A pair of brutal reports about CNN chief Chris Licht are fueling questions about whether he still has the strong backing of his parent company boss that was previously expressed following a year of programming blunders, internal strife and painful ratings decline.
Over the past several months, Licht had given unprecedented access to The Atlantic staff writer Tim Alberta which resulted in a behemoth report published Friday about the turbulent year he has had as CNN’s CEO. The report included colorful details about the network’s widely-criticized Trump town hall as well as Licht’s tense working relationship with Don Lemon, who was fired in April following a dramatic string of events.
But perhaps the most notable excerpt was towards the end of the report when Alberta shed light on his struggle to speak with David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery which owns CNN.
Zaslav had previously been vocal with his support for Licht, who over the past year has taken slings and arrows from the left for carrying out the mission to move CNN away from its perceived liberal partisanship.
However, according to Alberta, Zaslav resisted from personally vouching for his top deputy, at least on the record.
Alberta summarized his back and forth with Zaslav’s communications chief Nathaniel Brown, who he said was “shielding his boss from participating in this story.”
“He first told me that Zaslav would speak to me only without attribution, and any quotes I wanted to use would be subject to their approval. When I refused—telling Brown that quote approval was out of the question, and that I would meet Zaslav only if he allowed on-the-record questioning—he reluctantly agreed to my terms, but then tried running out the clock, repeatedly making Zaslav unavailable for an interview,” Alberta wrote.
After an interview was scheduled for May 17 in Zaslav’s New York office, Brown reversed less than 24 hours prior, telling Alberta “We’re going to keep this on background only, nothing for attribution,” something Alberta called a “brazen renege on our agreement.” Zaslav ultimately sent a statement through Brown saying “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.”
Sources familiar with Zaslav and Licht’s working relationship, according to Alberta, have referred to Zaslav as a “control freak, a micromanager, a relentless operator who helicoptered over his embattled CNN leader,” adding “Zaslav’s constant meddling in editorial decisions struck network veterans as odd and inappropriate; even stranger was his apparent marionetting of Licht.” Licht pushed back against the notion that Zaslav wasn’t allowing him to do his job, telling Alberta “I don’t feel that at all… I feel like I have someone who’s a great partner, who has my back and knows a lot about this business.”
The second stinging report about Licht was from Puck’s Dylan Byers, who focused on Zaslav’s recent appointment of longtime corporate ally David Leavy as CNN’s new COO.
Byers referred to Leavy as Zaslav’s “pain sponge,” a term pulled from the HBO series “Succession.”
“The move, which Licht characterized as his own decision, was in fact an unequivocal vote of diminishing confidence by the parentco in Licht’s ability to manage a business that has endured substantial ratings declines, revenue losses, and reputational damage since he took over,” Byers wrote Friday. “It was also an indirect admission by Zaslav that he had been misguided in giving a celebrated talk show producer oversight of the incredibly complex commercial, operational, and promotional demands of a global, multiplatform, 24-hour news juggernaut.”
The Puck writer added that while Leavy “officially” reports to Licht, he insisted Leavy “will continue to work directly with Zaz, as he has for two decades,” adding “He is, for all intents and purposes, a co-C.E.O., providing both trusted help and adult supervision.”
The arrangement, Byers alleged, will have Leavy managing “[profits and losses], operational logistics, and marketing and P.R.” while Licht focusing more on being an “editorial chief and news director.”
“Zaslav no doubt hopes that Leavy’s installment will change the mood—he is a very affable guy, who prides himself on his ability to build culture at other Discovery networks—but the impression I get from the dozens of CNN staffers I talk to on a regular basis, as well as the dozens more who have sent unsolicited emails and text messages bemoaning the network’s current state of affairs, is that Licht is too far gone to win back the support of his newsroom. And lest Zaslav wasn’t aware of that before this week—though, let’s be honest, he was—he certainly is aware of it now,” Byers wrote.
Byers, a former Zucker-era CNN media reporter who’s provided scathing coverage of Licht’s tenure as the network chief, swiped Zaslav’s statement to Alberta, which he said was “by no means a ringing endorsement of Licht, but rather a generic, ChatGPT-style statement of support that provides him total optionality for CNN’s future.” He then included the full statement that Brown had provided, revealing it primarily focused on defending CNN itself rather than Licht.
“Managing CNN, especially now, may yet be damn near impossible. But in the post-Alberta, post-Leavy era, one thing seems clear: Licht better have a new plan. He’s going to need it,” Byers warned.
In addition to those painful reports, former CNN host and media correspondent Brian Stelter, who Licht had fired last year as part of the effort to cleanse the network of its most vocal left-wing partisans, seemed to bask in the drama with a barrage of tweets broadcasting what disgruntled CNN staffers were telling him about their boss, specifically regarding the comments he told Alberta knocking the network during the Trump years.
“The consensus, among people who knew @TimAlberta’s piece was coming, is that it’s much ‘worse’ than they expected,” Stelter wrote. “Licht confided in Alberta the way a client confides in a therapist. Some CNN staffers are shocked.”
Stelter alleged he woke up on Saturday morning to messages from his former CNN colleagues like “He made a bunch of these comments to Alberta without any apparent regard for how hurtful they’d be…” and “Even if he thinks these things…if he’s so concerned with the CNN brand, what is the point of saying any of this stuff publicly?”
He also had boasted a quote from Alberta’s story referring to Leavy’s new appointment and how it has “fueled talk of an imminent power struggle—and potentially, the beginning of the end for Licht.”
When asked to comment on the two reports and how much support Zaslav has for Licht, Brown of Warner Bros. Discovery provided the same statement attributed to Zaslav that was given to Alberta and Byers, which read, “CNN is a very important business for us, and, in fact, we believe that nothing we do is more important. We have the best journalists in the world at CNN reporting the news wherever it happens, and we aspire to be the news organization most trusted by viewers globally. We set a high bar for ourselves and 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.” A spokesperson for CNN also pointed to Zaslav’s statement when asked for comment
The searing reports about Licht come on the heals of the intense backlash he received publicly from CNN staffers over the network’s handing of last month’s live town hall featuring former President Trump.
CNN’s own media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote in his “Reliable Sources” newsletter, “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.” Licht later scolded Darcy for his “emotional” coverage but that was before veteran CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour offered a stinging indictment of the town hall during her commencement address to the 2023 graduates of the Columbia Journalism School and even called out Licht by name.
That’s only the beginning of Licht’s headaches. CNN has continued hemorrhaging viewers, particularly in the wake of the town hall, losing nearly a third of its primetime viewers since the live TV event and that’s on top of the already-dwindling audience it has had in recent years. His reshuffling of CNN’s daytime anchors earlier this year seemed to have little impact as well.
Licht’s first pet project at CNN with the creation of a new morning show imploded. Licht, who was the executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” before being appointed by Zaslav to run CNN, previously revitalized “CBS This Morning” and helped launch MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” hoping he could work his magic for CNN. He scrapped the struggling Zucker-era “New Day” and handpicked Don Lemon, Kaitlan Collins and Poppy Harlow to co-host “CNN This Morning.” However, its November debut was met with even worse ratings and on-set drama prompted Lemon’s firing and Collins (who moderated the Trump town hall) was selected to fill CNN’s long-vacant 9 p.m. ET time slot, leaving Licht’s early morning creation in tatters.
His problems are just as bad in primetime as CNN has lacked any star power in what is widely known in the TV industry as the most-watched time slots. Licht’s revolving door of fill-in hosts from Jim Acosta to Jake Tapper failed to boost viewership and it is unclear whether CNN’s recently-announced weekly show starring Charles Barkley and Gayle King will do anything to stop the bleeding.
Fox News’ Brian Flood contributed to this report.