Timeline: What Led to Chris Licht’s Firing at CNN - The World News

Timeline: What Led to Chris Licht’s Firing at CNN

CNN has endured nearly two years of turmoil as the cable news network has struggled to overcome national scandals, abrupt departures, plummeting ratings and declining profits.

The tumult culminated this week with the sudden exit of CNN’s top boss, Chris Licht, whose rocky 13-month run as the leader of CNN came to an end after a string of controversies. He was appointed chief executive and chairman of CNN in February 2022, succeeding Jeff Zucker, who had resigned weeks earlier.

Mr. Licht assumed the top job at a pivotal moment for the network: Ratings had fallen in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, and WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, was preparing to merge with Discovery, creating a media behemoth. Amid the turbulence, Mr. Licht was never able to find his footing at the network.

Here’s a timeline of 18 months of turmoil at CNN that led up to his ouster.

December 2021

CNN fired Chris Cuomo, a star anchor, on Dec. 4, 2021, over his involvement in the political affairs of his brother, former Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York. The ouster was a stunning downfall for the network’s top-rated host, who was at the peak of a broadcast journalism career that he had forged outside of his famed political family.

After evidence revealed that Mr. Cuomo played a more intimate role in his brother’s political affairs than the network said it had previously known, the anchor was initially suspended.

But days before his firing, a prominent employment lawyer informed CNN of a client with an allegation of sexual misconduct against Chris Cuomo. It was not fully clear what role the allegation played in CNN’s decision to dismiss him.

“This is not how I want my time at CNN to end but I have already told you why and how I helped my brother,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement at the time.

February 2022

On Feb. 2, 2022, Mr. Zucker stepped down as president of CNN, citing his failure to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague. He wrote in a memo that his relationship had come to light during an internal investigation into the conduct of Mr. Cuomo.

Tensions in the newsroom were high as top talent questioned Mr. Zucker’s sudden exit. Jason Kilar, then the chief executive of WarnerMedia, flew in for an emergency meeting at the network’s Washington bureau, but declined to expand on what led to Mr. Zucker’s departure, leaving unresolved questions ahead of a corporate megamerger.

May 2022

CNN brought Mr. Licht on board in May, after Discovery’s acquisition of WarnerMedia was finalized. He reported directly to David Zaslav, the chief executive of the newly formed Warner Bros. Discovery.

Mr. Licht came to CNN following a stint as an executive producer of Stephen Colbert’s late night show, where he improved the show’s ratings by shifting the tone to be more political.

At CNN, he encouraged a more nuanced approach to news coverage as part of an effort to reach viewers on both the right and the left. But some at the network were skeptical about the changes. In April, Warner Bros. Discovery shut down the streaming platform CNN+ just weeks after its $300 million debut. On the same day, Mr. Licht, as the incoming leader, announced the prospect of hundreds of layoffs in his first formal address to staff.

Mr. Licht later said he wanted to retool programming, but CNN’s ratings and profits continued to slump, pushing executives to look for ways to cut costs. Among the programs axed was “Reliable Sources,” the Sunday show hosted by Brian Stelter, the top media reporter at CNN, who left the network after the show was canceled.

On April 24, CNN ended its longtime relationship with Don Lemon, a star anchor who had been a fixture of the network’s prime-time lineup before enduring a short but controversial time as a co-host of “CNN This Morning,” which had been drastically overhauled only months before.

Mr. Lemon’s departure came after he made sexist remarks in February during a conversation about the politician Nikki Haley, 51. “A woman is considered to be in her prime in her 20s and 30s and maybe 40s,” said Mr. Lemon, to the visible dismay of his co-anchors, Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins.

The incident generated an uproar inside the cable news channel and a rare rebuke from Mr. Licht. “His remarks were upsetting, unacceptable and unfair to his co-hosts, and ultimately a huge distraction to the great work of this organization,” Mr. Licht told staff at the time.

Mr. Lemon did not take his firing lightly, turning to Twitter to vent his anger. “I am stunned,” he wrote.

On May 10, CNN hosted a town hall in New Hampshire with former President Donald J. Trump, who used the raucous meeting to reiterate the lies and name-calling that characterized his presidency. The town hall was divisive before it even aired, and was criticized within and outside the network for spreading false information.

Some on-air talent looked dazed after the town hall wrapped up, and Christiane Amanpour, one of the network’s top hosts, took issue with the forum, saying she and Mr. Licht “respectfully disagree” about allowing Mr. Trump to appear on a town hall in that format.

On a network editorial call, Mr. Licht defended his decision to broadcast the live town hall. “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night,” he said, according to a recording of the call that was obtained by The New York Times.

June 2023

A 15,000-word article published on June 2 in The Atlantic dissected Mr. Licht’s leadership at the helm of the network.

Some employees were stung by Mr. Licht’s remarks to The Atlantic criticizing the network’s coverage of the pandemic, which many of them were hearing for the first time.

Mr. Zaslav informed staff on Wednesday morning that Mr. Licht was leaving, effective immediately.

Mr. Zaslav said that an interim group of leaders — the CNN veterans Amy Entelis, Virginia Moseley and Eric Sherling, as well as the newly appointed chief operating officer, David Leavy — would take over before a permanent leader was installed.

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