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.

Some CNN sources who passed by Licht on Thursday did notice the presence of multiple security guards standing outside of the conference room, and at least one walking around with Licht as he moved about the floor. Guards are always present on the 17th floor at Hudson Yards—this is a global news network, after all, and one all-too-familiar with angry protestors and bomb threats—but the heightened security presence on a day of layoffs suggested Licht was mindful of how raw emotions were, and that a Jerry Maguire moment, or something worse, was not out of the question.

The Brain Trust Is Vanquished

The layoffs at CNN will reduce the company’s overall headcount by less than 10 percent. While some of the people affected will be very familiar to CNN viewers—contributors like Preet Bharara, commentators like Chris Cillizza, correspondents like Alison Kosik and Dan Merica—the vast majority will be off-camera staffers. Some, surely, are replaceable, and some may have been in positions that were, to use the dreaded corporate buzzword, redundant. But many of those leaving CNN this week are folks who have historically been seen as crucial to the organization.

Among them is Tommy Evans, a vice president and London bureau chief who oversaw news gathering for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. His title belied his true role at the company: Evans played a leading role overseeing CNN’s peerless coverage of the Ukraine war and other international conflicts—precisely the type of events that make CNN indispensable to viewers—and he was revered for his ability to shepherd CNN’s production teams in and out of war zones. He was a victim of a restructuring happening across bureaus, from Atlanta to London to Hong Kong, that will reduce headcount at the local leadership levels. David Ford, the head of programming in London, and Chris Eldergill, the head of sports in London, were also cut.

The biggest blow to the organization this week, arguably, is the loss of John Antonio, the vice president of programming in Atlanta and the number-two to Michael Bass, the head of programming and Licht’s conduit to the newsroom, who recently announced that he would leave at the end of this year. Programming a 24-hour global cable news network is a uniquely complicated task, and Bass and Antonio were the No. 1 and No. 2 leaders of a very small group of people who had an institutional knowledge of how that worked. With Bass and Antonio gone, that brain trust has been effectively dismantled, resulting in an even steeper learning curve for Licht and his longtime deputy Ryan Kadro, neither of whom has ever been responsible for more than a broadcast morning or late night show. The news of Antonio’s departure, which Bass announced on Friday, left people across the organization stunned. As it turns out, Antonio had fired himself, sources familiar with the matter said. He believed that by laying himself off and promoting his second in command, Nima Ahmed, he could save other people’s jobs. 

The most notable on-air personality affected by the cuts is almost certainly Robin Meade, the HLN morning show host who, by Licht’s own admission, is “an exceptionally popular anchor.” Meade was a victim of Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to cut live programming on HLN entirely, and effectively merge the longtime CNN sister network with Discovery’s iD channel, which is overseen by Kathleen Finch. Meade’s show will be replaced by a simulcast of CNN’s new morning show. But, given Meade’s popularity, one wonders if Licht wouldn’t have been smart to find a role for her alongside Don Lemon, Poppy Harlow, and Kailan Collins, who are still struggling to move the needle on ratings.

From a programming perspective, Licht’s most notable decision was to end contributor deals for the majority of CNN’s green room denizens. In the flush days of the previous regime, Zucker had doled out six-figure contributor gigs to all manner of veteran political operatives, partisan advocates and real or self-appointed experts, as well as several star Times, Post and Politico reporters who used the money to subsidize their relatively meager journalism salaries. 

The rationale was twofold. First, by keeping a Maggie Haberman or a David Axelrod on retainer, Zucker ensured that they’d never show up on MSNBC. Second, and more importantly, these people became regular cast members in the CNN show, color commentators who were as important to the CNN brand as the anchors and journalists who were actually relaying or producing the news. Maybe you were a Van Jones person who couldn’t stand Jeffrey Lord, maybe you were a John Kasich person who couldn’t stand Jennifer Granholm. No matter. The point was viewers had their people, and the people they loved to hate, and this kept them engaged.

The Green Room Mafia

The David Zaslav-Lichtian philosophy of CNN—a straightforward, old-fashioned news network that doesn’t treat politics as sport—apparently doesn’t need this cast of characters, nor does the news division of a debt-ridden company feel the need to pay for most of them. Dozens of contributors lost their deals this week: Bharara, star Politico journalist Jonathan Martin, New Yorker staff writer and Russia expert Susan Glasser, veteran Democratic operative Hilary Rosen, former governor John Kasich, former congressman Joe Kennedy III. The list goes on, and touches a lot of non-political contributors who rarely appeared on the air, but were paid all the same. 

In a memo to staff, Licht said the cuts would “strengthen our ability to deliver on CNN’s core journalistic mission and enable us to innovate in the years ahead.” Most of the several dozen CNN sources who I spoke to this week still don’t feel like they have a clear sense of exactly how these cuts will enable them to do that, nor where the innovation is going to come from. Nevertheless, there is a clear view from the executive level of where CNN is headed. The Licht playbook is all about getting back to basics, removing all the ancillary content and myriad growth efforts like CNN+ and CNN Films. His mandate is to turn CNN into a narrowly focused linear news network, with a website on the side—effectively what it was a decade ago, before Zucker took over. Meanwhile, while Zaz continues to profess his love of news and WBD executives privately say there are no plans to sell the network, people are growing increasingly skeptical about where CNN fits into the larger company’s plans. “I’ve been through a few of these restructurings,” one veteran CNN employee told me. “I think this one is the most upsetting because we just don’t know what WBD actually intends to do with us.”

As for Licht, he still has Zaz’s backing, despite his handling of the layoffs. Of course, Zaz is a clear-eyed and unsentimental corporate leader in the Jack Welch mold, and he will ultimately judge Licht based on performance. Internally, sources say, Licht will be judged by three metrics: reputation, ratings and revenue. It is perhaps too soon to tell whether the pivot away from Zucker’s anti-Trump programming, and Licht’s overtures to Republican leaders, will actually result in conservatives coming back to the network. As for ratings, they are among the lowest in CNN’s history, which stands in stark contrast to the record-high ratings the network enjoyed during the Zucker-Trump era. And on revenue, the most important of metrics, CNN is anticipating roughly $750 million in profit this year, down considerably from the more than $1 billion in profits that Zucker brought in every year for the last five years of his tenure. Warner Bros. Discovery executives have a very different view on Licht’s predecessor than the hundreds of Zucker loyalists who still work at CNN, and some argue that he and his deputies spent recklessly. There may be some truth to that. Whatever the case, for guys who live and die by the P&L, it can be hard to argue with the scoreboard. 

Update: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Paul Begala was among the CNN contributors whose deal had been terminated as a result of the cuts.