Can Chris Licht and David Leavy Repair CNN?
The apology tour began first thing Monday. “I know these past few days have been very hard for this group, and I fully recognize that this news cycle and my role in it have overshadowed the incredible week of reporting we just had and distracted from the work of every single journalist in this organization, and for that, I’m sorry,” Chris Licht said at the top of CNN’s morning editorial call, soundbites from which immediately found their way into the press. “As I read that article, I found myself thinking, CNN is not about me. I should not be in the news, unless it’s taking arrows for you. There are parts of that article and characterizations made, where I don’t recognize myself. But there are those of you who do. This experience has been tremendously humbling, and to those whose trust I lost I will fight like hell to win it back.”
Licht was referring, of course, to The Atlantic’s devastating postmortem of his first year leading the embattled cable news network, which landed on the heels of the highly controversial Donald Trump town hall shepherded by Licht weeks earlier. The 15,000-word fly-on-the-wall profile by Tim Alberta wasn’t a typical takedown so much as the type of all-access feature where the writer essentially hands his subject some rope and the subject hangs himself. In the viciously gossipy and schadenfreude-filled media world, it’s all anyone’s been talking about since the piece dropped on Friday morning, and the fallout is still being assessed. The question now is whether the imbroglio will continue to metastasize, and to what extent.
Licht could presumably keep his hands on the controls for some time to come. And yet, it’s also easy to imagine the possible headlines a few months down the road: Chris Licht is stepping down from his tumultuous role as the CEO of CNN. Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav thanks him for his contributions to the company. He plans to take a beat and spend more time with his family before figuring out his next move. (Or even—never say never!—Chris Licht will return to his celebrated role as executive producer of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.)
That narrative appears to have already been seeded. “In the last 48 hours, it has become clear, based on conversations with well-placed sources, that Zaslav’s once steadfast support has wavered considerably,” Puck’s Dylan Byers reported. Writing for New York, Brian Stelter (who is also a contributor to VF) came upon a more brutal assessment from employees inside the network, who shared their impressions as follows: “He’s over.” “He’s done.” “There’s no coming back from that profile.”
On Monday, I got on the phone with some sources who are plugged into the thinking at the top to try and get my own read on where Licht stands. For what it’s worth, I didn’t come away from those conversations thinking that he’s definitely a goner; it may just be too early to gauge one way or another. As one source put it, “This doesn’t have to be fatal at all.”
Something that did come across in my chats is that Zaslav isn’t happy about where things are at with CNN in general and that his concerns have been percolating for several months now. (For those of you who’ve been following, ratings are down, morale is in the tank, and a fully-formed programming slate has yet to take shape.) I’m told it was as early as March that he initiated a conversation about bringing in a chief operating officer to work alongside Licht as a stabilizing force, and to shore up management of the network; the conversations about that person being Zasalv’s longtime lieutenant and confidante David Leavy, whose appointment was announced the day before The Atlantic piece hit, heated up within the past month. (Zaslav, by the way, didn’t know there was a year-long Atlantic piece in the works until a few weeks before it was published when WBD’s communications chief put the kibosh on an on-record interview he had been negotiating.)
The case for the Licht-Leavy turnaround plan is this: Licht can focus on the programming side of things (as well as the now herculean task of rebuilding trust within CNN’s sprawling network of journalists around the world), while Leavy gets down and dirty with company culture, processes, commercial matters, etc. You can choose to believe this or not, but I’m told Licht and Leavy have developed a strong rapport and become genuine friends over the past year, gone out to dinner with their wives and all of that. Also, while it’s easy to peg Leavy as the bean counter, my understanding is that he actually has relationships with CNN producers and on-air talent going back to the years he spent working in the Clinton White House in the ’90s, which, well, that certainly doesn’t hurt. (No comment on any of this from CNN or WBD.)
What comes next? In the immediate term, Leavy, who lives in DC, is headed to New York this week to roll up his sleeves, get under the hood, and figure out what needs to be done. As Stelter reported over the weekend and I also confirmed, his phone’s been blowing up with calls from CNN journalists, who are understandably rattled by everything that’s been going on. So Leavy’s schedule this week will be just what you’d imagine: meetings out the wazoo. As for Licht’s long-term fate, only time will tell.