If you have not done so already, read Tim Alberta’s scathing 15,000 word profile of CNN head honcho Chris Licht. It’s probably one of the most fascinating pieces about the media world of the past year that does not involve Fox News. Alberta’s piece is a deep dive into, among other things, CNN’s Trump Town Hall debacle, but is also embarrassing for Licht and CNN: it calls into question his capabilities as the network’s CEO and his overall judgment when it came to actually improving it.
It was so jarring that Licht had to answer for it directly. He started CNN’s daily network editorial meeting on Monday by directly addressing that elephant in the room.
“I want to say that I’ve spent the weekend doing a lot of thinking,” Licht told staffers, many of whom had dialed into the meeting specifically to hear from Licht, whom they have not heard from since Alberta’s piece went live. He apologized for being a distraction, saying he “should not be in the news, unless it is taking arrows” for the network. And he said that he did not recognize the person portrayed in certain parts of Alberta’s piece. But above all, Licht described the experience as “tremendously humbling” and vowed to “fight like hell” to win over the trust of the 3,500-person news organization he is in charge of.
But there seems to be no way out of this mess. When it comes to the product, the New York Times describes the situation as a “crisis” and it is easy to see why. Ratings have gotten so bad that Newsmax, once banished to the fringe of right-wing media, has begun to beat CNN. The Don Lemon fiasco has led to a consistent failure to restructure the morning show. And, of course, profits are down.
Perhaps even more importantly, there is (and has been) a growing sentiment that Licht no longer commands respect in CNN’s newsroom. In a piece by Oliver Darcy of CNN, he writes the following:
“In the eyes of so many at CNN, there isn’t anything Licht can do at this point to win over their support. They’ve hit the wall with him. As one anchor texted me, in reference to Licht’s announcement on Monday that he will relocate his office to a newsroom floor at Hudson Yards: ‘We don’t want his office relocated to the 18th floor, we want it relocated out of the building’.”
Over the last 72 hours, top anchors and correspondents have reached out to David Leavy, CNN’s newly installed chief operating officer and, more importantly, the trusted lieutenant of Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav, to offer their candid thoughts about Licht’s leadership. Suffice to say, in these conversations, CNN journalists have not been shy in criticizing Licht.
Zaslav, I’m told, understands the dire state of affairs at his news network. He wouldn’t have dispatched his top lieutenant before the publication of The Atlantic piece if he did not believe there was a problem.”
Leavy’s installment is perhaps a sign that Zaslav and corporate may be hedging their bets on a potential Licht ouster; why would they send in a fixer if they trusted Licht? But even if things turn around for CNN as a network, with no trust from the rank-and-file is a much harder thing to recover. It may not even happen, as even his remarks on Monday certainly failed to rally support.