At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, as a cloud of smoke and ash enveloped Manhattan, Chris Licht left his apartment building and strolled half a block to Central Park for a meeting with his boss, David Zaslav.
The men had taken this park walk before. In early 2022, Mr. Zaslav used the same verdant setting to offer a job that Mr. Licht would later describe as a “calling”: the chairmanship of CNN, which Mr. Zaslav’s corporate empire was about to acquire in a media megadeal.
This time, the walk was briefer, and the message tougher: Mr. Licht was fired after just 13 months.
His abrupt exit was the latest convulsion for one of the world’s pre-eminent news organizations, whose unyielding string of crises has sapped newsroom morale, eaten into profits and raised questions about the viability of down-the-middle TV journalism in a polarized age.
It was also a hammer blow to Mr. Licht, a successful television producer with little managerial experience who had pledged to remake CNN as a fair-minded voice for viewers disenchanted with the partisan scrum of cable news. Even as his troubles mounted — plunging ratings, a Don Lemon scandal, and a much-criticized town hall with former President Donald J. Trump — Mr. Licht told associates that he was certain that Mr. Zaslav, whom he considered a mentor, would defend him.
This week, Mr. Zaslav’s support reached its limit.
“For a number of reasons things didn’t work out, and that’s unfortunate,” Mr. Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, told CNN staff on a call roughly two hours after he fired Mr. Licht on Wednesday, according to a recording of his remarks.
“This job,” he added, “was never going to be easy.”
In a statement, Mr. 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.”
Although Mr. Licht, 51, had endured criticism for months, his standing deteriorated late last week when The Atlantic published a 15,000-word profile extensively documenting his stormy tenure. Mr. Licht had spent hours with the writer, Tim Alberta, and his unguarded comments about CNN’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and the Trump presidency further rankled the network’s anchors and rank-and-file.
Mr. Licht apologized to his staff on a Monday morning call — “To those whose trust I’ve lost, I will fight like hell to win it back,” he said. But Mr. Zaslav concluded soon afterward that his handpicked CNN chief had irreparably lost the room, according to two people briefed on the decision. Among the anchors who expressed misgivings about Mr. Licht in recent days were Anderson Cooper and Jake Tapper, according to the two people.
Mr. Zaslav did not consider other candidates before offering Mr. Licht the position last year. “Chris poured his heart and soul into this job,” Mr. Zaslav said on the call. “It’s really unfortunate, and ultimately that’s on me. I take full responsibility for that.”
Three CNN veterans — Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling — will lead the network until a permanent leader is chosen, a process that Mr. Zaslav said could take several months. The trio will work with David Leavy, a top Zaslav deputy who was installed late last week as CNN’s chief operating officer. Several of Mr. Licht’s senior aides were also dismissed on Wednesday, including his global head of communications, Kristine Coratti Kelly.
CNN now faces a crossroads — yet again.
Whoever replaces Mr. Licht will need to tackle the continual decline in cable news viewership, puzzle out the network’s streaming strategy and lead coverage of the 2024 presidential campaign.
The network has been in a state of tumult since late 2021, when its top anchor Chris Cuomo was fired in an ethics scandal. Weeks later, its longtime leader, Jeff Zucker, was ousted after failing to disclose a workplace romantic relationship. Mr. Zaslav took over in April 2022 and promptly shut down CNN+, the three-week-old streaming service that was supposed to secure the network’s digital future, resulting in scores of layoffs.
Many network stars remained loyal to Mr. Zucker, who led CNN amid unrelenting attacks from Mr. Trump, and they were suspicious of Mr. Licht’s efforts to change the tenor of the network’s coverage. Mr. Licht dismissed Brian Stelter, a media correspondent and Zucker hire who was often critical of Mr. Trump, and he courted Republican officials and conservatives to appear on the network’s programs.
He also picked an office on a corporate floor high above the newsroom — an attempt, Mr. Licht said privately, to empower his deputies. It had the reverse effect: Subordinates wondered if their boss cared about what they were doing.
From the instant he was named, Mr. Licht confronted a powerful cadre of current and former staff members and their allies loyal to Mr. Zucker and his vision for the network. Mr. Zucker turned into a quasi-grievance switchboard for this group.
Mr. Licht, who previously served as executive producer of “Morning Joe,” “CBS This Morning,” and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” had never run an organization anywhere near the size or complexity of CNN, a worldwide outlet with thousands of employees and hundreds of millions in annual revenue. A few early errors might have been overlooked if offset by a spate of smart programming moves and ratings wins. But in his 13-month tenure, those were in short supply.
His first bet was a new morning show co-hosted by Mr. Lemon, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, which Mr. Licht said would “set the tone for the news organization.” But “CNN This Morning,” which debuted in November, was marred by low ratings and tensions on and off the set. Mr. Lemon clashed with Ms. Collins, and then set off a national uproar by asserting on-air that a woman over the age of 50 was not “in her prime.” Two months later, Mr. Lemon was fired.
Meanwhile, 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. In February, he began an experiment at 9 p.m., once CNN’s highest-rated hour, with a mix of town halls and single-topic specials. It was a dud, and CNN saw some of its lowest viewership in more than two decades.
But no single editorial decision was more contentious than Mr. Licht’s decision to broadcast a live town hall forum with Mr. Trump last month.
It was the former president’s first prime-time appearance since 2020 on a major TV news network (besides those controlled by Rupert Murdoch), and critics wondered if Mr. Licht was repeating Mr. Zucker’s 2016 pattern of providing Mr. Trump with unfiltered airtime. Mr. Zaslav defended the town hall, telling CNBC, “We need to represent both sides. I think it’s important for America.”
The event proved chaotic: Mr. Trump unleashed a torrent of falsehoods — and even mocked the moderator, Ms. Collins, as a “nasty woman” — to cheers from the studio audience, which was organized by local Republican and civic groups.
The forum was roundly criticized, and some CNN viewers said on social media they would no longer watch the channel. To the shock of its staff, CNN began to occasionally dip below the conservative network Newsmax in total prime-show viewership, a once-inconceivable notion. Christiane Amanpour, the eminent CNN anchor, said in a speech that she and Mr. Licht “respectfully disagree” about airing the town hall.
Amid the drama, CNN’s once-mighty financial foundation was eroding. Last year, CNN generated about $750 million in profit, down from about $1.25 billion the previous year. (The lower number included about $200 million in one-time losses from CNN+.)
Mr. Licht’s allies said on Wednesday that he had deserved more of a chance.
“Zaslav gave Chris two years; I wish Chris had been given the two years Zaslav promised him,” said Joe Scarborough, who created “Morning Joe” with Mr. Licht at MSNBC. “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.”
Some CNN staff members regarded Wednesday’s announcement as a chance for a reset. “I want the coverage of CNN to be on our journalism,” Mr. Tapper said in a text message.
On Monday morning, roughly 48 hours before his fateful walk in the park with Mr. Zaslav, Mr. Licht had attempted to shore up support with a newsroom that had in many senses turned against him. “CNN is not about me; I should not be in the news unless it’s taking arrows for you,” he told his staff on a morning call. “Your work is what should be written about.”
“This is the greatest job in the world at the greatest news organization in the world,” Mr. Licht said. “And we have so much to look forward to in the months ahead.”
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