Turbulent Leadership and Departure of Chris Licht from CNN

Turbulent Leadership and Departure of Chris Licht from CNN
Posted on 07-06-2023

Turbulent Leadership and Departure of Chris Licht from CNN


The departure of Chris Licht, the chief executive and chairman of CNN, marked the end of a tumultuous one-year tenure plagued by severe missteps and controversy. Licht's tenure was marred by layoffs, shrinking profits, historically low ratings, anchor firings, and rock-bottom employee morale. The chaotic atmosphere at CNN had been exacerbated by the ouster of previous leader Jeff Zucker and the shuttering of CNN+, a nascent streaming service. This article will delve into the challenges faced by Chris Licht, the reasons behind his departure, and the aftermath of his exit.

The Rocky Tenure:

Chris Licht, who had previously achieved success leading "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," faced fierce criticism from the press during his time at CNN. Leaks from employees who lacked trust in his leadership skills and editorial vision contributed to negative perceptions of Licht. A pivotal moment came with the publication of a scathing 15,000-word profile in The Atlantic by author Tim Alberta. Based on interviews with over 100 CNN employees, the profile seriously questioned Licht's ability to lead the organization into the future.

Attempts at Redemption:

Following The Atlantic article, Licht made efforts to regain trust and salvage his position. He offered apologies to staffers and vowed to fight to win back their trust. However, it became increasingly evident that Licht's position as the chief executive was untenable, and his tenure was coming to an end. High-profile anchors, correspondents, and rank-and-file staff had lost confidence in Licht's leadership. Recognizing the situation, David Zaslav, the chief executive of Warner Bros. Discovery, installed his top lieutenant, David Leavy, as CNN's chief operating officer. Licht was informed of his departure on Wednesday morning.

Zaslav's Role and Leadership Transition:

David Zaslav assumed responsibility for the chaos that had gripped CNN in recent months and acknowledged that Licht's job had never been easy. Despite praising Licht's career, Zaslav acknowledged that things had not worked out and took full responsibility for the situation. Zaslav informed CNN employees that the company would conduct a wide search, both internally and externally, for a new network chief, cautioning that the process would take time. In the interim, a leadership team consisting of veteran network executives, including Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley, and Eric Sherling, would oversee CNN's operations.

Licht's Troubles and Missteps:

Licht's previous successes in morning news and leading "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert" did not translate to his role at CNN. His first major task was dismantling CNN+, a streaming service previously hailed as the network's future. Although the decision was not solely Licht's, it presented a challenging start to his tenure. Despite initial optimism among employees, Licht's series of blunders eroded much of the goodwill. Unlike his predecessor Jeff Zucker, Licht distanced himself from CNN's journalists, isolating himself from the staff. His decision to fire Brian Stelter, the network's chief media correspondent and anchor of "Reliable Sources," and dismiss other key CNN journalists raised eyebrows among the staff.

Licht's tenure was further marred by significant layoffs that contradicted earlier assurances to the staff. The programming changes implemented by Licht, such as the launch of "CNN This Morning" featuring anchors Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kaitlan Collins, failed to improve ratings and became entangled in tabloid drama. Lemon's eventual ousting from the network added to the troubled programming decisions. The handling of a town hall with former President Donald Trump also drew intense criticism, both internally and externally, and was widely considered a mistake.

The Atlantic Profile and Licht's Alienation:

The negative media coverage surrounding Licht and CNN culminated in The Atlantic's profile. Author Tim Alberta, who had been granted unprecedented access to Licht for about a year, portrayed the CNN chief as unfit for the job. Licht's comments during the profile, including remarks disparaging the network's journalism prior to his appointment, further alienated CNN staff. In the final days of his tenure, Licht seemed to recognize the extent of the alienation he had caused among the staff, but it was too late to salvage his position.


Chris Licht's departure from CNN marked the end of a turbulent tenure fraught with challenges and controversies. The series of missteps, criticism, and low employee morale ultimately led to his exit. Warner Bros. Discovery, under the leadership of David Zaslav, is committed to conducting a thorough search for a new network chief while supporting the interim leadership team. The departure of Licht leaves CNN in a challenging position, but the company aims to restore stability and trust as it moves forward.

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