The Education of CNN’s Chris Licht

On 10.13, Mr. Licht made his debut before the Warner Brothers Discovery board of directors in a Los Angeles hotel, where he outlined both his growth and content strategy. When asked about his efforts to make CNN less partisan, Mr. Licht gave this analogy: Suppose it’s raining outside. CNN plans to have people who love the rain and it will have people who say they don’t like the rain. But it won’t have anyone saying it’s sunny.

Mr. Licht said he used the analogy to make it clear that a less partisan CNN didn’t mean it was less committed to the truth. “It wasn’t to plot a new course, it was to reassure people that, to tell the truth, we wouldn’t slack off,” he said. “The change is we’re not going to do Trump 24/7 or let him dictate our agenda.”

After all, Mr. Licht’s presentation was approved by the directors, including Mr. Malone.

Mr. Licht’s vision struggles with industry-wide pressures to cut costs. (He said he appreciates Mr. Zaslav’s professed indifference to the financial results but doesn’t really believe him.) On February 26, he said he hoped to engage in a “transparent” process that would make everyone feel heard to be. But, he said, “it would be irresponsible not to do the hard work now.” He added, “I promise you that next year, CNN will be more profitable.”

However transparent, many in CNN’s base felt caught off guard by the cuts, especially after what they perceived to be his earlier assurances that no further layoffs were needed. At a staff meeting in November, Mr Licht said he reiterated his earlier comment that there would be no merger-related layoffs and “I would have said absolutely nothing that I did not believe to be true”. But he said he understood how his comments had hurt his credibility. “I have to regain that credibility,” he admitted.

Mr. Licht said the layoffs were the “lowest point” of his tenure so far.

At another staff meeting that month aimed at restoring morale, Mr. Licht asked himself questions and then ended with a passage he had written himself:

In terms of morale, let me just say that you work side-by-side with the best journalists in the world at a world-renowned news organization. Your jobs have a purpose. Your jobs make an impact. You are part of something bigger, something of enormous importance. And that hasn’t changed. And in me, as the leader who has done many of your jobs, you have someone who has your back every step of the way. My loyalty is first and foremost to this organization and to journalism, with no fear or favoritism to others, including our parent company.

Because of that, I’m here. That’s why I took this job.

“I want CNN to become indispensable to society,” Mr. Licht said in one of our interviews. “If you matter, revenue will follow.”

And if not?

“Maybe it won’t work,” Mr. Licht conceded. “But I’d rather try to win that way.”

Benjamin Mullin Spirit Michael M Grynbaum contributed reporting.

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