On Wednesday, CNN announced that its embattled CEO and chairman Chris Licht was departing the network.
The announced departure came after weeks of criticism over Licht’s decision to allow former President Donald Trump to have a friendly forum during a town hall-style event last month, where he was barely fact-checked in real time as he spouted a barrage of falsehoods regarding his time in office, including continuing to wrongly push the belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him.
It also comes just a week after an expose in The Atlantic detailed how Licht’s actions at the network during his over one-year-long tenure at the helm of the company (beyond the decision to let Trump say whatever he wanted during the town hall) had lessened morale overall among CNN employees.
Under an apparent directive from parent company Warner Bros. Discovery Chief Executive David Zaslav, Licht was tasked with taking the network into a more centrist direction in order to attract a right-wing audience that had come to view CNN negatively during Trump’s time in the White House. To do so, Licht, who assumed the role as CEO in February 2022, took many controversial actions, including firing journalists who expressed opinions about the anti-democratic viewpoints taken by far right lawmakers, as well as allowing more right-wing commentators to express their views on the air.
Licht’s actions, however, had the opposite effect: despite some singular events that did well, the network’s ratings went down under his leadership, especially in more recent weeks.
The Atlantic article included details of Licht’s apparent encouragement of Trump to “have fun” during the town hall meeting last month, which included an auditorium packed with voters aligned with Trump’s politics and viewpoints who cheered him on and jeered host Kaitlan Collins, who attempted to correct Trump at times but appeared to give up midway through the event. Licht also later defended the town hall, after it aired, claiming it had served the country “very well” by showcasing what the GOP-frontrunner candidate for the 2024 presidential election believes.
But even staffers at CNN were critical of the decision to let Trump speak with barely any pushback.
“It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening,” CNN’s “Reliable Sources with Oliver Darcy” newsletter said just after the event concluded, noting that Trump, a “professional lie machine,” engaged the viewing audience in “falsehoods at a rapid clip while using his bluster to overwhelm Collins.”
The expose also included details of employees expressing misgivings over Licht’s approach to managing the network. Tim Alberta, who wrote The Atlantic article in question, noted that there was confusion over Licht’s leadership style and decision making during his tenure.
“Every employee I spoke with was asking some variation of the same question. Did Licht have any idea what he was doing?” Alberta wrote.
After the publication of the article, morale dipped even lower at CNN, as staffers said they gleaned more about Licht and his vision for the company from the article than they had from anything he had told them himself.
“It’s very frustrating that we learn more about Licht’s motivations from interviews than we do from internal communication,” one employee said after The Atlantic article was published.
The network, for the time being, will now be led by an interim leadership team. Media professionals reacted to news of Licht’s ouster by noting the obvious: that moving the company toward a centrist approach was a grave mistake.
“Under his one-year reign as CEO, CNN’s ratings plummeted into the cellar, and he practically single-handedly destroyed the network’s reputation,” tweeted former NBCUniversal executive producer Mike Sington.
“What happens next is critical for CNN,” stated Sarah Reese Jones, editor in chief of the blog site PoliticusUSA. “They could save the brand by listening to the enormous talent in the journalists already in their team. Enabling fascism isn’t profitable in 2023. People are hungry for the truth, not the side of known liars.”
Ian Bassin, founder of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to opposing authoritarianism, also reacted to the news of Licht’s firing by saying that his decision to punish reporters who discussed the anti-democratic views of Trump and other Republicans honestly was detrimental to both the network and to viewers.
“Reporters at CNN did their jobs during the Trump era: they told the truth — that Trump’s actions broke laws and norms that endangered democracy,” Bassin said. “For that, Licht fired them, sending a horrible signal to others. Hopefully his firing will remedy that damage.”
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