CNN chief Chris Licht told staffers Monday he wants to help them make the news rather than play a central figure in it.
In the wake of a devastating profile of the CNN CEO published Friday by The Atlantic, Licht set about soothing frayed nerves Monday by telling employees on the news outlet’s regular morning call that “I should not be in the news unless it’s taking arrows for you. Your work is what should be written about,” according to two people familiar with the matter.
The words are the first from Licht to be made public since the piece was unveiled. Thanks to a rich vein of unfettered access provided over months, the piece detailed the executive’s struggles — and some of his insecurities — during his first year on the job at the Warner Bros. Discovery-backed news outlet. David Zaslav, the CEO of the parent company, has articulated a strategy of eliminating some of the activist bent that resounded at CNN under its previous chief, Jeff Zucker. But Licht’s efforts to do so have been plagued by near-constant leaks and a restive staff, many of whom remain loyal to Licht’s predecessor, ousted after he admitted to a longstanding relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s former chief marketing officer.
“To those whose trust I’ve lost, I will fight like hell to win it back, because you deserve a leader who will be in the trenches, fighting to ensure CNN remains the world’s most trusted name in news,” Licht said, according to the people familiar with the meeting.
Licht also informed staffers he would be moving to a new office that sits adjacent to CNN’s New York newsgathering team. The executive had previously been located in an area a few floors above the journalism staff, which had become accustomed to having Zucker sit in their midst. The move comes as Warner Bros. Discovery is shuffling some of its leased holdings at its New York headquarters at the Hudson Yards complex.
Licht may have new room to forge better ties with his editorial team. Last week, Warner Bros. Discovery installed a new chief operating officer at CNN. David Leavy, a longtime Zaslav lieutenant, is slated to take oversight of business functions, including marketing, advertising and distribution.
The Atlantic profile detailed not only Licht’s feeling that he is competing with Zucker but also his manner behind the scenes — in control rooms and even at CNN’s recent town hall with former President Donald Trump, a controversial event. Internally, some staffers were upset about Licht’s comments about how the network covered the coronavirus pandemic, with a focus on how many people were infected or had died. One person familiar with the matter says staffers feel they worked under difficult conditions to bring viewers the best information available at the time.
Licht’s tribulations have become regular fodder for media aficionados. Since his arrival last spring, Licht has set about renovating CNN, tamping down on some of the emotion anchors had been granted to express when delivering the news. Gone in recent months are personnel who often wore hearts on their sleeves, including Don Lemon and Brian Stelter. Meanwhile, Licht has been hard-pressed to defeat rivals like Fox News and MSNBC, which often rely on hosts who are free to express opinions and pound the desk — metaphorically, if not physically. And CNN’s ratings have cratered.
He has unveiled a series of new programs that focus more closely on news. A “News Central” concept in daytime hours gives viewers more of the feel of a real-time newsroom, while Kaitlan Collins and Dana Bash are expected to debut soon in two new hours of programming. A new Sunday series, “The Whole Story,” takes viewers through a one-hour deep dive into a new topic each week.
Some efforts have not been successful. CNN’s new morning program, “CNN This Morning,” floundered after a new trio of co-hosts — Lemon, Collins and Poppy Harlow, had trouble coming together thanks in part to Lemon’s efforts to be provocative. Lemon was ousted from CNN in April, and Harlow now leads the program with a rotating array of co-hosts.
The next several months are likely to reveal whether Warner Bros. Discovery is tilting at windmills. News executives regularly acknowledge that straight news, presented without some sort of argument or conflict, has a difficult time gaining new audiences in the current climate.