First Lichts

Chris Licht
Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Dylan Byers
May 26, 2022

On Tuesday afternoon, new CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht was in the network’s Washington bureau preparing for the night’s primary election coverage. Then, just before 4 p.m. ET, national correspondent Ed Lavendera went live from Dallas to report that at least two children had died in a tragic shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. For the moment, the story was treated as the sort of horror that now sadly fills newswires day after day. Moments later, Jake Tapper opened his show with a ten-minute segment on the upcoming primaries, which he said would test Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican party. He then turned to a segment on the developing story in Texas before running segments on the war in Ukraine, the foiled ISIS plot to assassinate George W. Bush, and President Biden’s recent remarks on Taiwan. 

When Tapper returned to Lavendera, just before 4:40 p.m. ET, after a commercial break, the correspondent relayed the heartbreaking news that at least 14 children had been killed. By that point the broadcast networks, which tend to lag far behind cable on breaking news stories, had already broken into special coverage. On an editorial call the next morning, Licht commended his staff for getting to the story early—the sort of supportive bearing that befits Licht’s reputation as a thoughtful and affable leader who, less than a month into a huge job, is still trying to cool nerves and gracefully align his charges in a burgeoning new era. But the widespread sentiment among many of those listening in was that the network had been late to the story, and that this wouldn’t have happened under Jeff Zucker.

This sequence of events is the kind of thing that matters to virtually no one outside of CNN. In an era of push notifications and social media, when fewer and fewer people are watching television news, it’s hardly relevant whether CNN cuts into rolling coverage of a major breaking news event minutes before or after the competition. And it’s certainly and entirely irrelevant to the real story, which is the horrific and unspeakable tragedy itself. And yet, inside CNN, this can become the sort of flash point that garners attention and leads at least six different people, including anchors, on-air talent, show producers and digital reporters, to wring their hands, question the state of the network, and pick up the phone to contact a media reporter. 

The tragedy in Texas, of course, has nothing to do with the transition at CNN. But, in a way that unrelated events can trigger simmering emotions, it has highlighted an anxiety that continues inside Hudson Yards. CNN, after all, just spent nine years under the reign of the hyper-competitive, hyper-controlling Zucker. And while Licht is only 25 days into his tenure, plenty of Zucker disciples inside the network still can’t shake their anxieties about their new leader, nor the feeling that his relatively hands-off approach is undermining the network’s competitive metabolism, and their fear that any break from the Zuckerian mold will provide a reversion to the somnolent pre-Zucker era when the demise of CNN was daily conversation fodder at Michael’s and Brasserie Ruhlmann. 

Licht made clear from his first day on the job that he intended to manage CNN as a sort of anti-Zucker, at least initially removing himself from the newsroom, delegating day-to-day decision-making to top managers and producers and establishing a chain of command that discouraged direct correspondence between him and the rank and file. This “lead from behind” approach, seemingly ripped from a Harvard Business School syllabus and very antithetical to Licht’s style as a successful executive producer of news and late night, was supposedly meant to empower CNN producers and talent to become more editorially confident and less reliant on their leader. It would also presumably allow Licht some time to analyze the situation he has inherited while enacting the first steps of his strategy. 

Indeed, Licht’s first few weeks have been remarkably busy, albeit in a behind the scenes manner that befits his style. He’s met more than 200 people, been directly involved in decisions about which reporters to send to Ukraine, conducted an upfront presentation and a town hall, and embarked upon a review of a massive organization, which includes evaluating talent across the network. But as I reported earlier this month, the prevailing wisdom among television news executives is that it’s only a matter of time before he’ll need to become far more visible. Operating a global, 24/7 news organization with 4,500 staffers is a business that very much requires the boss to lead from the front—setting the day’s agenda, shaping the coverage, cultivating and coddling the talent and making tough editorial calls in the heat of the moment. As one veteran television executive told me at the time, “these jobs are all hands on, not hands off.” (Licht declined to be interviewed.)

What Would Jeff Do?

The nostalgia for Zucker and his brand of leadership can feel a tad bit romantic, to be sure. “Jeff would have been in Jake’s ear at the top of the show, telling him, ‘Stop! Lead with the kids!’” one CNN insider told me. “He would have been asking how fast we could get people on the company jet to get to Texas! We would have been trying to win the story.” This alternate reality also belies certain inconvenient details, like the fact that, at the top of Tapper’s show, the full scope of Tuesday’s horror had not yet emerged. Or that, indeed, CNN did send Anderson Cooper, John Berman and Alisyn Camerota to Uvalde. (Licht was involved in the decision about who to deploy, I’m told.) In so many ways, as it is hardwired to do, CNN answered the horrific moment deftly, offering powerful journalism to viewers who watched the unfolding tragedy with their hearts in their throats.

Nevertheless, the games of What Would Jeff Have Done? persist widely inside CNN. Chatting with top CNN people in the past few days reminded me of the fraught moment after Zucker was defenestrated this winter. This collective agita, which may have been exacerbated by another traumatic news event, speaks not only to the enduring loyalty people feel toward Zucker and his aggressive, “all in” approach to newsgathering, but also to a perhaps defensive repudiation of Licht’s decision to try a different tack and position himself at a remove, at least for now. The overwhelming consensus is that Licht should embrace his talents as a hands-on producer and stop trying to manage the company through Michael Bass, a capable but deliberative newsgathering chief who is used to taking direction from Zucker. “We need him in the trenches,” one staffer said, echoing the sentiments of many. 

Presumably, this criticism is also a reflection of some macroeconomic apprehension. CNN, which was already experiencing a post-Trump softening, is enduring some of its worst ratings in a decade. The network is barely averaging more than 100,000 viewers in the revenue-relevant 25-to-54 year-old demo, its worst performance since June 2014. For all of Warner Bros. Discovery C.E.O. David Zaslav’s talk about CNN being a prestige brand rather than a profit center, these ratings will put enormous pressure on the budget—all at a time when Zaslav’s C.F.O. Gunnar Wiedenfels is hunting for savings, particularly as the economy braces for a recession.

Of course, this all amplifies a larger collective neurosis that you don’t need to be Freud to perceive. Under Zucker, CNN was stirred from a post-prime ennui to become one of the most resonant brands in our culture, no matter the pitch of its coverage, or its adjacency to the growing divisiveness of our society. Zucker had rescued it from the marooned Jon Klein era and imbued it with a singular life injection that belied the secular decline of linear television, in general, and cable news, in particular. His prolific ambition and confidence poured resolve into talent, boosted their earnings, and even convinced CNN’s bosses, the AT&T guys in Dallas, that it could thrive as its own streaming service.

Now, sans that ubiquitous leader, many are preemptively rushing to the dark place, wondering what a lead-from-behind strategy might mean in an era of synergies. Zucker had the singular stature to fend off WarnerMedia C.E.O. Jason Kilar at various turns. Will Licht defend his budget to Gunnar? Is CNN going to become MSNBC, as some fear, meaning an increasingly visionless network right-sizing itself in view of its audience? And where might it go from there? The mere fact that all these anxieties are flowering less than a month into Licht’s tenure, amid a horrific news event, is a reminder that it’s damn hard work to run a global network, particularly in the shadow of a legend, and especially in this shape-shifting media era. 

The Licht Show

To be sure, three and a half weeks is an absurdly unfair timeframe in which to judge a new C.E.O., but unfortunately for Licht, the television news industry is heavily populated with edgy and impatient egos who are in constant need of assurance, validation and direction. That is especially true at CNN, which has just endured a public convulsion in which its beloved, benevolent dictator was publicly dethroned; a new corporate owner took over and immediately started casting aspersions on the integrity of the product; and the very first move of the newly-installed chief was to, even with cloud cover from Zaz, blow up the $300-million life raft that was supposedly going to shepherd the network and its talent to a prosperous future in the new world of streaming, no matter how many signals had been missed between executives. 

Needless to say, there is some P.T.S.D. here that is heightening anxieties over even the smallest and totally unrelated missteps, such as the fractionally delayed response to Uvalde, and affording Licht less runaway than he may believe he is entitled to. But this skepticism toward Licht’s anti-Zucker playbook, it should be noted, is also not universal. The talent and producers who have quickly established a close relationship with Licht will tell you that he’s accessible, supportive, and engaged. Some might even champion his “lead-from-behind” approach as a necessary break from the cultish, “great man theory” sensibility that left people paranoid to the point of exhaustion if they didn’t get Zucker’s approval. But for every one of those newly established acolytes, there are several more who will tell you that nearly four months after Zucker’s ouster, CNN is still suffering from a leadership vacuum, and that the absence of an ever-present, accessible commander-in-chief is hurting both newsroom morale and the editorial product itself. 

This is also true on the digital side, which is effectively operating without a leader since chief digital officer Andrew Morse and editor-in-chief Meredith Artley vacated their positions earlier this month. Newsrooms need leaders who can articulate a vision for where the company is going, a strategy for how to get there, and clear standards by which to measure their success. To date, many inside CNN feel like Licht has given them little of that—save for his desire to put “journalism first,” and his ambitious, perhaps quixotic goal of being a network that better represents the full, complex spectrum of the nation’s political views and cultural attitudes.

Ultimately, this may just be an issue of Licht adapting to managing at scale. He has a great reputation for cultivating talent, but throughout his career—at Morning Joe, CBS This Morning and The Late Show—he has only ever been responsible for managing between one to three top talents at a time. Meanwhile, CNN is a network with hundreds of on-air talents, including dozens of hosts, all of whom harbor their own unique ambitions and grievances. It’s quite possible that what distinguishes one CNN talent, who tells you Licht is great, from one who doesn’t, is simply whether or not Licht has decided to invite that person to dinner and make them feel special, or whether they think their contract is likely getting renewed. 

But it goes without saying that Licht can only make so many of CNN’s 4,500 staffers feel special if he’s leading from behind. Zucker had the benefit of coming to CNN after he’d already held even more senior jobs, including as the C.E.O. of NBCUniversal. Licht doesn’t have that sort of management experience. But, for what it’s worth, he may have something more important—the unwavering support of Zaz, perhaps the most exalted media C.E.O. of the post-Iger era, who has masterminded a content empire with shrewd dealmaking and imagination, and shown profound loyalty to his own executives. 

As CNN adjusts to its new era, Zaz is busy steering a recently integrated public company toward various financial goals with great speed. Indeed, those larger objectives may not always be under consideration inside the CNN newsroom as they are in the public markets. At CNN, Zaz has put Licht in charge, and everyone is going to have to get used to his style, or else.