The news of CNN CEO Chris Licht’s departure from the cable news network came abruptly Wednesday morning, but was not necessarily a shock to many staffers and onlookers who have observed Licht’s turbulent tenure filled with layoffs, shakeups and high doses of criticism along the way.
Here, we take a closer look at Licht’s reign at the Warner Bros. Discovery-owned network and if the writing of the CEO’s exit was on the wall the whole time.
Licht officially takes over as chairman and CEO of CNN Global from Jeff Zucker amid the ongoing Warner Bros. Discovery merger, following the announcement of the transition in February 2022. Licht assumed Zucker’s previous responsibilities — minus leading WarnerMedia’s sports programming, which was taken off Licht’s plate.
Ahead of the transition, Licht vowed to staffers he would “double-down on what’s working well” at CNN, and “quickly eliminate what’s not,” while calling himself “a journalist at heart.”
Early June 2022
Licht makes one of his first decisions during his tenure by urging staffers to dial back of the frequency of the breaking news banner, saying in a memo “We are truth-tellers, focused on informing, not alarming our viewers.”
Early June 2022
Another early Licht policy focused on toning down the network’s partisanship by encouraging the network’s existing on-air talent roster to tamper down partisan rhetoric, according to a report in Axios.
The new CNN boss told staffers on a call he prefers they stop using the term “The Big Lie” when referring to Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud, citing that the branding favors the Democratic party.
Licht cemented a new leadership team at the network, elevating Virginia Moseley to EVP of editorial and lining up Kristine Coratti Kelly as lead global communications while Chris Marlin serves as group EVP of strategy and business operations and Johnita Due serves as EVP of integrity and inclusion. Calvin Sims was announced to departing the company amid the restructuring while Michael Bass would continue to work as executive VP of programming for CNN US while Amy Entelis remains as EVP of talent and content development.
The first major shockwave of Licht’s tensure was felt in the ouster of CNN media reporter and “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter, whose Sunday show was canceled upon his departure, after reports that the boss was not fond of Stelter’s opinionated on-camera style. With no plans to replace “Reliable Sources” with another media show, media experts voiced concerns about the void of media criticism left by Stelter’s exit. The network’s Reliable Sources newsletter was announced to remain, however as senior media reporter Oliver Darcy takes over.
John Harwood, CNN’s veteran Washington correspondent, announced he would leave the network shortly after Harwood called Trump as a “dishonest demagogue” in his last on-air appearance.
And the Don Lemon shuffle begins. The network announced Lemon would lose his primetime weeknight show to co-anchor the network’s reimagined morning show with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, whose title would soon be announced as “CNN This Morning.”
The decision was quickly understood as Licht’s first move to make CNN “a disrupter of the broadcast morning shows in this space,” likely aiming to compete with “Morning Joe,” a show Licht co-created in 2007 when he was at MSNBC.
Licht notified staffers the network would be cutting costs by year’s end with staff layoffs throughout the company, noting the changes would “affect people, budgets and projects.”
Several months into Licht’s tenure, the CEO’s moves to make the network more centrist had already started to ruffle some feathers — including citing a call to #BoycottCNN — leading Licht to call “bulls–t” on critiques of “centrism” in an interview with the Financial Times, instead saying “You have to have edge.”
After CNN announced it would air Bill Maher’s “Overtime” on Friday nights, Licht defended his choice to air it and denied that the network is looking to do a topical comedy show in its primetime slot, telling the Los Angeles Times the show would “help broaden the appeal of [CNN] prime time.”
After Don Lemon’s sexist comment against Republican nominee Nikki Haley fueled anger against the “CNN This Morning” co-host, Licht condemned Lemon’s comments and called them “upsetting, unacceptable and unfair,” before ultimately ending the anchor’s time at the network in April.
Then came the CNN town hall with Trump, which was certainly the beginning of the end. Just as media critics warned of the dangers of the live event, moderated by “CNN This Morning” co-host Kaitlan Collins, the town hall was highly criticized as a ratings play — which worked as it brought in 3.3 million viewers to CNN — and for giving the disgraced former president a platform to continue to spew lies regarding the 2020 election and further defame author E. Jean Carroll.
While the town hall generated criticism through the month, the real nail in the coffin came when the Atlantic published a devastating 16,000-word profile of Licht, which reported that Licht told Trump to “have fun” during his May town hall on the network. It also alleged that although the network claimed “GOP-leaning independents” would fill the audience for the town hall, Licht instead knew that the crowd would skew more toward Trump supporters.
Following the profile’s publication, Licht apologized for distracting from the CNN journalist’s hard work in an editorial meeting, saying “CNN is not about me. I should not be in the news unless it’s taking arrows for you.”
Despite Licht’s efforts, CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy said in his daily Reliable Sources newsletter that “Licht has lost the room,” after his comments “did little to move the needle.”
June 7, 2023
Licht’s departure was officially announced.