Inside the CNN Meltdown Over Its Town Hall Disaster

Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast
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This reporting is featured in this week’s edition of Confider, the newsletter pulling back the curtain on the media. Subscribe here and send your questions, tips, and complaints here.

CNN boss Chris Licht’s extreme sensitivity to any negative press coverage of his reign, and his resulting attempt to intimidate the network’s top media reporter in the wake of the disastrous Trump town hall, has greatly alarmed staffers.

Less than a year after Brian Stelter was shown the door, Oliver Darcy’s reported dressing down is an inflection point that CNN talent, executives, and staffers who spoke with Confider over the last few days said has marked an especially dark chapter of Licht’s now yearlong tenure.

As Puck first reported, Licht pulled aside Darcy and his Reliable Sources editor Jon Passantino to scold the pair for their newsletter’s highly critical coverage of the town hall’s “spectacle of lies” aired by CNN—an internal version of the intensely negative reviews that incensed Licht.

CNN’s Defense of Trump Town Hall Is It ‘Made News’—but Did It?

The meeting took place shortly after a Thursday morning editorial call in which Licht unsubtly took a swipe at Darcy. Puck’s sources claimed the media reporter was “visibly shaken” after the meeting because Licht and other execs had “put the fear of God into him” and told him his coverage was “too emotional.”

According to multiple people familiar with the meeting, Darcy openly pushed back on the “emotional” characterization during the chat—a detail Semafor first reported this weekend—and vigorously defended his reporting as accurate based on internal discord over the town hall. Another network source, meanwhile, characterized the meeting as essentially a healthy debate that didn’t grow overtly hostile. Licht was the main antagonist in the meeting, according to three people familiar with the matter, while CNN’s editorial VP Virginia Moseley and global news SVP Rachel Smolkin remained neutral and mostly quiet throughout the boss’ lecture.

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While CNN employees were already troubled by the CEO’s actions after Puck’s story on Friday, it was a Fox News Digital follow-up article, in which an anonymous Licht ally claimed CNN staffers were “appalled” by Darcy, that appears to have been a bridge too far for many.

“People are really bothered,” one CNN executive told Confider, noting that their phone had been ringing off the hook from network employees “flipping out” over the situation. “I heard zero complaints about Darcy’s newsletter—in fact, the opposite. People were glad someone was calling this out,” a CNN on-air personality added. “And it’s a terrible look that he’s being muzzled or intimidated simply for saying what everyone is thinking. He’s not in PR. He’s a journalist.”

Darcy had previously told colleagues that he has contemplated resigning from CNN over this incident, which a network spokesperson now tells Confider is not happening.

CNN Failed America With Its Train Wreck of a Trump Town Hall

Meanwhile, CNN insiders said Licht has been spending an inordinately large amount of time around The Atlantic reporter Tim Alberta, who is profiling the executive after his first year in office. Alberta was in the audience for the Trump town hall, which was described to Confider as “our Chernobyl” by one CNN staffer, as network spin doctors work overtime hoping to generate a glowing profile of the boss.

All the while, the network fell to fourth place in cable news primetime ratings on Friday night, just two days after the Trump town hall, falling behind MAGA channel Newsmax.

As for Darcy, he hasn’t posted to social media since the day of the meeting, and didn’t respond to requests for comment on Monday but is scheduled to publish his newsletter on Monday night.

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