CNN Worldwide chairman and CEO Chris Licht addressed the bombshell profile in The Atlantic in comments to network staffers on Monday, telling them, “I should not be in the news unless it’s taking arrows for you.”
Licht indicated that he had been doing “a lot of thinking” over the weekend about the profile, and said that his role had become a distraction. According to multiple sources, Licht apologized, and told staffers, “CNN is not about me.”
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Over months, Licht granted extraordinary access to The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta in a piece that ultimately was headlined, “Inside the Meltdown at CNN.” The profile underscored the tumult at the network, including the decision to go forward with a town hall with former President Donald Trump that featured a cheering audience of supporters who laughed when he made light of a sexual abuse verdict against him.
One on-air journalist said that Licht’s remarks were “for a lot of us too little, too late,” as the profile only added to lack of confidence in his leadership, already being questioned following the Trump town hall. The journalist noted that the day after the town hall, Licht presented it to staffers as a success, yet Alberta reported that the night before, the CNN boss “knew this was bad.”
“Folks are very rattled by what was written in that article,” the journalist said. “It was worse than we imagined.” Licht’s remarks on Monday, the journalist said, “just seems like a feeble attempt at damage control.”
Licht’s tenure is now under the microscope. On Thursday, CNN announced that it was naming David Leavy, a top adviser to Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav, as its COO. That has led to speculation that Leavy was brought in to try to right the ship amid staff discord and declining ratings, but it’s also reinforced perceptions that Licht has been following the dictates of the parent company. Leavy has been speaking to CNN personalities and other staffers since the announcement, according to sources.
Among other things, in comments in the profile, Licht criticized CNN’s breakneck coverage of Covid, and The Atlantic piece described Licht as fixated on his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, who had the fierce loyalty of many at the network before he exited in February, 2022. In one passage, in which Alberta observed Licht at his morning workout, “squatted down to grab a long metal pole lying flat on the ground. ‘Zucker couldn’t do this shit,'” Licht said, per Alberta’s piece. The profile also portrayed Licht as a bit obsessed with his own media coverage.
Licht’s staff call was covered on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, the show that he created along with co-host Joe Scarborough. Scarborough defended Licht, and read former CNN host Brian Stelter’s Twitter thread of the town hall, in which Licht also told staffers that he would “fight like hell’ to win their trust back.
“The suggestion that somehow CNN was like Shangri La and this powerhouse until Chris Licht walked through the doors kind of denies everything that happened over the past decade …as far as money goes,” Scarborough said. “…I’m not knocking Jeff, but this idea that it was a ratings juggernaut when it just wasn’t before Chris walked through the door. That’s not Jeff’s fault. That’s just bad reporting.” CNN’s ratings had dropped off in Zucker’s final years, he noted.
Another source also noted that Licht took the helm of a network that was adrift, but that he “made it harder on himself” with a series of unforced errors. “Doing that profile was never the answer,” the source said.
Licht also told staffers that he planned to move his office to the newsroom in New York, according to sources. The fact that Licht’s office was on another floor, away from the buzz of the news operation, was cited by Alberta in his profile piece.
Some CNN staffers were particularly upset over the way that Licht characterized the Zucker-era coverage of Covid as overhyped, and pushed back against the idea that the network didn’t give any airtime to the “lab leak theory” or other skepticism about the government’s approach to the pandemic.
Alberta tweeted that staff was upset over another passage in his story, having to do with the pre-show before the Trump town hall last month. The chyron reach “sexual abuse,” and one of Licht’s lieutenant’s phoned the control room and told them to take it down. Although Licht was not aware of the incident, it raised suspicions that some agreement had been reached with the Trump team to placate him, even though the network has denied that there was any deal to alter coverage in the negotiations with his team for the event.
Few CNN staffers have gone public with their criticisms, worried about the loss of their jobs amid rumblings that Warner Bros. Discovery may be in for another round of cost-cutting. Following the furor over the Trump town hall last month, Christiane Amanpour did go public in her criticism of the event, and warned Columbia Journalism School students that “bothsidesism is not always objectivity. It does not get you to the truth. Drawing false moral or factual equivalence is neither objective or truthful.” Licht, too, talked with Alberta about the need for calling out facts, but there has been wariness at CNN about giving unfiltered airtime to Trump and his allies, as well as pressure on on-air talent to be less confrontational with guests on the right.
A spokesman for Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav said he had no comment following Licht’s remarks beyond a statement that he gave to Alberta, but that was not included in the original version of the piece. Zaslav, who would not do an on-the-record interview with Alberta, said in the statement that “while we know that it will take time to complete the important work that’s underway, we have great confidence in the progress that Chris and the team are making and share their conviction in the strategy.”
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