After a turbulent 13-month career as CEO and chairman of CNN, and a scathing profile in The Atlantic, Chris Licht was fired on Wednesday morning.
David Zaslav, CEO of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery wrote in a memo to staff:
“This morning we are announcing that Chris Licht will be leaving CNN and we will be conducting a wide search, internally and externally, for a new leader. I wanted you to hear this news directly from me as it impacts you and your teams.
“I have known Chris for many years and have enormous respect for him, personally and professionally. This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation, and Chris poured his heart and soul into it. He has a deep love for journalism and this business and that has been evident throughout his tenure.”
Licht, who previously served as executive producer of “Morning Joe,” “CBS This Morning,” and “Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” had never had the experience to run an organization as large and as complex as CNN.
Numerous events, including the dissatisfaction of staff members, their mistrust in Licht’s leadership, plummeting ratings and the much-criticized town hall with former President Donald Trump, all played a contributing role in leading up to Licht’s departure.
The nail in the coffin was a 15,000-word article written by Tim Alberta of The Atlantic. As per the New York Times, “Mr. Licht had spent hours with the writer, Tim Alberta, and his unguarded comments that CNN had overhyped its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency further rankled the network’s anchors and rank-and-file.”
Licht apologized to staff, stating:
“To those whose trust I’ve lost, I will fight like hell to win it back.”
However, for Zaslav this was enough. He further wrote in the memo:
“Unfortunately, things did not work out the way we had hoped – and ultimately that’s on me. I take responsibility. Needless to say, we appreciate Chris’ efforts and dedication and wish him all the best.”
During his tenure, Licht launched “CNN This Morning,” which he said would “set the tone for the news organization.” However, it was scarred by low ratings. Moreover, as per the New York Times:
“Mr. Licht took his time — in the eyes of Warner Bros. Discovery executives, too much time — to fix a prime-time lineup that was rapidly losing viewers.”
He also shuttered CNN+, which the former CNN management had seen as the network’s streaming future.
Roughly 48 hours before being fired, Licht had attempted to gain support from the staff. He said:
“CNN is not about me; I should not be in the news unless it’s taking arrows for you. Your work is what should be written about. This is the greatest job in the world at the greatest news organization in the world. And we have so much to look forward to in the months ahead.”
People Magazine reported that a former CNN employee told the magazine that staffers are “celebrating in the newsrooms right now.”
Ben Smith of Semafor analyzed:
“Licht’s departure is on its surface a management debacle and a reminder that you can’t run a television network if you can’t keep your key asset, the high-profile on-air talent, happy. And now it’s a hard management crisis to fix, Zaslav has been half-running the place all along, and I’m not sure who will want to half-run it with him now.”
Mike Beaudet, professor of the practice of journalism at Northeastern University said:
“He had a tough task … coming in there. Even before he got there, the network was struggling big time. If you look at the past year—all of the things that have happened—it’s not surprising that, for CNN’s parent company [Warner Bros. Discovery], the bottom line was the network’s ratings. He was brought in to increase viewership, and the exact opposite happened.”
Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy added:
“He did not come across as someone who was inappropriately trying to impose entertainment values on CNN, but rather as someone looking to restore CNN’s journalistic props with no idea how to do it. Licht comes in and he starts saying he wants more reporting, less opinion; and that all sounded pretty good. But it seems that what he was trying to do instead—or perhaps in addition to it—was please the new ownership.”
Northeastern further reports:
“Indeed, Kennedy says the network needed an editorial rework. But firing Stelter, who Kennedy described as “an outstanding media reporter”—someone who another critic noted was an “authoritative source” at a moment of great “factual instability”—was a particularly bad omen for the network in decline.”
Joe Scarborough, who created “Morning Joe” with Mr. Licht at MSNBC added:
“Zaslav gave Chris two years; I wish Chris had been given the two years Zaslav promised him. The best of Chris was still to come. He learned a lot. He’s going to succeed and be much better because of what he learned there.”
In the end, Licht said:
“This was an exciting but incredibly challenging assignment and I learned a lot over the past 13 months. I’ve been lucky enough to have had a successful, fulfilling career and I look forward to my next chapter. I wish the team at CNN the very best, always.”