stop the presses

Was Everybody Always Out to Get Chris Licht?

Zuckerites might be rejoicing, but Zaslav is still the boss.

Watch your back. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock
Watch your back. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock

It ended, early this morning, how it began: with a walk in the park.

Last year, when David Zaslav was trying to convince Chris Licht to run CNN, they took a stroll through Central Park. The two knew each other from the chummy, Hamptons-y white-guy world of media-mogul adjacency. Zaslav had made the jump to full-mogul status, in control of what had been WarnerMedia, and needed someone he could trust to be CEO of CNN, the high-profile division whose anti-Trump posturings under Jeff Zucker had clearly annoyed him. Zucker was out, and Zaslav didn’t even bother to interview anybody else besides Licht. Zaslav warned him that the job — and, more to the point, the scrutiny around it — would be “brutal.” As Jim Stewart wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Licht said he doesn’t recall Mr. Zaslav ever offering him the job, or his accepting it.” He’ll probably always remember that he was fired there, though. Zaslav did it on their 7 a.m. walk through the park this morning as the apocalyptic, world-on-fire fog was enveloping Manhattan.

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to anyone, least of all Licht. It was probably something of a relief. Pretty much from the start, Licht was played for a sucker. He got played by his fired predecessor, Zucker, who was out for blood. He got played by his staff, who hated his Zaslav-mandated budget cuts and other changes and longed for the old days of Zucker. He got played by the press, who love a juicy, backbiting pile-on. He got played by Donald Trump. And in the end, in fishing for sympathy with a journalist by participating in the Atlantic profile, he played himself.

Many people in Licht’s life told him that taking this job was a bad idea, but he didn’t listen. He called it, memorably, a “calling.” Who could argue with someone on a mission from God? One of Licht’s close friends who cautioned him against accepting the job recalls, “I said ‘Chris, this fucking deal that Zaslav just did with Warner Bros. Discovery is held together by wiring, gauze pads, and toy batteries. It’s going to blow apart at some point.’ And then inflation hit. I said, ‘You’d better understand what your role is.’ Zaslav got this guy to do all the cuts, then he got cut.”

But even those sympathetic to him admit that, by talking to Tim Alberta, Licht lit the match to his own auto-da-fé. “Chris is a good guy and a smart guy, but he’s a man on fire, and he helped set the fire and he knows it,” says Mike Barnicle, a Morning Joe commentator who worked with Licht when he ran the MSNBC show. “It’s like, Holy Jesus Christ. You give nine months of your time to the guy and he’s following you around to the gym at 6 a.m.? It sounded like Kendall Roy during part of it, and he’s not that.” Perhaps not since Lynn Hirschberg shadowed the late Jamie Tarses around Century City in 1997 has there been so neatly a career-ending magazine profile of a media big shot.

So why’d he do it? He probably felt misunderstood and like everybody was after him. Puck reporter Dylan Byers published more than 50 — 50! — articles about Licht in one year. Byers used to work for Zucker at CNN and floated in several columns that Zucker’s close friend, the UTA agent Jay Sures, could land the top job: “When it comes to having the love and loyalty of CNN insiders, Sures is unrivaled …” (Byers was represented by UTA.) It has been reported that Zucker has held discussions about making an investment in Puck (he apparently just loves its coverage!). Also, Zucker and Puck share the same sharp-elbowed, well-connected PR rep in Risa Heller. Meanwhile, Zucker protégé Brian Stelter was fired by Licht and then began reporting on the network, tweeting constantly about the chaos inside. (On June 4, he also wrote an article about Licht for this magazine.)

“Chris didn’t let it roll off his shoulders,” says one person Licht spoke to. “He let it get into his head that people who are supposed to be on his team are leaking from day one — and Jeff Zucker from day one is coordinating this — and trashing him wherever he goes. So, yeah, of course he reacts poorly to it. He felt, rightly so, that he was surrounded by enemies.”

The fight became so one-sided that Zaslav’s best friend, the media investor Kenneth Lerer, stepped up to hit back at Zucker in a story in Sunday’s Times that detailed how Zucker has functioned as a “grievance switchboard” for Licht’s staff all year. Lerer told reporter Benjamin Mullin, “This is all very sad for Jeff. He should move on with his life. It’s disheartening to see.” (The print version of the story carried the catty headline “Jeff Zucker Just Won’t Let CNN Go Already.”)

The events of the past several days have seemed to some like that moment that comes halfway through a Pakula flick when you realize everybody really is out to get the guy. “Watching all this negative coverage over some time now,” says one CNN reporter, “it’s been a bit confusing. It doesn’t feel very natural — and a bit persistent and coordinated.”

But to what end? Surely, Licht was in over his head with this job. But it wouldn’t have been an easy job for anyone. Tucked into the very end of the Atlantic profile is a brief acknowledgment of what a train wreck Zucker’s first couple of years felt like. But unlike Licht, with his well-meaning higher-purpose-of-journalism bromides, Zucker was always going to chase the biggest audience. Which is why all the sanctimony from CNN staff over Licht’s Trump town hall seems a bit rich. Many of the people criticizing Licht for “platforming” Trump for one evening are the same ones who worship Zucker, the ultimate Trump-platformer who green-lit The Apprentice and offered Trump debate advice. CNN used to broadcast Trump’s empty podium.

When resistance journalism became hot, Zucker let his stars run wild. Zaslav and Licht thought that went too far — and truth be told, that strategy was not the ratings winner it had once been after Trump left office — and sought to pull it back. But a news-over-sensationalism CNN just seems bland to cable-news junkies. And when Licht offered America a full-strength dose of Trumpiness with the town hall, everyone freaked out.

These are powerful incentives that Licht (and Zaslav) messed with; why would any of the talent now, after everything, want to engage with Trump in a way that won’t please their cheering sections or their bank accounts? Some of this goes to big complicated questions of truth and objectivity and the role of the Fourth Estate, and Licht was perhaps too cocky in how he went about answering them. His oft-repeated credo, about how CNN would not host people who deny it’s raining when it was, was never going to convince anybody, least of all his newsroom.

And now that Licht is licked — mission accomplished! — what will happen next?  A troika of veteran CNN hands (Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling) and a suit named David Leavy, who is the right-hand man of Zaslav, have taken control for now (presumably, Zaslav will actually … interview a few more candidates this time around). Zaslav ultimately is still very much in charge, as he has been since the beginning, telling Licht right off the bat, Oh, I need you to fire hundreds of just-hired people and shutter CNN+, which was supposed to be the future of the brand. And then invite some Republicans on. And tell everyone to quit being such snowflakes. It begs the question, Did Zaslav even think Licht could succeed? Was he a mark all along?

Some inside the network are beginning to worry that Licht’s destruction may be a Pyrrhic victory. “I’m not sure if this pretty savage period leaves CNN in a better place,” one reporter said earlier this week as Licht was falling. “Do the people who want him to leave think the next CEO would turn the clock back to 2013?” Another CNN reporter wondered, “If he leaves, is it just going to be another big fight against whoever takes over?” The staff whined to Alberta that Licht is nothing but a Zaslav patsy, but now they are stuck with Zaslav’s actual capo.

In all this ugly media pile-on, some of the only people who were defending Licht publicly, on air, were his old comrades at MSNBC, the Morning Joe crew. (Even Zaslav didn’t bother to go on the record to Alberta and defend Licht.) That’s how vicious this business is: It took CNN’s main competitor to defend its own CEO. I rang up Joe Scarborough to see what he made of it all.

“Our office gets very cranky when I start talking about competitors,” he said, chuckling. “Chris has learned a lot from what’s happened. We’ve been talking to him. He’s learned a lot from what’s happened to him over the past year. Certainly, he learned a lot from what happened last Friday and was really committed to putting his head down and correcting his mistakes and moving forward positively. And so he would have done that, if given the time.”

But that’s not what happened. As one media executive notes, “Jeff is a street fighter, and I don’t think Chris is a street fighter.” Which might be why Licht ended up, early this morning, knifed in the park in the enveloping fog.

Was Everybody Always Out to Get CNN’s Chris Licht?