CNN was in turmoil in the early months of 2022, with CEO Jeff Zucker posting his shocking resignation after nearly a decade of leading the company, admitting to not disclosing his relationship with senior CNN executive Allison Gollust.
CNN’s ratings had tanked following the 2020 election, with scandals involving Chris Cuomo advising his accused-brother Andrew Cuomo despite his journalistic credentials and an increasingly alienated viewership becoming exhausted with what they perceived as partisan hosts and panels.
It was in this vein that Discovery CEO David Zaslav, the parent company of CNN, recognized the need for a course correction in leadership, and chose “Late Show” executive producer Chris Licht to be the next head of the deteriorating company.
Initially, both CNN anchors and even conservatives alike rallied behind Licht’s message of reeling in the sensationalism and partisanship that CNN had become associated with under the leadership of Jeff Zucker.
However, little more than a year into his takeover, Zaslav had become impatient, announcing to CNN staff the CEO’s departure on Wednesday morning, “For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate,” Mr. Zaslav said, according to a recording of his remarks, per The New York Times. “It’s really unfortunate, and ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”
“This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation,” he continued. “Chris poured his heart and soul into this job. Like all of you, he was in the line of fire and he’s taken a lot of hits. We appreciate his efforts, his passion, his love for journalism, and his love for this business.”
Here is a timeline of the events that ultimately led to the fall of one of the more promising leadership changes in media:
CNN+ was a streaming service first announced by then-CNN CEO Jeff Zucker in July 2021 as a foray into the world of subscription-based streaming services, as the network, like many others, saw a decline in demand for cable TV. The venture was backed by CNN’s parent company of Time Warner, but with a deal to merge with Discovery, this backing would be complicated further down the line.
In all, the company hired hundreds of people to work on the service, recruited media figures such as Chris Wallace to be featured exclusively on the platform, and planned to have 8-12 hours of live programming every day, at a total cost of $300 million.
After a massive media blitz promoting CNN+ on every platform, the end result was fewer than 10,000 live viewers at any given time just two weeks after the service had gone live, fewer than many middle-of-the-pack live streamers on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, who did not require $300 million to break 10,000 viewers.
Discovery was skeptical of CNN+ from the beginning and left Chris Licht to pick up the pieces before he was even officially CEO in April of 2022. After the leak of the dismal viewer count, the service was shut down, and despite his lack of early involvement with the venture, it was Licht who had to break the news to hundreds of CNN+ hosts and employees that they had upended their lives to move over to CNN+ for nothing, already souring his image in the company.
Trump Town Hall Debacle
CNN hosted a town hall with former President Donald Trump for the first time since 2016, bringing in the best ratings that CNN had had in years along with scathing criticism from many Left-wing pundits and outlets, including inside the company.
The town hall was hosted by Kaitlan Collins along with 300 mostly Trump-enthusiasts in the audience cheering him on as Trump hit all the beats that alienate many CNN employees and executives alike; from recounting the 2020 election fraud claims to lambasting the “fake news media,” it seemed to many on the Left that CNN simply lost control of the town hall.
“CNN should be ashamed of themselves. They have lost total control of this ‘town hall’ to again be manipulated into platforming election disinformation, defenses of Jan 6th, and a public attack on a sexual abuse victim,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) tweeted, referring to writer E. Jean Carroll, who is suing Trump in civil court over an alleged sexual assault.
This repulsion to what had occurred at the town hall seemed to have been echoed by many at CNN, who thought Licht did not take the necessary precautions to prevent Trump from going on a supposedly unfiltered rant and spreading “misinformation” to the 3.3 million people who watched the town hall.
Many at CNN saw Licht as putting Collins in an impossible situation, tasked with corralling answers out of a bombastic Trump surrounded by hundreds of loyal supporters who cheered his every retort, further reducing confidence in Licht’s leadership.
Firing Of Key Hosts
Several months after his takeover, CNN’s ratings and coinciding profits were continuing to decline (with a $300 million hit from CNN+), and Licht was forced to bring out the hatchet; laying off about 440 of CNN’s 4,400 employees. However, cost-cutting was not the only reason for many of Licht’s restructuring or firings, with longtime host Brian Stelter, perceived by many on the Right as heavily biased towards Democrats, being fired last August as a part of Licht’s push to cleanse the network of partisan hosts.
Stelter had been at the network for years, hosting the show “Reliable Sources,” which had the goal of highlighting lies and misinformation in the news media and presenting the audience with “reliable” information that showed what was truly relevant to the country. This firing came as a shock to many at CNN, with Licht forced to respond following a panic at his company:
“I want to acknowledge that this is a time of significant change, and I know that many of you are unsettled,” Licht reportedly told staffers on an editorial staff call in late August. “There will be more changes, and you might not understand it or like it.”
More changes did indeed come, with primetime hyper-partisan host Don Lemon being ousted in April following his comments that 2024 GOP Presidential Primary candidate and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley was “past her prime.” This unsavory comment combined with his backlog of alleged workplace mistreatment of women since 2008 led to Lemon’s firing.
Despite this immense turnover, many at Discover and inside CNN were becoming impatient with Licht, and he seemed to have made nobody happy with his myriad of changes.
The Atlantic Profile
Most major news outlets seem to agree that The Atlantic profile on Licht published last Friday was likely the last straw for Discovery executives. Licht inexplicably gave The Atlantic near-unlimited access to his daily life in and outside CNN, showing seeming overconfidence that he could simply gloss over the aforementioned turmoil at the company.
The Atlantic’s 15,000-word article shows that Licht has clearly lost the confidence of many CNN employees and Discovery executives interviewed in the piece, becoming isolated from the company’s average employee, as well as “projecting this persona of a bulletproof badass because that’s what Zaslav wants to see. … Licht’s circle was small and getting smaller … Whereas he was guarded with CNN employees, our many hours of conversations began to feel like therapy sessions for Licht, safe spaces in which he vented grievances.”
The profile also features some strange and embarrassing moments from Licht. Author Tim Alberta asks Licht why he was skipping a meal, and Licht responds, “I’m a f***ing machine.” Alberta observed the CEO’s workout routine, Licht “squatted down to grab a long metal pole lying flat on the ground. ‘Zucker couldn’t do this s***,’ Licht said through clenched teeth, hoisting the pole with a grunt.”
These factors combined to lead David Zaslav to pull the plug on Licht’s short-lived tenure at CNN, leaving the company’s future up in the air as it struggles to get past its myriad of financial and interpersonal challenges that put it in this position, to begin with.