Chris Licht’s New No. 2

Chris Licht
Photo: Arturo Holmes/FilmMagic
Dylan Byers
July 20, 2022

The dog days of summer can be a drag on the media beat. After Sun Valley, Hollywood moguls disperse to yachts in the Mediterranean and Aegean, weddings in St. Tropez, or pastoral second, third, or fourth homes in the South of France and the American West. Manhattan media execs and their most well-paid talent retreat, as often as they can, to the Hamptons or Hudson Valley or Martha’s Vineyard. And even the employees tethered to their responsibilities in New York or Washington usually work from home, to beat the heat or avoid Covid exposure. The entire industry seems to have disbanded, time zones misalign, and it becomes hard to pin people down.

And so what if you did? No one is making much news, anyway. After all, there’s nothing really to discuss, other than Netflix’s Q2 earnings, or those photos of Ari Emanuel hosing down Elon Musk in Mykonos—and there’s really not much to say about all that, is there? In a sign of just how dry the media news well has become, the biggest fracas in New York media this week (so far) is The New Yorker’s archive editor, Erin Overbey, publishing a Felicia Sonmez-style tweet thread about gender disparity in which she accuses her boss, Pulitzer winner David Remnick, of inserting factual errors into her writing as part of an effort to get her ousted for insubordination. The New Yorker called this accusation “absurd,” which reflects the sentiment of almost everyone I know there, as well as the news media industry at large. 

(As I go to press, there’s also a ridiculous story from Radar, at the top of Drudge, suggesting Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, who just re-upped at MSNBC, may jump to CNN. The story is, I assure you, 100 percent false—and just reiterates how slow the media news cycle is right now.)

The dearth of substantive news provides a sound argument for the Francophile’s approach to summer, wherein we all agree to take the next six weeks off and come back after Labor Day. Unfortunately, the real news of the world—inflation, the war in Ukraine, the Jan. 6 hearings—is relentless and unforgiving, and so the people tasked with covering these events can never afford to wander too far from home. Even in 90-degree temperatures, it’s not uncommon to find New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn quietly at work in the company’s otherwise sparsely populated headquarters. CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht was on Capitol Hill this week, I’m told, shadowing his congressional reporters and meeting with lawmakers. Interesting, and sort of randomly, Fox News C.E.O. Suzanne Scott has spent the week batting back a misguided but widely spread rumor that she was about to step down. (I am told on good authority that this is also patently false. For what it’s worth, Scott signed her latest contract in 2021.)

A New Zucker

In reality, though, there is usually more subterranean activity than meets the eye during the summer months. For the news media, the summer is really a rebuilding season. This year, it’s also a chance to get in position for 2022 midterms that will quickly give way to a long, chaotic, unpredictable 2024 presidential election cycle. That is especially true for CNN, where Licht, now three months into his tenure as chairman and C.E.O., is still filling various staff positions and trying to impose structure on a Jeff Zucker-less CNN. Earlier today, Licht revealed his choice for communications chief: Kris Coratti Kelly, a sixteen-year veteran of The Washington Post P.R. shop. Coratti Kelly will move from Washington to the New York area (Montclair, N.J., to be specific) and thus leave Fred Ryan and Sally Buzbee with the unenviable task of identifying a new comms chief to protect and promote Jeff Bezos’s asset.

The Coratti Kelly announcement, well notable on its own, actually precedes a much more significant announcement slated to come as early as this week: Virginia Moseley, the extremely talented and hardworking senior vice president of newsgathering, and the de facto chief of CNN’s D.C. operations, will be promoted to a “head of editorial”-style position that will effectively make her Licht’s No. 2 and give her command of all CNN’s day-to-day editorial operations, several sources familiar with the promotion tell me. This will be an especially powerful position at Licht’s CNN, given his attempts to manage the newsroom from a distance and delegate day-to-day decision-making to top managers and producers—a counterintuitive strategy, as I’ve often noted, given Licht’s talents as an executive producer and his utter inexperience as a C.E.O. or chairman. Moseley will now effectively function as CNN’s executive editor—the newsroom’s new Zucker-like micromanager, since Licht didn’t want that role.

Licht, Moseley, and CNN spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment regarding Moseley’s impending promotion. It’s not clear whether Moseley will stay in D.C. or move to New York—her husband, Tom Nides, is currently serving as Joe Biden’s ambassador to Israel, in Jerusalem—but either way her appointment points to the primacy of political coverage at CNN, and bodes well for the Washington-based talent who have cultivated strong relationships with her, including Jake Tapper, who more than anyone seems to be the face of Licht’s CNN, as well as Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash, Kaitlan Collins, Abby Phillip, and Jim Sciutto. It’s also not clear what this means for programming chief and interim newsroom leader Michael Bass, who, as I reported back in March, has considered leaving the company when his contract expires at the end of the year. 

Whatever the case, Moseley, who has spent nearly four decades in the television news business, including ten years at CBS News, sixteen years at ABC News, and ten years at CNN, has long been due for this job. A hard-charging news operative and fixture of the Washington establishment, she was at times even mentioned as a possible successor to Zucker himself.

Meanwhile, Licht’s priorities on the programming front are refurbishing CNN’s morning show and installing a new primetime anchor at 9 p.m., both of which he hopes to have in place by the fall. In May, Licht said CNN was “seeking to be a disrupter of the broadcast morning shows,” an arena that, like cable news, has been beset by declining ratings and relevance. Licht’s more immediate and perhaps realistic ambition will be creating a show that can compete with MSNBC’s Morning Joe for the mindshare of the political-media establishment, and perhaps even the public at large. Licht was the founding executive producer of Morning Joe, before going on to overhaul CBS This Morning—a morning show that gained plaudits from Licht’s friends and contemporaries in New York and Hollywood, but never moved the network out of third place.

As for Chris Cuomo’s former primetime spot, Licht’s thinking is anyone’s guess. But his stated plans to “experiment” with the position over the summer are no doubt made easier by MSNBC having shown its hand with Alex Wagner at 9 p.m.—a move that, as I’ve noted, mostly serves as an admission of the limited cards MSNBC had at its disposal following Maddow’s $30-million move to Mondays. In the spirit of “rebuilding,” or training, MSNBC has been furnishing Wagner with a bevy of panelists who effectively serve as co-hosts while she re-learns the ropes.

Scott vs. the Smiths

There is one other media organization whose stealth summer moves are being closely watched: Semafor, the still-nebulous new project from Justin Smith and Ben Smith that remains a source of intrigue and fascination for media insiders trying to ascertain who is actually joining this new enterprise ahead of its launch in the fall. So far, these include Vox’s Joe Posner, who will head video; Liz Hoffman, a business and finance reporter from the Journal; Reed Albergotti, a tech reporter from the Post. All talented, to be sure, and yet none of them are of a caliber of the big-time, household name journalists the Smiths initially hoped to bring on board: Andrew Ross Sorkin, Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Swan, et cetera.

No one in this industry is so unwise as to bet against the Smiths, especially ahead of launch, and yet at times the whole Semafor project can feel like a story of diminished ambitions, or at the very least highly neutered talking points. The Smiths initially promised a global collection of national and regional newsrooms meant to cater to “the 200 million college-educated, English-reading people” who, according to them at least, are underserved by the myriad English-language news organizations that already exist and fret about their own futures. But as I reported back in April, the site will actually launch with a heavy focus on Washington, D.C. (plus one other, still unnamed foreign market), and will conceivably play for the same audiences, advertisers and event sponsors from the corporate social responsibility space that currently buoy businesses like Politico, Axios, and Punchbowl. (Justin likes to talk about building Semafor “in a disciplined way,” arriving at its full, “mature state vision” over time. All things are iterative.) 

In any event, the rhetoric about global newsrooms serving local audiences seems to be compelling, not least to Justin’s alma mater, Bloomberg. This week, Smith’s successor Scott Havens told Axios that Bloomberg was launching “a major expansion into localized coverage of different regions around the world”—the Semafor model, effectively. Presumably this is driven by necessity: “I believe we’ll run out of runway on both engagement and audience size if we don’t also go deep within the national and regional story,” Havens said. Presumably, too, this is why Bezos and Ryan are focused on a global expansion of the Post

And, presumably, these ambitions are driven in part by the personal ambitions of globally minded media moguls and executives who do spend their summers, and indeed most of the year, traveling around the world and recognize, as the Hollywood guys do, that their next wave of growth lies well beyond U.S. borders.