Naïve: Chris Licht Thought He Could Change CNN. He Forgot Inmates Still Run the Asylum

June 6th, 2023 4:32 PM

Update, June 9: On Wednesday, Licht left the company amid a mountain of resistance and controversy. To see our write-up and analysis on Licht stepping down from his perch as the head of CNN, go here.

The original post continues below.


Starting Friday with a 15,000-word tome by The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta, CNN boss Chris Licht’s legitimacy took on a deluge of water with one story after another seeking to end Licht’s tenure beset by a disastrous morning show, a lack of network cohesion, and sagging ratings.

Licht was hired by Discovery head honcho David Zaslav to move CNN to the center and away from the permanent hysteria, but he had one problem: His predecessor and former puppetmaster Jeff Zucker.

Between Alberta’s story and others from former CNNer Brian Stelter (writing in New York magazine), Axios, the Daily Beast, The New York Times, Puck, and Semafor, they revealed a fatal error by Licht, which was a refusal to clean house of Zuckerbots that, while seismic, would have allowed for real changes. Instead, Zucker undermined Licht through his team of minions.

The Times item revealed how he’s been sabotaged. The headline and subhead said it all: “Could Jeff Zucker Fix CNN? He Seems to Think So. It’s been more than a year since he was forced from the top job at the network. Since then, he has made no secret of his frustrations with his exit — or his low regard for the man who replaced him, Chris Licht.”

Reporter Benjamin Mullin explained Zucker referred to his affair with now-girlfriend and former deputy, Allison Gollust was “a gun” that Warner Bros. Discovery executives “shot me with”.

Mullin said that symbolized “the depth of his frustration with his last days at a network he controlled with exacting detail for years” as he “often compares notes...with former colleagues and industry acquaintances, many of whom call him to grouse about the current state of CNN.”

Mullin added these “gripes have become more frequent of late, and he has made no secret of his unhappiness” with both his ouster and “his low regard for the performance of” Licht.

Helping to undermine Licht’s mission, Mullin said Zucker became a “grievance switchboard for current and former employees of the news network”.

Mullin continued (click “expand”):

“It is wholly unsurprising that Jeff Zucker, the architect of CNN’s unprecedented success, would have deep misgivings about the direction the network has taken since he left,” said Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Mr. Zucker. She added that it was also no surprise “that he gets asked a lot, publicly and privately, and regularly from former colleagues, about what he thinks of CNN now.”


Mr. Zucker had been privately critical of Mr. Licht’s leadership of CNN, according to people who have spoken with him, and the two men hadn’t met since Mr. Zucker was pushed out.


“This is all very sad for Jeff,” said Kenneth Lerer, the co-founder of HuffPost and former chairman of BuzzFeed. “He should move on with his life. It’s disheartening to see.”


Mr.  Zucker’s criticism has rankled executives of Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns CNN, according to people familiar with their thinking. They suspect Mr. Zucker has leaked unflattering information about the network’s operations to the press.


Executives at Warner Bros. Discovery believe Mr. Zucker is waging a proxy war against Mr. Licht, undermining his leadership from afar, according to three people familiar with their thinking.

And, based on any recent NewsBusters blog on CNN, it’s easy to see how so many Zuckerbots have felt no need to change their tone as, if Licht ever did become a micromanager like Zucker, they could just whine in the press.

That brings us back to Alberta’s profile. Licht gave an admirable answer about what the mission of CNN should be (after a hilarious claim that the media “know” Donald Trump’s “playing them”):

Journalism. Being trusted. Everyone has an agenda, trying to shape events or shape thought. There has to be a source of absolute truth...There’s good actors, there’s bad actors, there’s a lot of shit in the world. There has to be something that you’re able to look at and go, “They have no agenda other than the truth.”

Licht further denounced his network (and the press writ large) for their all-hysteria, all-the-time, Trump-centric approach as “outrage porn” in which “everything is an 11” (on a scale of one to 10) and, in turn “it means that when there’s something really awful happening, we’re kind of numb to it.”

Likely to the chagrin of CNNers who read the piece, Licht said the press made it their “mission go after” Trump by “put[ting] a jersey on and got into the game” to actively fight Trump out of “visceral hatred”. 

Licht added that, by doing so, no one’s “mind” was being “change[d].” He also believed Republicans should be welcome (though Alberta pitched a hissy fit over allowing any Republican who voted to object to the 2020 election results).

He continued to put Zucker’s version of CNN on blast, touching on everything from COVID to CNN being a bubble to elitism to liberal definitions of diversity fixating on race to policing to transgenderism (click “expand”): 

“You have a certain segment of society that has had an unfettered megaphone to the leading journalistic organization in the world,” he said. “And at the slightest hint that that organization may not be just taking things that are fed to them from that segment of the population, it must be that a fascist is running the network and he wants to move it to the right … The fact that I want to give space to the [argument] that this thing everyone agrees with might be not right doesn’t make me a fascist right-winger who’s trying to steal Fox viewers.”

Licht was no fascist. But he was trying to steal viewers from Fox News—and from MSNBC, for that matter. To succeed, Licht said, CNN would need to produce more than just great journalism. Reporting the news in an aggressive, nonpartisan manner would be central to the network’s attempt to win back audiences.


“[T]he biggest mistake is commenting after every single story for the sake of commenting after every single story,” he said, talking to no one and everyone all at once. “Don’t tell me, ‘Oh, that’s horrible.’ We know it’s horrible. If you’ve got a specific insight into something, if you can add something, tell us. But don’t comment on every single fucking story.”


He leaned across the table. “Your beliefs can be different, but there’s only one truth,” he said. “And we have to be able to ask questions and have conversations that help people understand what’s happening … We have completely lost the ability to have difficult conversations without being demonized or labeled. It’s okay to ask questions, to have difficult conversations. You can strongly believe in something at your core, but that doesn’t affect the truth.”

Licht emphasized that although he would show employees grace for certain missteps, he had no tolerance for efforts to chill reporting on controversial topics. He noted that Zucker, fearing the COVID-19 “lab-leak theory” was a xenophobic gambit that endangered Asian Americans, had essentially banned discussion of the topic on the air. This was not dissimilar, Licht suggested, to the surgeon general of the United States telling citizens at the beginning of the pandemic that wearing masks wouldn’t help them—not because it was a fact, but because the government wanted to prevent a run on the masks needed for first responders.

“They didn’t tell us the truth about something, because they were worried about an outcome,” Licht said.


“In the beginning it was a trusted source—this crazy thing, no one understands it, help us make sense of it. What’s going on?” he said. “And I think then it got to a place where, ‘Oh wow, we gotta keep getting those ratings. We gotta keep getting the sense of urgency.’”

He slapped his palms on the table between us, mimicking the feverish pace of an imaginary broadcaster. “COVID, COVID, COVID! Look at the case numbers! Look at this! Look at this!” Licht said. “No context. And, you know, the kind of shaming. And then people walked outside and they go, ‘This is not my life. This is not my reality. You guys are just saying this because you need the ratings, you need the clicks. I don’t trust you.’”


Licht insisted that his media critiques were not ideological; that he was rebuking not a liberal slant on the news, per se, but rather a bias toward elite cultural sensibility, a reporting covenant in which affluent urban-dwelling journalists avoid speaking hard truths that would alienate members of their tribe. When we returned to the question of covering transgender issues—specifically, the science around prepubescent hormone treatments and life-altering surgeries—he suggested that the media was less interested in finding answers and more worried about not offending perceived allies.

“We’ve got to ask tough questions without being shouted down for having the temerity to even ask,” Licht said. “There is a truth in there, and it may not serve one side or the other. But let’s get to the truth. Some of this is right, some of this is wrong; some of this is wrong, some of this is right.”

He paused. “And I will add, this is where words matter. You immediately force some people to tune out when you use, like, ‘person capable of giving birth.’ People tune out and you lose that trust.” He took another pause. “Do not virtue signal. Tell the truth. Ask questions getting at the truth—not collecting facts for one side or collecting facts for another side. Ask the tough questions. It’s an incredibly sensitive, divisive issue of which there is a Venn diagram that this country can agree on, if we get there with facts.”

Licht argued that the media’s blind spots owe to a lack of diversity—and not the lack of diversity that he sees newsrooms obsessing over. He wants to recruit reporters who are deeply religious and reporters who grew up on food stamps and reporters who own guns. Licht recalled a recent dustup with his own diversity, equity, and inclusion staff after making some spicy remarks at a conference. “I said, ‘A Black person, a brown person, and an Asian woman that all graduated the same year from Harvard is not diversity,’” he told me.

A minute later—after noting how sharing that anecdote could get him in trouble, and pausing to consider what he would say next—Licht added: “I think ‘Defund the police’ would’ve been covered differently if newsrooms were filled with people who had lived in public housing.” I asked him why. “They have a different relationship with their need with the police,” he said.

In one particular anecdote, Licht spoke to a group of college students and blasted MSNBC as “trafficking in hysteria” and Fox News as “a duplicitous propaganda outfit,” but insisting it’d be seen as “noise” if CNN kept obsessing over Fox.

He did push back on a student who claimed COVID death tolls were definitive, noting how “we don’t” because, in Alberta’s retelling, “there were ‘legitimate conversation’ to be had...Perhaps some patients had been admitted to hospitals with life-threatening illnesses before the pandemic began, then died with a positive diagnosis”.

Licht had reason to believe this had legs as, in the results of research leaked to Semafor, CNN’s COVID hysteria was third on the list of reasons both sides lost trust in the network (after liberal bias and the Chris Cuomo fiasco).

And, in a much-maligned move that became a tenet of Stelter’s piece, Licht chose to have his office on the 22nd floor of CNN’s Hudson Yards complex instead of in the middle of the newsroom like Licht. If you’re not wanting to be a micromanager, then wouldn’t that be the way to go? Except the Zuckerbots saw it as elitism.

Licht should be given credit for pointing CNN in the right direction. But that’s where the praise should stop.

Alberta portrayed a man fixated on wanting to do things differently(even grunting about Zucker at the gym). But if Licht wanted to do that, he and boss Zaslav should ripped CNN down to the studs.

Imagine if Warner Bros. Discovery had come in and not only had Stelter and John Harwood been axed, but also disingenuous leftist journos and pundits such as Alisyn Camerota, Laura Coates, S.E. Cupp, Daniel Dale, Jamie Gangel, Brianna Keilar, Andrew McCabe, Donie O’Sullivan, Abby Phillip, Arlette Saenz, Sara Sidner, Jim Sciutto, Bill Weir, and, of course, Jim Acosta and Oliver Darcy.

Alberta repeatedly went back to the Trump town hall given its recency and its impact on accelerating Licht’s downfall, but Licht’s over-eagerness to share his thoughts were further ammunition for a workforce that missed being told what to do and empowered to be as venomous toward conservatives as they wished.

Alberta revealed Licht faced an onslaught almost immediately as CNNers were “wary” and “unnerv[ed]” by Licht’s call to not over-emphasize the first January 6 Committee hearing. Add in the public comments from Licht, Zaslav, and Warner Bros. Discovery stockholder John Malone about how Zucker’s CNN was too divisive and CNNers reacted like enraged college kids asking for safe spaces: “[T]he wariness gave way to wrath. Top talent began to turn on Licht.”

But a town hall meant to quell concerns last year failed as employees were incensed he called on them to “recognize that ‘the brand has taken a hit over the past few years’ and unite around his editorial strategy as ‘one team.’”

Even the town hall’s moderator, Audie Cornish (who was hired a CNN+ show that never launched), was hostile (click “expand”):

Cornish asked Licht about the perception that CNN was tacking deliberately to the right.

He fought a smirk. The network’s coverage of the Fox News story to date had been textbook, he said, presenting the damning facts of what had emerged from the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit—namely, that Fox had knowingly misled its audience—and sparing viewers the hysterical analysis found on CNN’s chief rival, MSNBC. As for platforming Republicans, “I think it’s incredibly important, if we’re going to understand the country,” Licht said. “I actually want to hear from these Republicans. And to do that, it has to actually be a place where they know they’re going to get a tough interview, but it’s going to be respectful.”

After underscoring the “fears” people had internally—that CNN was enabling bad actors with a both-sides approach to journalism—Cornish asked him about the company’s reputation. She, like so many of her colleagues, wanted to know what Licht meant by that nebulous word: brand.

“What I believe has happened in the past, to put it bluntly, is that sometimes the tone of our coverage has undercut the work of our journalism. And we’re just trying to eliminate that and win that trust back,” Licht said. “Trust is that you’re getting to the truth without fear or favor. We have seen the data that shows there’s been a marked erosion of trust—”

Cornish cut him off. “Because of tenor and tone?”

“Yeah,” Licht said.

In the hallway a few minutes later...Licht asked what I thought of his performance. I told him that he looked on edge—like he was struggling to remain diplomatic in the face of questions that annoyed him.

“Yeah. At one point, I wanted to just say, ‘We’re not going to turn into BuzzFeed, okay?’” Licht said. “But that probably wouldn’t have helped.”


In any event, the health of CNN’s business was but one source of anxiety. I told Licht—based on my conversations with his employees, as well as the questioning from Cornish earlier in the day—that there seemed to be even greater insecurity about the journalistic ethos itself. When he’d warned Cornish about taking a “condescending tone” toward Republicans, surely it sounded to some reporters like he wanted them to coddle the crazy right-wingers who would use their platform to destabilize the country’s democratic institutions.

Licht looked annoyed. “We are not an advocacy network. And if you want to work for an advocacy network, there are other places to go,” he told me. “You can find any flavor of advocacy in a news organization that suits your need. We are providing something different. And when the shit hits the fan in this world, you’re not gonna have time for that advocacy anymore. You need an unbiased source of truth.”

Separately, Licht’s second massive failure was less overarching but still significant: CNN This Morning with its rushed launch, haphazard picking of hosts, and keeping Don Lemon.

Alberta showed that, even in rehearsals, Licht was annoyed by Lemon, including him dropping an f-bomb when Lemon wore “a white jacket, the collar made of fur, with a turtleneck underneath” and lambasting a mock Lemon tirade about Kanye West.

Licht correctly said this wasn’t something people had “time to absorb” or care about in the morning and even confronted Lemon, but the arrogant host didn’t care (click “expand”):

“Some people may want to qualify it as ‘outrage porn.’ But there was a lot to be outraged for these last few years,” he said. “There was a tweet or a statement or an action or something that was outrageous a few times a day for five, six years … What we were doing is, we were fighting for democracy. We were fighting to set the record straight on us being attacked and called ‘fake’ … That may have put us back on our heels and made us a bit more aggressive with calling it out, but it doesn’t mean that it was ‘outrage porn.’”

Harlow saw things somewhat differently—perhaps because of her straight-news background—but Lemon wasn’t having any of it.

“A lot of people are Monday-morning-quarterbacking about what happened” at CNN, Lemon told me. “You have to remember the time that we were in. Every single day, we were being attacked by the former administration. And that’s not hyperbole … We had bombs sent to this very network.”

How did Licht think this was going to end in anything but failure? A incidents later, Licht’s show crashed and burned while not only offering nothing, but still being in the ratings basement.

Though Licht apologized Monday, Stelter’s piece revealed the Zuckerbots saw Licht as chum: “That anti-Licht sentiment is shared by many in the CNN rank and file, and has existed to some extent for months, but The Atlantic article cemented it.”

Bemoaning how Licht wasn’t a “larger-than-life, I-have-your-back leader” like Zucker, Stelter said one source whined Licht’s thoughts were “ammo” for “haters on the right” while another said Alberta’s story created “trauma bonding” between CNNers. 

For his part, Stelter boasted Licht’s non-Zucker approach to the news to question “whether news organizations should stand up to demagogues who want to destroy them” was “losing”.

The Daily Beast came out with their own post-Alberta hit Monday, which revealed “CNN bedrocks” such as Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett, and Jake Tapper had “lost confidence in” Licht, who’s really “a dead man talking.”

In his pompous media newsletter, Darcy reveled in the blowback, gushing that Licht had “alienated much of the employee base.” It was only a few weeks ago Darcy drew Licht’s ire for how he reacted to the Trump town hall.

Over at Semafor, they shared that, as part of Warner Bros. Discovery executive David Leavy becoming CNN’s chief operating officer, CNN PR would report to him and not Licht.

Given this tsunami of negative stories, there are a host of conclusions. One, even media executives fall victim to treating national journalists as their friend when they should know most (if not all) will sell out their best friends for a story.

Second, Licht and Zaslav’s mismatched strategy of talking big changes but not cleaning house came back to bite them. It’s hard to have a company pulling in the same direction when most of the workforce actively hates because you’re not Daddy Jeff.

That leads to a third point: Never underestimate Zucker's vindictiveness.

Next: Has Licht watched a second of his own network? Aside from covering more stories, an occasional Republican appearance, a vapid new line-up, and new lower-third, nothing has changed on the bias front.

And, finally, Licht made a mistake he could have avoided if he watched more than a few minutes of Zucker’s CNN (or asked any of us at NewsBusters): Please fire, don’t empower, Don Lemon.