Chris Licht stepping down as CNN chief after rocky tenure

A brutal Atlantic profile on him that came out last Friday may have sealed the deal

Chris Licht, CNN’s embattled chief, is leaving the company after a brief, rocky run where he managed to alienate much of the staff with clumsy efforts to steer the company in a more centrist fashion.

Digital media company Puck News first reported the news on Wednesday morning. Other media sources subsequently confirmed the news. Soon after, CNN confirmed Licht’s departure via a memo from Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav.

“I have known Chris for many years and have enormous respect for him, personally and professionally,” Zaslav wrote. “This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation, and Chris poured his heart and soul into it. He has a deep love for journalism and this business and that has been evident throughout his tenure. Unfortunately, things did not work out the way we had hoped ― and ultimately that’s on me. I take responsibility. Needless to say, we appreciate Chris’ efforts and dedication and wish him all the best.”

Since Licht took over 13 months ago, he nixed CNN’s streaming platform CNN+, created a morning show that imploded in his face and helmed a widely panned town hall with former President Donald Trump. It didn’t help that ratings cratered to levels not seen in decades. This past Friday, an Atlantic profile in which he gave plenty of access painted him as paranoid, insular and obsessed with press coverage of himself.

He apologized to CNN staff on Monday morning but it was too little, too late.

Licht’s previous experience as producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” “CBS Morning News” and “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” failed to translate to running a sprawling 4,000-person international news operation previously operated by a popular hands-on boss in Jeff Zucker.

Frank Sesno, a former CNN correspondent and D.C. bureau chief from 1984 to 2001 and former director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, said even under the best of circumstances, CNN is a difficult organization to oversee. These are not the best of times.

“His departure is sad but not surprising,” Sesno said. “Chris Licht went into CNN with good intentions but did not anticipate the complexity and microscope he was working under.”

Josh Levs, who worked at CNN from 2002 to 2015 and is now an independent communications consultant, said CNN has strayed from founder Ted Turner’s ideals to focus on facts and hard news in an effort to chase ratings and profits. Licht was no panacea, he said, given his focus on personalities and providing Trump an open platform.

Puck said Amy Entelis, a longtime CNN executive who was a Zucker loyalist, will be interim chief executive officer until Zaslav finds a permanent boss for CNN. Zaslav’s memo said she will be part of a leadership team that includes Virginia Moseley, Eric Sherling and David Leavy.

“Amy is splendid,” said former CNN president Tom Johnson. “Highly respected by the CNN staff. Spectacular leader of CNN Films.”

Sesno said the goal now for CNN leadership is “to steady the ship. They need a clear set of editorial and operational goals to calm the waters with CNN staff.”

No matter who is running CNN, the network is facing major headwinds given the rapid shrinkage in the the cable news audience as more people opt for streaming and the polarization of the news audience, he noted.

CNN has more than 1,000 employees based in Atlanta, where the news operation started 43 years ago, but the company is now essentially headquartered in New York City.