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An exhausted CNN is breathing a sigh of cathartic relief.
After enduring unprecedented internal strife that generated an unrelenting storm of negative press coverage over the past year, staffers at one of the world’s most iconic news outlets are hoping to move on and put a tumultuous chapter behind them.
CNN staffers don’t want the organization to be known for and consumed by a never-ending soap opera starring the C-suite. They want the world to read about the news that its journalists break. They want the news to be the star.
With Chris Licht’s dismissal as chairman and chief executive of CNN on Wednesday morning, staffers are aiming to get back to that mission. They are deeply yearning for it.
Licht’s brief 13-month tenure as network boss was stained by a series of severe missteps that ultimately made it impossible for him to lead the company. Not all of the tumult that occurred over the past year was his fault, to be sure. The poor advertising climate and business realities of a mega-merger made some cost-cutting necessary. And taking the reins from previous network boss Jeff Zucker, who was revered by staff, was never going to be easy.
But a number of self-inflicted wounds kept Licht, and thus CNN, in the press for all the wrong reasons. Employees never fully trusted Licht’s leadership skills, business chops, or editorial vision — a disastrous cocktail that certainly contributed to why there were so many damaging leaks to the press.
In recent months, David Zaslav, chief executive of CNN parent Warner Bros. Discovery, also started to have serious concerns. That was evidenced by Zaslav’s move last week to install his top lieutenant, David Leavy, as chief operating officer of CNN.
But an already bad situation took a turn for the worse when The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta published his devastating 15,000-word profile on Licht. It was the death knell. The piece, in which Alberta spoke to more than 100 CNN employees, called into question Licht’s ability to lead the organization moving forward.
The damning magazine story crystalized Zaslav’s concerns, a person familiar with the matter said. The WBD chief over the weekend started seriously considering relieving Licht of his duties. The final decision to remove Licht was made earlier this week. And, on an early morning stroll through a smoke-filled and apocalyptic Central Park on Wednesday, Zaslav informed Licht that his time was up.
CNN’s 4,000+ employee base — including anchors — learned of the seismic shakeup soon after, during the network’s editorial meeting, which takes place daily at 9am. Zaslav walked into the Hudson Yards conference room in which New York staffers gather and informed employees there and around the world that Licht was out. Licht, notably, was not present for the meeting and never sent a final memo or goodbye to the staff he once led.
Zaslav, who took responsibility for the chaos that has gripped CNN in recent months, said that Licht’s job was “never going to be easy.” He praised his “amazing career” and wished him well on his future endeavors. “For a number of reasons, things didn’t work out and that’s unfortunate,” Zaslav said. “It’s really unfortunate. And ultimately that’s on me. And I take full responsibility for that.”
Zaslav told CNN employees that the company is “in the process of conducting a wide search,” both internally and externally, for a new network chief. Despite the fact that the search is already underway, Zaslav cautioned that it will “take a while” to identify a new network head.
In the interim, Zaslav said the leadership team will be comprised of three veteran network executives: Amy Entelis, executive vice president of talent and content development; Virginia Moseley, executive vice president of editorial; and Eric Sherling, executive vice president of U.S. programming. Leavy will continue overseeing the company’s commercial activities.
“We have great confidence in this group and will fully support them until a new CEO is named,” Zaslav said in an emailed statement to CNN staff. “We are in good hands, allowing us to take the time we need to run a thoughtful and thorough search for a new leader.”
Many staffers also have great confidence in the group, comprised of experienced hands who have already demonstrated their ability to lead the organization through turbulent waters. But that is not to say that the anxiety among the rank-and-file has totally dissipated.
While staffers might have breathed a sigh of relief upon learning of Licht’s dismissal, there is still significant apprehension in the air about what comes next. Will there be more cost cutting? Will decisions made by Licht be undone? Will the next network chief be an improvement over Licht? Or will employees come to regret his dismissal?
And perhaps, most pressing after Alberta’s profile hinted at corporate meddling: Will WBD ensure CNN can operate, from an editorial standpoint, independent of the parent company?
Those are very real questions that are floating around the halls of CNN right now. And the answer to each of them remains to be seen.