Top CNN Anchors Criticize CEO Licht’s Leadership

From a Wall Street Journal story by Isabella Simonetti and Joe Flint headlined “Top CNN Anchors Criticize CEO Chris Licht’s Leadership”:

Some of CNN’s highest-profile hosts are expressing concerns to management about Chris Licht’s ability to keep leading the network after a series of blunders by the embattled chief executive in recent months.

Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper are among the CNN personalities who have voiced their concerns about Licht’s leadership, some explaining their views during conversations with incoming CNN Chief Operating Officer David Leavy.

Licht, who was installed as CEO a little over a year ago when Warner Bros. Discovery took control of the network, has been under fire for some of CNN’s programming decisions, including a recent town hall with former president and current Republican front-runner Donald Trump, whose format was widely criticized.

The unrest inside CNN about Licht’s leadership reached a boiling point after the Atlantic last week published an unflattering profile of him, in which he was critical of the news network and made disparaging remarks about the leadership of his predecessor Jeff Zucker, who was widely respected inside the organization.

Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav—who has previously voiced support for Licht—is also losing patience with the number of self-inflicted wounds and missteps, a person close to Zaslav said.

CNN last week named Leavy as COO in an effort to help Licht manage the network, an appointment that came less than 24 hours before the publication of the Atlantic story. Although Leavy doesn’t start until June 20, he has already been talking with high-level producers and on-air talent who have been vocal about their disdain for Licht’s leadership, people familiar with the matter said.

During talks with talent, Leavy has said he appreciates their honesty, which he said has helped clarify how much trust had been lost.

Even before the Atlantic story, there was concern about Licht’s management style. Unlike Zucker, who was a constant presence in the newsroom, Licht isolated himself on a different floor and seldom engaged with talent or producers, people at the network have said.

Licht on Monday told staff that he was sorry that news about his management of the network had overshadowed the journalism that CNN is doing. It hasn’t done much to change employees’ feelings about Licht, according to people who were on the call.

Licht’s tenure at CNN began on a rocky note: In April of last year—days before he officially assumed his role—he had to address CNN employees who had just learned that new parent Warner Bros. Discovery had decided to shut down the CNN+ streaming service mere weeks after it launched.

Since Licht took over, CNN’s ratings have been at historic lows. Licht has been experimenting with new programming to counter a ratings slide, including a new morning show that has struggled to gain traction, and attracted controversy earlier this year when co-host Don Lemon said on the show that Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley wasn’t in her prime. Lemon has since left the network.

Licht has also tried to reset the network’s editorial approach, after research showed viewers were turned off by inflammatory political coverage, The Wall Street Journal previously reported.

Nearly four weeks after the Trump town hall, there is still agita inside the network about how it was handled. Talent said the interview with the former president should have been pretaped instead of live, so that it could be edited appropriately, according to people familiar with their thinking. On rival Fox News, recent interviews with the former president—including a town hall last week moderated by Sean Hannity—were pretaped.

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour said during a recent speech to Columbia Journalism School students that she disagreed with Licht’s decision to host Trump. “I still respectfully disagree with allowing Donald Trump to appear in that particular format,” she said.

Kaitlan Collins, who moderated the Trump town hall, has since been promoted to be the anchor of CNN’s 9 p.m. hour.

The anger inside CNN isn’t exclusively aimed at Licht. There is also concern about what some staffers and talent say is the high level of involvement by Zaslav, who has been much more hands-on than previous owners of CNN, some current and former network employees said.

Zaslav has been outspoken about CNN’s editorial mission. During an investor conference that followed the Trump town hall, he said: “We need to show both sides of every issue.” In April 2022, days after he took the helm at Warner Bros. Discovery, Zaslav said he wanted CNN to distinguish itself from “advocacy networks.”

Current and former CNN hosts and executives said in previous regimes, accountability to the parent company was limited primarily to budgets and compliance, with the network’s own editorial standards and practices. There may be discussions about programming strategies, but rarely did that play out in public as it does now, they said.

The appointment of Leavy, who is a member of Zaslav’s leadership team, has also raised eyebrows among employees because it brings a corporate officer closer to the network, people familiar with the matter said.

The person close to Zaslav said he has spent a fair amount of time on CNN, even though it accounts for less than 10% of Warner Bros. Discovery’s revenue. But the person pushed back on the idea that Zaslav’s level of engagement was inappropriate, noting that unlike previous owners who ran the media conglomerate like a holding company, Zaslav is heavily involved in all operations.

Speak Your Mind