Chris Licht is out as chief executive officer of CNN, the network announced Wednesday morning. The final straw of Licht’s tumultuous and destabilizing tenure atop the news organization was a 15,000-word profile in The Atlantic, published Friday, that contained numerous embarrassing anecdotes and painted a picture of an arrogant leader who isolated himself from the network’s talent and producers as he made a series of head-scratching programming moves that seemed to undermine them.
“I have great respect for Chris, personally and professionally,” said David Zaslav, president and CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, in a statement announcing Licht’s departure. “The job of leading CNN was never going to be easy, especially at a time of huge disruption and transformation, and he has poured his heart and soul into it. While we know we have work to do as we look to identify a new leader, we have absolute confidence in the team we have in place and will continue to fight for CNN and its world-class journalism.”
More from WWD
It’s unclear who will take over, but days before the publication of writer Tim Alberta’s Atlantic profile — which was headlined “Inside the Meltdown at CNN” — Zaslav appointed David Leavy, his longtime communications chief, as chief operating officer of CNN, stripping Licht of operational, financial and marketing purviews, ostensibly so that he could focus his oversight on editorial. If the move was meant to marginalize Licht, the Atlantic profile forced a more drastic decision. Kris Coratti Kelly and Matt Dornic – the communications executives who gave Licht the green light to participate in the profile (Dronic was a featured character in the story) – also will depart, as will Licht’s chief of staff, Devan Cayea.
Zaslav announced Amy Entelis, executive vice president of talent and content development, Virginia Moseley, executive vice president of editorial, and Eric Sherling, executive vice president of U.S. programming, and Leavy as CNN’s interim leadership team.
Licht’s tenure began during a tumultuous time at CNN. Discovery had just acquired CNN-parent Warner Bros., two years after Warner Bros. had been through another earlier merger with AT&T. Meanwhile, popular CNN chief Jeff Zucker was ousted for carrying on an intimate relationship with his longtime number two, Allison Gollust. Beloved by the network’s anchors, even if he did have his detractors, Zucker rode the Donald Trump wave to record profits and ratings. And his defenestration prompted unusually public condemnations from several anchors, including Don Lemon and Alisyn Camerota. At that point, the network was already reeling from the ouster of primetime anchor Chris Cuomo after a series of embarrassing revelations about Cuomo’s efforts to quash reporting about inappropriate behavior of his older brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Days into his new job, Licht was forced to shutter long-gestating streaming service CNN+ only weeks after an ill-advised launch of the $300 million service; hundreds of people hired for the platform were let go. More painful layoffs followed, including the gutting of CNN’s well-regarded documentary unit, headed by Entelis. And what was supposed to be Licht’s signature programming move — a new morning show anchored by Lemon, Poppy Harlow and White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins — imploded in a matter of months as Lemon committed a series of on-air gaffs that inflamed tensions among its anchors, obliterating any possibility of all-important on-air chemistry. Last month, Lemon was abruptly fired and Collins was subsequently announced as the new 9 p.m. anchor, a slot that had been without a permanent host since Cuomo was fired in December 2021.
Then came the Trump town hall. The spectacle — during which Trump unspooled the usual lies and conspiracy theories and refused to answer basic policy questions as an audience made up of Trump devotees cheered and jeered — prompted more outrage inside, and outside, CNN. And it seemed to undermine Licht’s stated raison d’etre for the network: a course correction after the outrageous presidential tenure of Trump had led the network’s anchors and reports to stray into advocacy journalism.
Licht’s argument seemed to be that CNN could regain trust — from centrists and Republicans — by asking straightforward questions with a just-the-facts bent. But the approach always raised suspicion within CNN, in part because the philosophy seemed to come not from Licht, but from Zaslav, who was characterized in The Atlantic article as the puppet master, meddling in CNN’s journalism in an effort to make it more palatable to Republicans. Licht’s criticism, in The Atlantic article, of CNN’s coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly galling to Sanjay Gupta and the rest of the medical unit.
The town hall, during which Collins put up a valiant but predictably unwinable fight against Trump’s firehouse of falsity, undermined the notion that Trump could be treated like a normal person. It was in many ways the last straw for CNN’s anchors and producers, who sources say have made it clear to management that they resent the meddling from the Warner Bros. Discovery C-suite.
Licht joined CNN from “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” where he has been for several years after a long career in TV news. He was seen as a producer wunderkind when he launched MSNBC’s successful “Morning Joe” in 2007. He left MSNBC for CBS News, where he launched another successful morning program, “CBS This Morning,” with Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell. He left news in 2016 to become showrunner of Colbert’s show, which was then foundering. Licht — and the arrival of Trump on the political scene — injected the show with new energy and stability. In The Atlantic profile, Licht allowed that both Joe Scarborough and Colbert told him not to take the CNN job.
Best of WWD