NEW YORK (AP) — CNN ousted chief executive Chris Licht after a tumultuous year leading the struggling news network that culminated in a damning magazine profile and the realization that he’d lost the confidence of the network’s journalists.
The change was announced at CNN’s editorial meeting Wednesday morning and came just two days after Licht said he would “fight like hell” to earn the trust of those around him.
David Zaslav, CEO of CNN parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, accepted some of the blame for the network’s struggles as he appointed a four-person interim leadership team. He promised a thorough search for replacing Licht, whom he informed of the leadership change on Wednesday morning.
“This really caps a tumultuous year for CNN that has seen shrinking profits, programming mistakes and really low employee morale,” CNN media reporter Oliver Darcy said on his own network Wednesday.
Licht had a mandate to try and make CNN more palatable to both sides of the country’s political divide; Republicans had become increasingly suspicious of the network following repeated attacks by former President Donald Trump.
But some at the network saw Licht’s mandate for change as a repudiation of their past work. A live town hall interview with Trump last month drew widespread criticism, with the former president overwhelming moderator Kaitlan Collins with several misstatement, as a pro-Trump live audience cheered him on.
Earlier in the year, Licht revamped the network’s morning show, but that proved unsuccessful and led to the firing of longtime personality Don Lemon. Efforts to build a new prime-time lineup moved slowly, with Collins only recently appointed to fill at 9 p.m. hour without a permanent host since Chris Cuomo was fired in December 2021.
Licht oversaw layoffs last year following Zaslav’s decision to shutter the CNN+ streaming service only weeks after it had started.
Licht, who had produced MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” CBS’ morning news show and Stephen Colbert’s late-night show, was appointed by Zaslav just over a year ago to replace an internally popular predecessor, Jeff Zucker. Zucker was fired for not revealing a consensual relationship with a fellow CNN executive.
Zaslav said in a memo to CNN staff members that the job “was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation.
“Chris poured his heart and soul into it,” he said. “He has a deep love for journalism and this business and that has been evident throughout his tenure. Unfortunately, things did not work out the way we had hoped — and ultimately that’s on me.”
Licht did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
A lengthy profile of Licht in Atlantic magazine that came out on Friday, titled “Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” proved embarrassing and likely sealed his fate. Author Tim Alberta discussed how Licht’s effort to reach viewers turned off by CNN’s hostility to Trump had failed and damaged his standing with CNN journalists.
“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,” Alberta wrote. “The execution of that theory? Another story. Every move he made, big programming decisions and small tactical maneuvers alike, seemed to backfire.”
In the piece, Licht talked about how some of CNN’s COVID coverage had been high-strung and lost touch with the country, a criticism that angered many in the newsroom.
Ultimately, Alberta could not get Zaslav to agree to an on-the-record assessment of Licht’s tenure, an ominous sign.
Some of CNN’s chief anchors — Jake Tapper, Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett — had privately expressed their reservations about Licht’s leadership, according to a Wall Street Journal article that was posted Tuesday evening.
Meanwhile, viewers were disappearing, a decline exacerbated by the quickening trend of consumers cutting the cord from traditional cable. CNN’s prime-time viewership of 494,000 in May was down 16% from April and was less than half of its closest news rival, MSNBC.
CNN’s profits have also been sinking. The network generated $892,000 in profit in 2022, down from $1.08 billion in 2020, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Zaslav appointed four current CNN executives — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and David Leavy — to run the network while a search for a replacement is conducted.
“We are in good hands, allowing us to take the time we need to run a thoughtful and thorough search for a new leader,” Zaslav said in the memo.
CNN also let go of two public relations executives on Wednesday — Kris Coratti Kelly and Matt Dornic.