Licht Battles the Zucker Ghosts

Jeff Zucker
Photo: Bill O'Leary via Getty Images
Dylan Byers
May 6, 2022

The most notable moment of Chris Licht’s inaugural CNN town hall, which was delivered on Thursday morning, came early in the command performance. With thousands of staffers listening in, the newly christened chairman and C.E.O. of the Cable News Network was asked by moderator Erin Burnett how the producers, talent, and rank-and-file would be able to discern what their new boss really wanted. It was a question that she had heard a lot from employees, who had been prompted to submit questions. “Will there be avenues for us to understand your thinking?” she asked.

As I reported earlier this week, Licht intends to manage CNN as a sort of anti-Jeff Zucker: a delegator-in-chief who won’t have the control room perpetually on hold. He has placed himself in a corporate office on the 22nd floor, at a far remove from the newsroom, where Zucker kept his office door wide open. He will not lead the 9 a.m. meeting, where his predecessor set the daily agenda. And, in perhaps the most radical break from the past, Licht will not meddle in day-to-day programming decisions. If he has thoughts, he will send those directly to programming chief Michael Bass, who will then relay them to executive producers.

The whole slightly-removed management philosophy, unusual for a place like CNN (or any news organization for that matter), does seem very aligned with the vibe being projected by Licht’s boss, David Zaslav, the C.E.O. of Warner Bros. Discovery. In short, the parentco has bigger fish to fry than rewriting chyrons or even immediately figuring out a solution for who will fill Chris Cuomo’s still-vacant slot at 9 p.m.—a decision Licht said he won’t make until the fall, after a summer of experimentation (as first reported by the Times). “I’m not here to get into the weeds of day-to-day editorial decision making,” Licht wrote in a staff-wide memo earlier this week. “My goal is to support all of you in every way I can and not unnecessarily duplicate or undermine the efforts and leadership of the people running their part of the organization.”

But this manage-from-a-distance strategy has perplexed many CNN insiders—I’ve spoken to at least a dozen since yesterday—and left them with a low-lying anxiety not felt since Jason Kilar abruptly and mercilessly dethroned Zucker three months ago. News divisions are traditionally run by leaders who, in addition to their corporate duties, get down in the trenches and revel in the messy, fast-paced, day-to-day work of programming shows, instructing talent and booking big gets. 

Nowhere is this more necessary than at CNN—a 24-hour organization that moves at rapid speed and requires tough calls to be made at a moment’s notice—and never has CNN seemed more in need of that kind of leader, especially in light of the internal chaos that ensued after Zucker’s departure. “These jobs are all hands on, not hands off,” one veteran television executive told me after learning of Licht’s management strategy. “CNN doesn’t need someone telling them from high up what to do through deputies. News divisions are run by leaders with the ability to stand on the bridge and also bail water in the engine room.”

In response to Burnett’s question, Licht began by praising Zucker. The praise was so florid, in fact, that it seemed to suggest an internal epiphany. Perhaps Licht realized that he’d over-indexed on distancing himself from his predecessor in a building rife with Zucker loyalists, many of whom interpreted his emphasis on getting back to “hard news” as a knock against their previous work. “A lot of who I am is because of Jeff,” Licht said, citing cherished memories from the time they overlapped at NBC’s Today and Morning Joe. “Everything that we are talking about, about CNN as a leader in the world—he built that.”

Nevertheless, Licht went on to confirm to staff that his leadership would indeed be decidedly different, and that he would not be with them in the trenches. He said his thinking would be transmitted “through a process and a chain of command,” wherein he talks to Bass, Bass talks to the producers, and so on down the chain. “Michael Bass will tell you I am not shy about texting him when I see something. But I want it to come from him. And if I have an exchange with one of his executive producers, then I’m going to loop him in.” In crisis situations then, Bass or the producers will have to make the tough calls, because the rapid metabolism of live programming doesn’t tolerate the lag time required for a game of telephone from the 22nd floor.

Licht’s ambition, as articulated in the town hall, is to enable CNN’s producers and talent to do their best work, not tell them what to do. He said he will be very involved and engaged with the newsroom, will work with producers and talent daily, but he won’t be shadow-producing every show. He also said he will be very involved in rebooting CNN’s morning show—an area where he has particularly strong expertise—and will be intimately involved with major events like election nights.

Meanwhile, Licht will try to steer CNN toward his grand vision of a groundbreaking news organization that services the majority of Americans who don’t adhere to strictly liberal or conervative orthodoxy. “Fearlessly telling the truth, and being representative of what the country is, is a lane that is wide open right now, and not only will it be good for this country, it will be good for business,” Licht said at the town hall, sounding earnest but also somewhat mimicking a point that Warner Bros. Discovery board member John Malone made months ago. “Once the world realizes what we’re doing, I think we can change the entire industry.”

“It Feels Like We Have No Coach”

One problem with the chain-of-command strategy is that it usually only runs in one direction. Zucker engendered so much loyalty, in part, because staffers felt like he didn’t manage down, and that they always had his ear. This inspired all the fierce fealty that led to all those dramatic outpourings of grief and anger in the wake of his ouster. There was a notable moment in the town hall when Licht encouraged staff not to leak details of the meeting, and noted that Zucker himself had told him that CNN staffers don’t leak. 

That’s never been true, of course, but to the extent that Zucker’s remarks ever stayed in the building, it was because of the staffers’ loyalty to him. It may prove hard for Licht to inspire similar loyalty if the rank-and-file don’t feel like they have that same relationship. “It feels like we have no coach,” one CNN insider told me. “There is no one lifting morale.”

What makes Licht’s approach so perplexing is that hands-on, control room leadership is something he’s actually good at. He has never been a divisional C.E.O. or a chairman of anything and, by his own admission, doesn’t have any aptitude for the business-oriented aspects of that job—hence his decision to hire Chris Marlin, the founding president of Lennar International, the Fortune 500 homebuilding company, to serve as his head of strategy and handle the money stuff. 

Undoubtedly, it would take any executive months to grow into this sort of job, especially when replacing a luminary like Zucker. But, to many, it already seems like Licht is trying to run away from the very thing that made him qualified for the role. And frankly, the thing that CNN producers and talent are paid to do in the first place. “Chris is a good showrunner who just got a big new title and is trying to draw contrasts with his predecessor and establish himself as a chief executive,” the former television executive said. “He’s sitting on a higher floor and thinking big thoughts and relaying them down through the organization. But no C.E.O. of a modern media company takes a hands-off approach—let alone a news organization.”

There are also a few logistical problems with Licht’s lead-via-Bass strategy. The first is that Bass oversees domestic programming, which means that while he might be the ideal person to run point for the shows, the rest of the operation—CNN International, CNN Digital, newsgathering, etc.—isn’t really in his wheelhouse, and so it’s not clear to the rank-and-file in those divisions who is calling the shots. The second problem is that Bass’s contract is up this year and, as I have reported in the past, he has long been planning to leave. Presumably, Licht is already at work either putting together a generous offer to persuade him to reconsider, or determining his next newsroom chief. There is talk in the newsroom that Licht intends to name a newly created “head of editorial” at some point. Virginia Moseley, the senior vice president of newsgathering, is said to be one candidate for the job.

Alternatively, Licht will try the C.E.O. suit on for a while, find that it doesn’t really fit, and then roll up his sleeves and do what he knows how to do best, which is produce TV. Indeed, the pressures of the news cycle—an ongoing war in Ukraine, a landmark Supreme Court battle, and the impending 2024 presidential election—may even force him off the 22nd floor. As much as Licht may want to manage from above, the organization he’s inheriting may simply have other ideas for him. And from what I’m told, Zucker’s old office is still vacant.