Chris Licht ousted as CNN chairman as network faces leadership crisis

Chris Licht poses at CNN last year.
CNN Chairman Chris Licht in 2022.
(Jai Lennard)
Share via

Chris Licht, the beleaguered chairman of CNN, is stepping down, marking an abrupt end to the executive’s rocky 13-month tenure.

The company announced his departure Wednesday at its daily editorial meeting. It marks a rapid and spectacular fall for the executive leading the influential cable news channel.

CNN is losing viewers and its boss has lost the trust of his staff. Warner Bros. Discovery now has to try to salvage Licht’s tenure as chief executive.

June 5, 2023

David Zaslav, chief executive of parent company Warner Bros. Discovery, called in to the meeting shortly after informing Licht of the decision.


Zaslav told CNN staffers that Licht’s job was “never going to be easy” and said he wished him well.

“For a number of reasons, things didn’t work out and that’s unfortunate,” Zaslav said, according to a CNN report. “It’s really unfortunate. And ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”

Zaslav told CNN employees the company would be “conducting a wide search” internally and externally for the network’s new chief, a process expected to take “a while.”

Licht has been under intense fire since last week, when a lengthy Atlantic magazine profile of Licht outraged top executives within the company, along with the rank and file who were already in a deep funk over the network’s disastrous May 10 town hall with former President Trump. CNN’s prime-time ratings — already in decline — have dropped 30% since the network aired the Trump event, a clear signal that it angered the audience as well.

Licht expressed regret Monday to staffers about the Atlantic piece, by journalist Tim Alberta, in which Licht disparaged CNN coverage under his popular predecessor Jeff Zucker. The magazine story portrayed Licht as an isolated leader primarily concerned with Zaslav’s mandate that the network be more hospitable to Republicans and address the perceived need to restore trust with viewers.

Amy Entelis, a veteran TV news executive most recently in charge of the network’s long-form content, will be part of a transition team that will find a successor for Licht. She is also considered a candidate herself in the search.


Licht will take over the news organization in May after Discovery completes its acquisition of CNN parent WarnerMedia.

Feb. 28, 2022

Entelis will be joined on the team by Virginia Moseley, executive vice president in charge of the network’s news operation; Eric Sherling, executive vice president of programming; and David Leavy, who was named chief operating officer last week.

Many insiders took Leavy’s appointment as a sign that Licht’s days were numbered. He was assigned to oversee the network’s business operations.

Licht’s departure comes after a tumultuous period for CNN that has been marked by cost-cutting pressures, programming missteps and declining viewership.

His ouster is the latest blow to Zaslav, who has confronted a raft of controversies since taking over as the big boss overseeing CNN, Warner Bros.’ film and TV studios and HBO.

Zaslav appointed Licht with the notion that CNN needed an overhaul. Zaslav said publicly that the network had swerved too far into becoming a left-leaning advocate and needed to be more centrist in its approach to the news.

Star correspondent Sara Sidner joins “CNN News Central,” the network’s attempt to showcase its journalism bona fides to an influential audience.

April 4, 2023

Most insiders took that as a mandate to put more Republicans on the air as guests. It was taken a step further by giving former President Trump — now a candidate for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — a town hall forum. Trump had been at war with CNN since 2016 and had not appeared for an interview since.


But the town hall conducted in New Hampshire was the beginning of the end for Licht.

CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins questioned Trump for 70 minutes in front of an audience of Republican voters at St. Anselm College in Goffstown. But the crowd gave the event the atmosphere of a Trump rally as audience members cheered the candidate’s answers, even when he disparaged E. Jean Carroll, the woman who was recently awarded $5 million after a jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing her in 1994.

Trump also repeated his false claims that his 2020 election loss was “rigged” and that then-Vice President Mike Pence could have saved him from defeat by not certifying the election.

Collins’ attempts to perform fact-checks in real time have often proved futile. Critics said CNN should have known better than to give Trump a forum where it would be impossible to filter out misinformation.

Licht defended the decision to air the program, praising Collins and insisting the event was newsworthy and important to carry. But the harsh assessments of its execution only escalated in the following days.

Veteran CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour publicly said she disagreed with the decision to present Trump in the format. When many CNN journalists supported her remarks on social media, it was a sign that Licht had lost the confidence of the newsroom.

With Licht already on shaky ground, the Atlantic published Alberta’s story Friday under the headline “Inside the Meltdown at CNN,” which gave a detailed look at Licht’s first year on the job.


Licht gave full cooperation for the story, and Alberta had extraordinary access during rehearsals for the town hall and preparation of the network’s failed morning program, which was the first programming initiative under Licht’s leadership.

The story reinforced the perception of many CNN insiders that Licht did not understand the culture of the operation and appeared too concerned with undoing the work of Zucker, who allowed more personality and opinion on the network.

The story, which included firsthand descriptions of Licht working out with his physical trainer, proved to be a major embarrassment for Licht, and insiders believed his departure would be imminent.

The drumbeats calling for Licht’s ouster became louder in the last few days as top CNN talent, including Jake Tapper, Erin Burnett and Anderson Cooper, made their unhappiness with the situation known to Zaslav, according to people familiar with the discussions. The revolt by news anchors was an indication that Licht would be unable to muster support from his troops.

The communications team that signed off on the network’s participation in the story followed Licht out the door.

Matt Dornic, who served as CNN’s head of communications, and Kristine Coratti Kelly, executive vice president and global head of communications, exited Wednesday, according to a person inside the network informed of their status.


Licht came to CNN with impressive credentials.

He helped create “Morning Joe,” the MSNBC program with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that is a favorite of Beltway viewers. He launched “CBS This Morning,” which had a five-year run of audience growth until its star co-host Charlie Rose was fired over alleged sexual misconduct.

Licht was later assigned at CBS to oversee “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” which stumbled out of the gate when it launched in 2015. The program — helped by the emergence of Trump — turned itself around and became the most-watched late night comedy program under Licht’s watch.

But Licht’s programming acumen was not on display at CNN. He never came up with a plan to shore up prime time, which lost viewers after the forced departure of one of its most popular hosts, Chris Cuomo.

Licht chose to make a new morning show his first priority. The decision was baffling to some. The time period has never been strong for CNN because viewers who are not looking for political commentary in the morning tend to choose broadcast TV shows that incorporate local traffic and weather.

Licht put together a team of Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow and relative newcomer Collins, who covered the White House for CNN, as co-anchors for “CNN This Morning.” The trio failed to jell, and Lemon, who does not thrive in ensemble settings, was fired after making sexist comments about Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley.

The ratings have flagged for the program and only Harlow remains at the anchor desk. Collins is taking over the 9 p.m. hour in September.


Some insiders were dumbfounded when Licht’s team wanted to have “CNN This Morning” re-air at 9 a.m. Eastern for West Coast viewers, which meant the network would have been on tape at the start of the business day. It was one of the few ideas Licht was talked out of, according to one former CNN producer.

Licht was also forced to enact budget cuts and layoffs to help ease the financial pressure on debt-ridden Warner Bros. Discovery. But his choice to end the use of outside production companies for CNN Originals — which turned out high-rated programs that could draw audiences and ad revenues in repeats and on streaming platforms — was considered shortsighted.

Whoever takes the job of running CNN in the long term will have to help the business adapt to a smaller market of pay TV homes that is diminishing due to cord-cutting. CNN has a robust digital news operation, but the only way to watch its video channel live is with a pay TV subscription.

The company launched a direct-to-consumer streaming service, CNN+, which offered its own lineup of news and talk programming. But Warner Bros. Discovery executives were concerned about the cost of the startup and shut it down shortly after CNN became part of the newly merged company.

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.