightly hit on Licht’s office location as a metaphor for the exec’s missteps. Licht decided not to move into Zucker’s modest old office on the 17th floor, steps from the daytime anchor set and the newsroom. He chose a corporate suite on 22, above all the CNN floors, with its own reception area and a glorious view of the Hudson River. Employees wondered if their badges even worked up there. Few had reason to find out since Licht kept most CNNers at a distance, or at least that’s how they felt. Correspondents likened him to a ghost and bemoaned his lack of feedback. One said, “He didn’t like what we were doing but didn’t tell us how to do it differently.”

He told Alberta, however. Licht talked at length about his disdain for the Trump-era, Zucker-era CNN. And that’s what a great deal of the employee angst is about now. “It’s very frustrating,” one said, “that we learn more about Licht’s motivations from interviews than we do from internal communication.”

Staffers I spoke with were startled by the lapse in judgment that Licht’s participation in The Atlantic profile represented. And they were particularly offended by Licht’s assertion that CNN unduly hyped COVID for ratings. (I was on CNN’s air almost every day back then, and I completely reject that.) In private conversations over the weekend, Licht has sought to clarify that his criticisms of CNN’s coverage were about the later stage of the pandemic, not the pre-vaccine period, and were informed by internal research that showed some viewers lost trust in the network due to COVID.

“Even if he thinks these things,” one staffer said, “if he’s so concerned with the CNN brand, what is the point of saying any of this stuff publicly? Just giving haters on the right more ammo to bash us with while giving skeptics on the left more ammo to justify turning us off. How does any of this help anything?”

Let me take a step back. When Alberta first asked to shadow Licht and write about the “gut renovation” of CNN, there was reason to believe that the resulting piece would be positive. It was mid-June of last year, and Licht was promising to roll out programming “that questions the status quo, shatters groupthink, holds our leaders on both sides of the aisle accountable to facts and fights fearlessly to get to the truth.” He was planning a signature Sunday-night newsmagazine and brainstorming a new morning show. And he was supremely confident — because Zaslav had his back.

So he talked with Alberta last fall, then talked some more. Most CNN staffers, even most anchors, had no idea that the profile was in the works. By the time I caught wind of it, in March, CNN’s ratings had dipped, morale had collapsed, and Alberta’s notebook was already full of gruesome detail about the CNN This Morning mess and other misfires. Yet the reporter was still allowed back in the building for more — and he ultimately portrayed Licht as paranoid, self-absorbed, and reluctant to admit mistakes. “Trumpian” is the phrase several staffers used with me. And to be clear, these were all people who respected Licht at the outset — “I was really rooting for him,” one said. Another insider remarked: “I’m so struck by how consumed he is by the coverage he gets and the respect his predecessor had.”

Licht’s allies (they do still exist) point out that he faced very real challenges from the get-go, including constant leaks to the press. CNBC reporter Alex Sherman astutely observed on Sunday that “there are many parallels between what’s happening at CNN and what happened at Disney with Bob Chapek and Bob Iger.” Zaslav has made a similar point in recent months, I’m told. The New York Times said Sunday that Zucker is “now serving as a kind of grievance switchboard for current and former employees of the news network.”

It’s tempting to say Licht is entangled in a proxy war between Zucker and Zaslav and shrug at all the rich white guys fighting over a declining asset. But that would be a mistake. This argument is about the proper function of journalism in a fractured democracy. It’s about when and how and even whether news organizations should stand up to demagogues who want to destroy them. Judging from the near-unanimous criticism of CNN’s Trump town hall last month, the Zaslav and Licht camp is losing the argument.

David Leavy at a Discovery, Inc., event in 2018. Photo: Amanda Edwards/Getty Images for Discovery, Inc.

In the wake of the town hall, which Alberta was allowed to attend as a guest of CNN, executives in Licht’s inner circle came to recognize that the forthcoming article would be bruising — maybe even brutal. Leaks to Puck’s Dylan Byers and other journalists indicated that Licht had “lost the room,” so to speak, while others said he never won the newsroom to begin with. Where he needed to build alliances, instead he built walls. He was so busy “managing up,” interfacing with Zaslav, that he didn’t build many relationships below 22. The view from upstairs now, according to two people who spoke with Zaslav, is that Licht “overcorrected” — that he tried so hard not to be Zucker that he became ineffective.

More than a dozen sources observed that in recent months, Licht had begun to open up somewhat, sending back-patting texts to his reporters, complimenting their packages and stories. “He’s actually really good one-on-one,” a producer said, which squared with my own experience. (Licht fired me in such a gracious manner that we have joked about it since.) But his belated outreach to the rank and file prompted eye-rolls from some CNN veterans, especially those who had been in meetings with Licht from the start and observed the same traits that Alberta documented. To them, Alberta didn’t reveal anything new; he merely told the rest of the media industry what they already knew. “This incompetence and tone-deafness is what we’ve been dealing with for a year now,” a top anchor said.

But staffers in bureaus like Los Angeles and London, already frustrated by cost-cutting moves like a partial travel freeze, and fearful about Warner’s looming round of layoffs, said they were stunned by the quotes. “He hates us,” one correspondent said, an emotion echoed by several others.

I also spoke with a foreign correspondent who was strongly supportive of Licht, even after Alberta’s article. This person said Licht “has been a highly enthusiastic and caring investor in reporters” and suggested some CNNers are still pining for the Zucker era. “It’s vital for us all to move on,” the correspondent said, “and get on with our jobs.”

By the time Alberta was preparing his final draft, Zaslav had already determined the need to dispatch Leavy to help stabilize the situation at CNN. The result was Thursday’s installation of Leavy as COO. Licht announced the news on CNN’s daily 9 a.m. editorial call. Most staffers don’t dial into the meeting, so they learned about Leavy through a press release — there was no memo from Licht.

Discovery said Leavy would start at CNN on June 20, giving him two weeks to hand off big chunks of his current corporate portfolio to others. Later in the day, however, word came that The Atlantic was publishing the Licht profile even sooner than expected. It came out Friday during the 9 a.m. editorial call, and some reporters began reading while pretending to listen to the meeting. “How can he lead us now?” asked more than one producer.

All day long, staffers shared a mix of pride in their scoops — the news operation is “firing on all cylinders right now” — and anger at Licht for distracting from that. One employee called it “trauma bonding” and said “I have so many Signal threads I can’t keep up.” In New York, where CNN’s parent is consolidating office space and giving up the 17th floor, one reporter looked at all the moving boxes and said it felt like a season finale episode of Succession. Ironically, perhaps, Licht is about to move from the 22nd floor to one of the newsroom floors, according to several sources. But some senior employees wonder if he will last long enough to relocate. Leavy is already being described by some staffers as the “shadow CEO.”

While Leavy worked the phones over the weekend, listening to anchors’ concerns and pledging a reset, Licht laid low. Spokespeople for Warner Bros. Discovery and Licht had nothing to say about the resignation speculation. At the moment, no further changes seem to be imminent; Zaslav is keeping his options open, several people said.

Zaslav “has an opportunity to let Chris take the fall,” one of CNN’s longtime on-air personalities said, “and back off the both-side-isms.” But Zaslav has shown no sign of deviating from his vision for CNN, and he needs someone to execute it, whether that’s Licht or Leavy or both. Over the weekend, Licht plotted how to turn around CNN and save his own job. He told associates that he is going to lean into his authentic self. “I’ve got nothing to lose now,” he told one. “And I’m going to fight like hell to win back their trust.”

Can Chris Licht Survive at CNN?