CNN chief Chris Licht ends turbulent run at network
June 8, 2023 11:41 AM
Chris Licht, the embattled head of CNN, has stepped down "effective immediately," the network's parent company Warner Brothers Discovery announced Wednesday, as the global news outlet struggles to reverse a ratings decline.
After joining CNN last year, Licht came under fire for editorial decisions including a recent town hall meeting with former president Donald Trump that was dominated by cheering from supporters and jeering at moderator Kaitlan Collins.
The shakeup, which comes as major news outlets pivot towards the 2024 US presidential election, highlights the challenges facing those organizations that are aiming to appeal to a broad audience in a deeply divided country in which misinformation is rampant.
During Licht's tenure, CNN saw ratings diminish even as it tried to position itself in the middle between the hard-right Fox News and the progressive MSNBC.
In announcing the change, Warner Brothers Discovery chief David Zaslav said he has "great respect" for Licht, whom he described as passionate about journalism.
"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," Zaslav said.
But following last week's publication of a lengthy article in the Atlantic that chronicled numerous interviews with Licht, including in gym workout sessions, his delicate position appeared untenable.
Under the plan announced Wednesday, CNN will undertake an active search for a replacement. In the interim, the network will be led by executive vice presidents Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling, as well as Chief Operating Officer David Leavy.
Shares of Warner Brothers Discovery jumped 8.4 percent.
- Both sides -
In the Atlantic article, Licht had sharply criticized CNN's news coverage of Trump under former news chief Jeff Zucker, but the publication reported uncertainty among CNN journalists on Licht's preferred approach.
The article also characterized Licht as aloof and distrusted among rank-and-file network journalists, who bemoaned his handling of other controversies, such as the firing of former CNN presenter Don Lemon over on-air remarks seen as sexist.
Licht had spoken frequently of his hopes to attract more Republican viewers to CNN after the network became seen as a leading Trump opponent.
Appealing to more Republican viewers has also been a priority for Zaslav, who touted the network's greater ability to attract the party's lawmakers for on-air interviews.
"We need to show both sides of every issue," Zaslav told a Wall Street conference last month.
But the problems with this approach became evident at the May 10 town hall with Trump at which the ex-president frequently spoke over Collins, promoted his false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from him and said he would pardon many of those convicted over the violent January 6 siege of the US Capitol.
Critics likened the event -- which was held before a live audience dominated by vocal Trump supporters -- to a campaign infomercial for the former president in which Collins' efforts to fact-check Trump were drowned out.
But polling shows a large percentage of Republicans continue to believe Trump's characterization that the 2020 election was compromised -- despite the lack of proof.
Before CNN, Licht had worked as a showrunner for CBS' "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" and MSNBC's "Morning Joe," hosted by former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough.
Upon taking the helm at CNN, Licht spoke of the need to make CNN a "beacon" of trust for all viewers.
But there were also a number of high-profile departures, including of media reporter Brian Stelter and veteran political journalist John Harwood, who were two of the screen personalities most vocal in calling out Trump.
Washington Post columnist Perry Bacon said Licht's approach to news was emblematic of "an anti-woke centrism" that adopts a skeptical approach to progressive causes frequently lampooned by the political right.
Depauw University communications professor Jeffrey McCall said it remained unclear whether Licht's demise at CNN was due to his management style, or "because he was trying to push the journalistic culture in a way that they weren't willing to go," he told AFP.
"I'm not sure that CNN is going to bounce back very quickly because by now they have alienated more of the centrist and right-of-center viewers. And now it seems they have alienated their left-of-center viewers as well."