Embattled CNN CEO Chris Licht apologized to the news staff during a Monday meeting, following the publication of a lengthy, damaging profile in The Atlantic dubbed “Inside the Meltdown at CNN.”
“CNN is not about me,” he said, according to multiple reports based on a transcription, and inside sources. “I should not be in the news unless it’s taking arrows for you.” Licht also vowed to “fight like hell” to earn back the newsroom's trust.
The profile, written by Tim Alberta after Licht gave him months of extensive access, portrays Licht, who has been CEO for just a year, as floundering and dependent on Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s cues amid ongoing ratings losses and a crisis of confidence among the staff.
Alberta opined that while Licht’s “theory of CNN — what had gone wrong, how to fix it and why doing so could lift the entire industry — made a lot of sense,” his execution has been another story: “Every move he made, big programming decisions and small tactical maneuvers alike, seemed to backfire.”
One day prior to the profile’s publication, Zaslav announced the appointment of David Leavy as CNN’s chief operating officer. While the move was positioned as meant to give Licht more time to focus on programming, it immediately spawned speculation that Leavy could ultimately replace Licht.
The drumbeat grew louder on Monday, after Brian Stelter — who was fired from CNN last August by Licht — posted a column in New York claiming that Zaslav had Leavy start immediately (not on June 20, as the release had stated) to “survey and repair the damage” after The Atlantic piece hit on June 2.
Stelter said Leavy has been besieged by key CNN staff expressing concerns about Licht, and quoted anonymous staff making statements about Licht such as “He’s done,” and “There’s no coming back from that profile.”
WBD and CNN have not responded to the reports. CNN is considered crucial to WBD's success as it pushes to transition from traditional media to streaming.
Licht took over CNN a year ago, simultaneous with the plug being pulled on the just-launched CNN+ streamer. Since then, the news operation has seen layoffs, an overhaul of the daytime lineup, the dismissal of high-profile anchor Don Lemon, and the exit of some seasoned news talent, as Licht has sought to shift programming away from its former liberal bent. That push has included more visibility for Republicans, including the controversial, live “town hall” with Trump on May 10. Another town hall, with Republican presidential nomination candidate Nikki Haley, took place June 4.
But despite a bump to 3.3 million viewers for the Trump event, CNN’s average audience in May dropped 16% versus April, to 494,000 in prime time, and dropped 13%, to 416,000 for total day. That puts the network at #14 in prime-time viewing among cable networks and fifth in total-day viewership.