The Education of CNN’s Chris Licht

From a New York Times story by James B. Stewart headlined “The Education of CNN’s Chris Licht”:

When Chris Licht told his boss, Stephen Colbert, the host of the CBS program “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” in February that he had been offered the chief executive job at CNN, Mr. Colbert was blunt: “Definitely don’t go do that.”

But for Mr. Licht, nothing less than democracy itself was at stake. He argued he could make CNN a news channel that people trusted, as opposed to one that monetized partisan combat.

“Oh, man, you used to be in news, remember?” Mr. Colbert recalled telling him. “You said this was so much nicer — 12 weeks off, good pay, laugh for an hour every night. Everyone is really nice; you can say anything you want, and nobody leaks it. It’s great.”

“CNN would be lucky to get you,” Mr. Colbert continued. “But you’re my friend, and I’m telling you not to go.”

“This is a calling,” Mr. Licht countered.

At which point Mr. Colbert stopped trying to dissuade him: “I can’t negotiate with a calling.”

On Feb. 28, Mr. Licht was named CNN’s new chief executive. Since then, he and Mr. Colbert have spoken nearly every Friday. Each time, Mr. Colbert begins with the same four words:

“I told you so.”

By almost any measure, Mr. Licht, 51, has had a rough start. His first major act was to kill the network’s fledgling streaming service, CNN+, and fire 400 or so people working on it. CNN’s revenue and profits have plunged to a projected $750 million this year, down from $1.25 billion last year, partly from the costs associated with CNN+, the network acknowledged. CNN’s ratings declined, on average, this year compared with 2021, according to Nielsen, with CNN falling behind MSNBC for the first time in prime time on election night among total viewers. (CNN prevailed in the coveted 25-to-54 age group.)

At the end of November, Mr. Licht levied another round of job cuts — this time just under 10 percent of CNN’s work force of about 4,000, which plunged morale further. Among the casualties were familiar commentators like Chris Cillizza, key behind-the-scenes producers with decades of experience, and the entirety of HLN, CNN’s sister network, and its popular morning host, Robin Meade.

A chorus of media pundits has pounced on every tidbit of bad news. Mr. Licht’s early programming efforts aimed at repositioning the network as broader and less partisan have prompted howls of criticism, with former MSNBC host and former colleague Keith Olbermann publicly calling Mr. Licht a “TV Fascist” after he moved Don Lemon, a liberal host, from a prime-time slot to a revamped morning show.

“The uninformed vitriol, especially from the left, has been stunning,” Mr. Licht said in one of several interviews with The New York Times spanning his nearly eight-month tenure. “Which proves my point: so much of what passes for news is name-calling, half-truths and desperation.”

Mr. Licht said he was under no illusion that stepping into the chief executive job would be easy or make him popular. The network’s previous parent, the telecommunications giant AT&T, had just spun off its Warner Media subsidiary, which included CNN, into a new company run by Discovery’s chief executive, David Zaslav.

Just two months before the companies merged and only weeks before CNN+ was introduced to the world, the network’s popular and longtime chief executive, Jeff Zucker, was forced to resign after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with his top lieutenant, Allison Gollust. Some at CNN felt Mr. Zucker had been unfairly sacrificed and remained staunchly loyal to their former boss.

CNN had also become the poster child for the poisoned relationship between former President Donald J. Trump and mainstream media organizations. Mr. Trump repeatedly branded CNN as “fake news,” and his administration engaged in open warfare with CNN correspondents like Jim Acosta, who Mr. Tump once called “a rude, terrible person” during a news conference. In 2018, CNN’s New York headquarters had to be evacuated after a bomb threat.

CNN remained enviably profitable, earning over $1 billion a year for the past five years. But cable news, along with all cable channels, has been in secular decline, troubled by shifting viewer habits in an era of cord cutting and an exodus to streaming services and online news sites.

It’s not clear anyone could surmount those challenges, let alone someone who’d just spent nearly six years at a late-night entertainment show and had never managed a complex, globe-spanning organization with thousands of employees.

So why even take the job?

Mr. Licht seemed to have TV news in his DNA. As a child, he’d created a fictional TV news network, WBC, and produced his own newscast using a VCR camera in his basement in Newtown, Conn. At about the age of 9, he met the NBC legal correspondent Carl Stern on a family vacation and, in Mr. Licht’s telling, “stuck to him like glue.” Mr. Licht pried the newsman’s phone number from him and used it regularly. “I was obsessed,” Mr. Licht said.

After college at Syracuse University, Mr. Licht landed jobs at NBC affiliates in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As a reporter and producer, he covered a mass shooting in San Bernardino, the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., two presidential campaigns and three Olympics.

In 2005, he moved to NBC’s sibling network, MSNBC, soon becoming an executive producer for “Morning Joe,” which he helped develop into an improbable success in its hotly competitive morning time slot. Notably, the two hosts, the former Republican politician Joe Scarborough and the more liberal former CBS correspondent Mika Brzezinski, straddled the political divide. The tension between them seemed to enhance their audience appeal. Mr. Licht encouraged them to be themselves and embrace the unexpected. (They later married.)

Mr. Licht moved to CBS in 2010, where he’d scored another early morning success. He lifted ratings at the perennial also-ran “CBS This Morning” on the strength of the program’s three hosts, Charlie Rose, Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell, and an emphasis on news and in-depth interviews, rather than the lighter fare format of its competitors “Today” and “Good Morning America.”

After having a brain aneurysm in 2010 when he was still under 40, Mr. Licht wrote a book about what he learned from the experience, while still describing himself as a “killer TV producer” with “no urge to surrender my spot in the fast lane,” even after the near-fatal incident.

Restless after six years at “This Morning,” in 2016 he joined the then-faltering CBS program “Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Within a year, Mr. Colbert had seized the late-night ratings crown from Jimmy Fallon of NBC’s “Tonight Show.”

Soon after the Warner-Discovery deal was announced, Mr. Zaslav summoned Mr. Licht to Discovery’s headquarters in Manhattan on 19th Street and asked what he thought of CNN.

Mr. Licht told him he had no interest in running it. “I got out of news, and I’m not going back,” Mr. Licht had insisted.

Mr. Zaslav ignored the demurral. Over the next several weeks, he kept making the case to Mr. Licht. In fact, Mr. Zaslav said in an interview that he never considered anyone else for the job.

The two men have known each other for 15 years, since both were working at NBC, where Mr. Zaslav helped start MSNBC. In the years since, they have had breakfast once a quarter. Mr. Licht has looked to Mr. Zaslav as a mentor, and Mr. Zaslav has admired Mr. Licht’s work ethic and drive.

“He’s a fighter, and he likes to win,” Mr. Zaslav said.

At their first meeting, Mr. Zaslav argued that running CNN would be “a great opportunity to build the No. 1 news brand in the world,” and “the most trusted brand in news where people go every day and in a crisis for the best version of the truth.”

And more than that: “This is important for America. It’s important for a functioning society.”

Mr. Licht and Mr. Zaslav — not to mention Warner’s largest shareholder, the media mogul John Malone — were philosophically aligned. Fox and MSNBC were “advocacy” networks, as Mr. Zaslav put it, a proven business model appealing to like-minded viewers but of scant, if any, value as a public service. Whether by design or happenstance, he believed CNN had tacked left, a pale version of MSNBC that nonetheless alienated wide parts of the American electorate with a focus on politics and the president at the time, Mr. Trump.

Ted Turner’s mantra had always been “the news is the star.” Mr. Trump “is not the star,” Mr. Zaslav said.

Yet Mr. Licht was noncommittal. On a subsequent phone call, Mr. Zaslav urged Mr. Licht to think about CNN and whether he’d be interested in the top job. After Mr. Licht hung up, his wife, Jennifer Blanco Licht, a former TV executive herself, asked: “Is this crazy? I think you should do it.”

The two men continued the conversation on a long walk in Central Park. (They both live near the park.) During that conversation, Mr. Zaslav warned Mr. Licht that he’d be closely scrutinized and judged harshly. Is your family ready for this? Are you ready for this? Because “it will be brutal,” Mr. Zaslav said.

Mr. Licht said he doesn’t recall Mr. Zaslav ever offering him the job, or his accepting it. At one point, Mr. Zaslav simply asked, “Who’s your lawyer?” and started acting like Mr. Licht was CNN’s future chief executive. A contract ensued.

On their first lunch afterward, at Mr. Zaslav’s usual corner table at Gramercy Tavern, Mr. Zaslav indicated their yearslong relationship had fundamentally changed. “We’ve been friends for 15 years,” Mr. Zaslav said. “We’re not friends any more. You work for me.”

Almost immediately, their shared vision of saving democracy ran into the harsh reality of cable news economics.

With Fox News and MSNBC having already staked out the right and left ends of the political spectrum, attracting the middle (what Mr. Licht referred to as “normal” people) has proved elusive.

Mr. Zaslav had stressed that he didn’t care — at least not much — about CNN’s current ratings, revenue or profitability. He recognized that it would take years to reposition and rebuild the network. But even he had his limits.

AT&T’s board had approved an ambitious budget of $350 million for CNN+, much of it already spent by the time Mr. Licht arrived. Many more millions would be needed. With Warner facing pressure from Wall Street to find $3 billion in savings, on April 21, Mr. Licht killed the streaming service after less than a month on air.

In an effort to restore morale and calm anxiety, Mr. Licht assured CNN employees at a network-wide town hall meeting on May 5 that Warner Bros. Discovery didn’t anticipate further job cuts at CNN because there was no overlap between the news network and Discovery’s cable channels, and thus there wasn’t anyone else doing the same jobs that would need to be cut.

In a series of additional town hall meetings, most of them leaked almost immediately to The New York Times and other news outlets, Mr. Licht also laid the groundwork for the network’s shift to broader, less political and less partisan coverage. This was not, he stressed repeatedly, a move to the “center,” a boring, political neutral zone that Mr. Licht wasn’t even sure existed. Rather, it was an attempt to explore controversial issues from varied perspectives — not to tell people “what to think,” as he put it, but “how to think,” or what he called a “blueprint for how to make decisions.”

In July, Mr. Licht made a highly symbolic pilgrimage to Capitol Hill noteworthy for its inclusion of Republicans like the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, and Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Although he spent equal time with Democratic leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Mr. Licht was irritated that his visit was billed as an “apology tour” and effort to coax Republicans back onto the network — part of CNN’s perceived move to the right.

After long absences, several Republicans have since appeared on CNN, including Mr. McCarthy and Senator Rick Scott of Florida.

Featuring hosts and guests with opposing points of view and playing up controversy has paid ratings dividends on cable in the past, notably on CNN’s own “Crossfire,” which came under criticism for evolving into to a verbal food fight criticized by the comedian Jon Stewart as “hurting America.”

But Mr. Licht said he wasn’t interested in controversy for its own sake, but to offer a “rational conversation about polarizing issues.” After watching CNN, he hopes people will “take what they’ve heard to the dinner table and have a discussion,” he said. “That’s a dream of mine.”

Two examples have been coverage of the abortion debate in the wake of the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the debate over gun rights. To vocal criticism from the left, he hired Stephen Gutowski, founder and editor of Reload, a firearms website. No one wants a school shooting, said Mr. Licht, whose hometown, Newtown, was the site of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. “But we have to understand the culture of people who like guns,” he said.

“This is not vanilla, centrist or boring,” he added.

Mr. Licht has barely begun to put his stamp on the network’s programming, but it’s already evident in the new morning show, “CNN This Morning.” Mr. Licht picked the hosts, persuading the left-leaning Don Lemon to trade his prime-time slot for early morning, and pairing him with the former Daily Caller reporter and CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins and Poppy Harlow, a former host of “CNN Newsroom.” The show takes a somewhat similar approach to the one he used at “CBS This Morning” (which also shares a near-identical name).

In a series of interviews with The Times, Mr. Licht visibly came to life talking about “This Morning” and its co-hosts. “They obviously like each other,” he said. “The chemistry is great. I love the collaboration. Every day, it evolves. It’s not like me giving orders. It’s so much fun.”

“This Morning” debuted on Nov. 1. The New York Post (which shares ownership with CNN’s rival, Fox News) reported the next day that “‘CNN This Morning’ bombs in debut,” drawing just 387,000 viewers, far behind rival morning shows and trailing its predecessor on CNN, “New Day.” CNN called the instant critique “absurd and cheap” after just one day’s data. (Since then, the show has gained slightly among total viewers.)

More significantly, Mr. Licht noted, “This Morning” has broken news, including the chief Washington correspondent Jake Tapper’s scoop that Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona was leaving the Democratic Party to become an Independent.

Prime time looms as an even greater challenge. In August, Mr. Licht moved Mr. Tapper from his 4 p.m. anchor position to the coveted 9 p.m. slot that had been vacated by Chris Cuomo after CNN fired him for what it deemed inappropriate efforts to help his brother, New York’s former governor, Andrew Cuomo, fend off the sexual harassment allegations that led to his resignation from office. The experiment with Mr. Tapper fared poorly in the ratings and lasted just one month.

Mr. Licht acknowledged that prime time remains an “open canvas.” He said he and his colleagues were meeting and “throwing things against the wall, looking at off-the-beaten path opportunities.” Among the names tossed out have been entertainment, comedy and sports figures. He declined to be more specific but promised surprises.

Miklos Sarvary, a professor and director of the media and technology program at Columbia Business School, said that entertainment was potentially more profitable than low-margin news. “But what does that do to the brand if you want to be the most trusted name in news?” he said. “News is supposed to be serious. I’m not sure that putting on a comedian is a great move for credibility.”

Mr. Licht said he understood Mr. Sarvary’s point, but said prime time offered “some leeway for being a little different.”

“It has to be compelling and entertaining without hurting the news brand,” he said, citing his former boss Mr. Colbert, and Mr. Stewart as “the kind of people who’d work,” while acknowledging that Mr. Stewart is already locked into a lucrative contract at Apple TV.

Every Saturday, Mr. Licht sends Mr. Zaslav a memo with highlights of the week and programming and financial updates. Mr. Licht’s growth strategy is focused on CNN.com, which attracts more than 200 million unique visitors each month, according to CNN. But at its peak, CNN digital generated only about 10 percent of the network’s profits, Mr. Licht confirmed.

On Oct. 13, Mr. Licht made his debut in front of Warner Brother Discovery’s board at a hotel in Los Angeles, where he outlined both his growth and content strategy. Asked about his efforts to make CNN less partisan, Mr. Licht gave this analogy: Suppose it’s raining outside. CNN plans to have people on who love the rain, and it will have people on who say they don’t like the rain. But it won’t have anyone on who says it’s sunny out.

Mr. Licht said he used the analogy to make clear that a less-partisan CNN did not mean it was any less committed to truth. “This wasn’t to plot a new course but to assure people we would not let up one inch in being truth tellers,” he said. “The change is we will not do Trump 24/7 or let him dictate our agenda.”

By all accounts, Mr. Licht’s presentation was warmly received by directors, including Mr. Malone.

Mr. Licht’s vision is contending with industrywide pressures to cut costs. (He said he appreciates but doesn’t really believe Mr. Zaslav’s professed indifference to financial results.) By announcing the need for more layoffs on Oct. 26, he said he hoped to engage in a “transparent” process that would leave everyone feeling they’d been heard. But, he said, “it would be irresponsible not to do the tough work now.” He added, “I promise you CNN will be more profitable next year.”

However transparent, many in CNN’s rank and file felt blindsided by the cuts, especially after what they perceived as his earlier reassurances that no further layoffs would be needed. In a all-staff meeting in November, Mr. Licht said he stood by his earlier remark that there would be no merger-related layoffs, and “I absolutely would not have said something that I did not believe to be true.” But he said he understood how his remarks had hurt his credibility. “I have to win that credibility back,” he acknowledged.

Mr. Licht said the firings were the “low point” of his tenure so far.

At another all-staff meeting this month, aimed at restoring morale, Mr. Licht took questions and then ended with a passage he wrote himself:

In terms of morale, let me just say, you work at a world-renowned news organization alongside the best journalists on the globe. Your jobs have meaning. Your jobs have an impact. You are part of something bigger, of something with tremendous meaning. And nothing about that has changed. And you have in me as a leader, who has done a lot of your jobs, someone who has your back every step of the way. My loyalty is first and foremost to this organization and to journalism without fear or favor to anyone else, including our parent company.

That’s why I’m here. That’s why I took this job.
“I want CNN to be essential to society,” Mr. Licht said in one of our interviews. “If you’re essential then the revenue will follow.”

And if it doesn’t?

“Maybe it won’t work,” Mr. Licht conceded. “But I’d rather try to win this way.”

James B. Stewart is a columnist at The Times and the author of nine books, most recently “Deep State: Trump, the FBI and the Rule of Law.” He won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism, and is a professor of business journalism at Columbia University.

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