Embattled CNN chief apologizes to staff after embarrassing profile, vows to 'fight like hell' to win back trust

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Chris Licht started CNN’s daily network editorial meeting on Monday by directly addressing the elephant in the room.

“I want to say that I’ve spent the weekend doing a lot of thinking,” Licht told staffers, many of whom had dialed into the meeting specifically to hear from their embattled chief executive.

Employees had not heard from Licht since The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta on Friday published a blistering 15,000-word profile on him. The embarrassing piece, which reverberated all weekend throughout the media industry, called into serious question Licht’s judgment, his ability to lead the network’s staff, and his overall professional capabilities as CNN’s top executive.

In a somber tone, Licht on Monday apologized to employees for having distracted from the work of the newsroom, which has broken a string of recent stories related to the probes into Donald Trump. He said that he “should not be in the news, unless it is taking arrows” for the network. And he said that he did not recognize the person portrayed in portions of The Atlantic article.

Most notably, Licht, who described the experience as “tremendously humbling,” vowed to push on. He said that he would “fight like hell” to win over the trust of the 3,500-person news organization he leads.

Whether Licht can actually win over his army of journalists, however, is far from certain — especially now that he is attempting to reset relations more than a year into his tenure, having alienated much of the employee base and squandered the good will he had when he took the helm of the network.

In the wake of The Atlantic’s explosive story, I’ve spoken with dozens of staffers across the company. There are a wide range of emotions coursing through the halls of CNN. Some staffers are frustrated. Others are angry. Many are sad about the awful state of affairs that has taken hold of an organization they love.

There is one near-universal sentiment, however, that has been communicated to me: Licht has lost the room.

Licht’s Monday remarks, according to the people I’ve spoken with, struck the right tone. He did appear humbled. Staffers could hear the raw emotion in his voice as he spoke. And he invited feedback and offered self-reflection in a way that represented a marked departure from how he has governed in the past.

But Licht, notably, did not apologize for having disparaged CNN’s previous journalism, an omission in his remarks that did not go unnoticed by staffers, particularly the network’s health unit which has been infuriated by the attacks he leveled against the outlet’s Covid-19 coverage. And, overall, the comments did little to move the needle. “Too little, too late,” more than one employee said, summarizing the widespread attitude from staffers that I spoke with.

In the eyes of so many at CNN, there isn’t anything Licht can do at this point to win over their support. They’ve hit the wall with him. As one anchor texted me, in reference to Licht’s announcement on Monday that he will relocate his office to a newsroom floor at Hudson Yards: “We don’t want his office relocated to the 18th floor, we want it relocated out of the building.”

Over the last 72 hours, top anchors and correspondents have reached out to David Leavy, CNN’s newly installed chief operating officer and, more importantly, the trusted lieutenant of Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav, to offer their candid thoughts about Licht’s leadership. Suffice to say, in these conversations, CNN journalists have not been shy in criticizing Licht.

Zaslav, I’m told, understands the dire state of affairs at his news network. He wouldn’t have dispatched his top lieutenant before the publication of The Atlantic piece if he did not believe there was a problem. And the publication of the magazine’s article added gasoline to the raging fire. “[Zaslav] had the same reaction that everyone else did to that article,” a person familiar with the WBD chief’s thinking told me. A second person familiar with Zaslav’s thinking said the WBD boss was not happy about The Atlantic story and that he is not blind to what is transpiring at CNN.

Whether CNN’s corporate ownership will force a change remains to be seen. Several media executives that I have spoken with in recent days have all said that it is hard to see how Zaslav doesn’t do something. WBD put out a generic statement expressing lukewarm support for Licht’s leadership on Friday, though that was before Leavy heard from much of the staff.

In the immediate future, I’m told, Leavy is counseling Licht and CNN leadership’s primary goal is to stabilize the ship. Licht spent much of Monday having one-on-one conversations with top talent and executives. Beyond repairing relationships with staff, the hope is to get Licht out of the news and to refocus the attention on CNN’s newsroom.

That attitude was reflected by Licht in his Monday remarks to employees. “Only the journalism matters,” Licht said. “And I will not be distracted from that North Star.”

source: cnn.com