Chris Licht is out at CNN after a little more than a year as CEO. His departure comes less than a week after The Atlantic published its an in-depth profile on the controversial leader, his vision for the cable news company, and the failure of two of his biggest initiatives: CNN This Morning and CNN’s Republican Town Hall with Donald Trump.
“I take full responsibility,” Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, who first brought on Licht, said on a call with CNN employees on June 7 when announcing the news.
The article, titled “Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” prompted Licht to apologize to staffers on June 7, and at the time it seemed he still believed he would stay on. On a call with editorial staff on June 5, he told his staff on that morning’s call that he would “fight like hell” to win back their trust. But the bombshells dropped in the piece, which clocks in at a whopping 15,000 words and was reported over many months spent with Licht, were too much to ignore.
Tim Alberta’s The Atlantic article described Licht as “detached, aloof, and inaccessible in every way,” with one source referring to him as “The Elon Musk of CNN.” Reports of his demeanor from inside the control room paint the picture of a chaotic leader too focused on small, potentially insignificant details of each broadcast to have his eye on the big picture of the company. On the day of the Trump Town Hall in particular, he gave the most direction to Trump himself, telling the former president to “have fun.” That town hall was not just a structural failure akin to, as Alberta called it, “a journalistic forum devolved into a WWE match,” but also a ratings failure for the network.
Licht’s signature show was supposed to be CNN This Morning, a program that he put together to bring some “fun” to the network (according to the article, “fun” was a priority for Licht). It was rushed to air, with far less rehearsals than a typical new show would have before launching, and when more and more allegations against co-host Don Lemon came to the surface, Licht’s biggest pet project fell apart. It became harder for him to justify his vision with no successful example to reference.
The exposé notes that Licht’s first misstep on the job was indicative of his entire ethos as leader of CNN. Within his first months as CEO, he made the decision to downplay coverage of the first hearing of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack in June 2022. It was a combination of his attempt to move CNN’s needle to the political center as well as his approach to not treat every news story as “an 11 on a scale of 10.” But the coverage was noticeably less prominent from other cable news channels, causing viewers to turn elsewhere.
Other questionable details about Licht’s strategy came to light as well, like the fact that his personal trainer, who has no political or journalistic experience, was one of his biggest sounding boards for his ideas about CNN. He believed that former CNN CEO Jeff Zucker was responsible for media leaks undermining his authority, and was obsessed with proving at every turn that he was superior to Zucker, even in feats of physical strength. And when asked about how criticisms of the network were affecting him, Licht responded by saying, “I genuinely am—I get mad, I get frustrated, but it doesn’t, like, affect me. Does that make sense?” Alberta noted that it didn’t make sense for the leader of the network to not feel affected by his company’s failings.
In the days between the article publishing and Licht’s ousting, there were reports of several people trying to warn Licht that his days were numbered, but he seemed confident he could find a way forward until the very end, another sign of his lack of industry foresight.
Zaslav told CNN staff that the search for a new CEO would “take a while” to find the right fit and that the search is being conducted internally and externally. In the meantime, CNN’s interim leadership will be Amy Entelis, the longtime head of talent and content development, head of editorial Virginia Moseley, programming chief Eric Shearling, and David Leavy, who is the incoming COO of CNN.
Brianna Wellen is a TV Reporter at Primetimer who became obsessed with television when her parents let her stay up late to watch E.R.