CNN Chief Executive Chris Licht Leaving Network

From a Washington Post story by Elahe Izadi, Jeremy Barr, and Will Sommer headlined “CNN chief executive Chris Licht leaving network after weeks of criticism”:

Embattled CNN chief executive Chris Licht is out at the cable network, capping weeks of tumult within the company following a highly criticized town hall with Donald Trump and a scathing article that portrayed Licht as all but failing at his job of barely a year.

Staffers were notified on Wednesday by David Zaslav, chief executive of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, shortly before CNN anchor Kate Bolduan announced the news on air.

“I have great respect for Chris, personally and professionally,” Zaslav said later in a statement. “The job of leading CNN was never going to be easy, especially at a time of huge disruption and transformation, and he has poured his heart and soul into it.”

Licht replaced chief executive Jeff Zucker, who was forced to resign in early 2022 after failing to disclose to the company a romantic relationship with a fellow executive.

Now Licht is out at the network, less than a week after the Atlantic published a roughly 15,000-word profile, a story for which Licht gave extensive access to reporter Tim Alberta. The story presented Licht as failing to turn around CNN’s ratings problems and lacking the support of staff; it also quoted him criticizing CNN’s past coverage decisions and making questionable choices about the staging of the raucous Trump town hall, a live forum in which the former president spewed falsehoods and insulted moderator Kaitlan Collins, while an audience filled with Trump supporters cheered.

The impact of the story prompted Licht to apologize to his staff Monday and pledge to work to regain their trust.

Zaslav told CNN staff Wednesday that the company is searching “internally and externally” for a new leader. In the interim, CNN will be led by a team of longtime network executives — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling — along with David Leavy, a Discovery veteran whose appointment last week as CNN’s new chief operating officer was seen as an attempt to bolster oversight at the network.

Licht, 51, who has not commented on his ouster, has told people close to him that he genuinely hopes CNN staff “get the leader they deserve.”

A former CBS executive, Licht was one of Zaslav’s first major hires when the longtime Discovery CEO took over as head of the new conglomerate formed by the merger with CNN’s old parent company, WarnerMedia.

Licht had made his name as a master programmer, helping to launch MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and overseeing a successful overhaul of CBS’s morning show. Yet he notched few wins during his year at CNN as ratings reached historic lows — even trailing competitors who themselves were grappling with an overall decline in cable-news viewership as the frenetic coverage of the Trump White House gave way to the quieter Biden era.

Appointed to lead CNN in late February of last year, Licht had the unpleasant task of having to announce Warner Bros. Discovery’s shuttering of CNN Plus, the company’s month-old $100 million streaming service, before he had even officially started the job.

In his new role, Licht inherited a staff still mostly loyal to Zucker, who had helped grow the careers of many prominent on-air stars at the network and awarded generous contracts. He sent ripples of concern through the newsroom when he subsequently fired prominent journalists John Harwood and Brian Stelter, which many saw as a signal that the new CNN would abandon the hard-charging and frequently opinionated tone of the Zucker years. Licht also oversaw a round of deep layoffs that sapped staff morale and hurt his credibility with employees.

But Licht was aligned with Zaslav in his mission of making the network a more palatable forum for guests — and viewers — of all political persuasions, underscored when he made a point of booking more Republican guests.

Last fall, he launched a new morning show — his first big programming swing — that paired veteran journalists Don Lemon and Poppy Harlow with Collins. The trio “have a genuine camaraderie that will translate perfectly to a morning show” Licht told The Post at the time, but the experiment fell flat after Lemon attracted controversy for on-air comments about women in sports and politics. Lemon was ultimately fired by the network.

Questions about Licht’s future at CNN intensified last week with the announcement of Leavy’s appointment, which some viewed as Warner Bros. Discovery’s attempt to make contingency plans, and Zaslav’s merely tepid measure of public support following the Atlantic article story.

In his comments to staff, Zaslav kept his explanations of Licht’s departure very generalized. “For a number of reasons, things didn’t work out. And that’s unfortunate. It’s really unfortunate,” Zaslav said. “And ultimately, that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that. But now we begin a new page.”

He also reiterated his support for CNN’s journalism, saying “it’s also essential that we fight to get it right, however that’s defined.”

Zaslav added: “As Carl Bernstein used to say, journalism is about fighting for the best version of the truth. We’re going to fight make CNN … the best version of a global contemporary news organization in the world.”

Elahe Izadi is a reporter covering media and also co-hosts daily flagship podcast “Post Reports.” She joined The Post in 2014 as a general assignment reporter, and has covered pop culture, Congress, demographics and breaking news.

Jeremy Barr covers the media industry for The Washington Post.

Will Sommer is a media reporter for the Style section, specializing in covering conservative media and conspiracy theories. He’s the author of “Trust the Plan: The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America,” a book covering the QAnon movement.

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