The CNN Green Room Massacre

Chris Cillizza
Chris Cillizza speaks onstage at a CNN event in 2020. Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for WarnerMedia
Dylan Byers
December 2, 2022

On Thursday morning, ahead of a long-anticipated day of corporate bloodletting, CNN C.E.O. Chris Licht let his some 4,000-plus staff know that he would be spending the entire day in the executive conference room of his New York headquarters, door open, so that employees could talk directly with him about the new round of layoffs that has now left hundreds of people jobless. The optics were notable. When Licht took this job, seven months earlier, he had made a point of distancing himself from the newsroom, ensconcing himself in a corporate office five stories above the fray, and establishing a chain of command that allowed him to avoid direct, day-to-day communication with the vast majority of his staff. This was a meaningful departure from his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, who kept his office on the newsroom floor and texted and emailed with employees at all hours. 

Licht’s latest gesture was a sign of maturation. In his first months on the job, the former executive producer of Morning Joe, CBS This Morning and The Late Show had made a number of missteps evidencing his inexperience in the executive role—including, most notably, telling his employees that there would not be layoffs, and also planning a trip to Abu Dhabi ostensibly for sales meetings, a family vacation, and a Formula One race during a company-wide travel freeze. Now, on the most challenging day of his tenure to date, he was demonstrating compassion and courage: he would not hide while people lost their jobs. Instead, he would be there to answer questions, to comfort, and to assuage anxieties. “That’s actual leadership,” acknowledged one veteran media executive who has been critical of Licht. “That’s not easy.”

Some employees did pay Licht a visit, though most did not. “What were we supposed to talk about?” one staffer who survived the cuts said. Many were too busy consoling one another, or being consoled. One casualty of Licht’s cuts was the New York bureau, encompassing the journalists who cover the broader northeast region and are usually first on the scene for an event like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the Sandy Hook school shootings—the kind of events that a smartphone-addicted nation still turns on the television for. Several sources described a poignant scene wherein a group of employees broke down in tears while saying goodbye to Brian Vitagliano, a producer on that desk who had been with CNN for nearly 25 years, and was laid off on Thursday along with bureau chief Mary Anne Fox. Similar scenes poured forth from sources at CNN’s various domestic and international bureaus.“Everyone’s depressed,” a CNN source in D.C. texted.