The Rise and Fall of Chris Licht and CNN
A conversation with Tim Alberta about his reporting on the network and its former leader The Atlantic s Tim Alberta spent long stretches of the past year talking with CNNs then-CEO Chris Licht about his grand experiment to reset the cable giant as a venue more welcoming to Republicans. In a major profile of Licht, Alberta documented the many disasters along the way , which culminated in Lichts ouster from the network this week. In this episode of Radio Atlantic , I talk with Alberta about the rise and fall of Licht, and what it means for the media. This is a guy who had been working 80-hour weeks since he took the job and had been really pouring himself into trying to remake CNN into something different and something new, Alberta recalled of the period leading up to a disastrous CNN town hall with Donald Trump that Licht oversaw. He had, with the world watching, failed, Alberta said. And that was crushing for him. Alberta watched the implosion at CNN up close in real time. I ask him: Did Lichts mission to redefine journalism fail because of Licht or because it is a fundamentally misguided mission? Listen to the conversation here: Subscribe here: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher | Google Podcasts | Pocket Casts The following is a transcript of the episode: Tim Alberta: It was apparent to me immediately when I saw Chris after the town hall ended that he knew this wasnt good. Hanna Rosin: Chris is Chris Licht, the former CEO of CNN, who was ousted this week. And thats my colleague Tim Alberta, whos been reporting on Licht for the past year . Alberta: This is a guy who Ive gotten to know decently well over the past year or so, a guy whos just got a bottomless supply of self-confidence. And, in that moment, when the town hall ended and I met him in the lobby, he was pale. His shoulders were sort of slumped. He looked distressed. Thoroughly distressed. Rosin: Im Hanna Rosin, and this is Radio Atlantic . You may have read about the Trump town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, that CNN aired last month. Maybe you even watched it. The event was part of Lichts broader mission to signal that Republicans, and even Trump supporters, were welcome at CNN again. Which was connected to an even bigger mission, one that Licht defined as getting back to real journalism: truths, facts, and less spin. Instead, CNN lost control of the town hall. Trump used it as a forum to double down on lies about the 2020 election, among other unsavory things. It was pretty much universally considered a disaster, and backstage, right after the event, Licht knew it. Alberta: It was a deeply human moment where, I think, a guy whoyou know, agree with his decisions, disagree with his decisions, whateverthis is a guy who had been working, like, 80 hour weeks since he took the job and had been really pouring himself into trying to remake CNN into something different and something new, and had in this moment with the world watching failed. And that was crushing for him. You could just see it in that moment Rosin: In this episode, we talked to Tim Alberta, who watched the implosion at CNN up close in real time. Alberta: So I first met Chris last summer. We had dinner. I had been pitching his team on doing this story. Ultimately, after pushing and pushing, pushing, there was a meeting set up over dinner in New York. Rosin: Can I ask, why did you want to meet him so badly? What was interesting to you about this story? Alberta: Well, I think, a couple of things. First, CNN had really been the poster child for Republican attacks on the media during the Trump years. Id spent as much time covering Republican voters and Republican campaigns as anybody over the past five or six years. And Id seen firsthand, time and time and time again, how at rallies or smaller candidate events, how CNN had sort of become the face of the hysterical liberal media that was out to get Trump and leading a witch hunt on his impeachment and on January 6 and on everything else. And so what was interesting to me was that Licht came in and quite overtly made it known, from the beginning, that his mission was to change that perception of CNNwas not to coddle the extreme right wing, so to speak, but to win back the sort of respectable rank-and-file Republican voter who had become so distrustful of CNN during those previous five or six years. And that struck me as an incredibly ambitious objective for somebody taking over one of the worlds biggest news organizations. You know, CNN has 4,000-some employees spread all across the world, and youre coming in at a really sensitive time, taking over this incredibly difficult job, and in some sense, youre making it harder on yourself by staking out that sort of very ambitious goal. Rosin: You watched Chris Licht come in as a newbie at CNN. How did he fit in in the beginning? Alberta: Well, awkwardly, I think is the fair way to say it, because you have to keep in mind that he was following Jeff Zucker, who had been there for, I guess at that point, about a decade, and was beloved. He was sort of a larger-than-life figure who had real personal rapport with just about everybodynot only the on-air talent, but the producers behind the scenes, the camera crews. This guy just sort of made everybody feel like part of a family. And he was affectionate, had nicknames, knew everybodys kids. So obviously when Zucker was forced out as president of CNN at the beginning of 2022 and then Licht came in shortly thereafter, he inherited a newsroom that was reeling from the departure of sort of their fearless leader, Jeff Zucker, who had, you know, keep in mind, really sort of steered CNN through an unprecedented period of almost warfare with the White House during the Trump years, where there were threats called into CNN, reporters being singled out as the enemy of the people, you know, they were really under fire in ways that wed never seen a news organization under fire from a White House before. And so there was this incredibly tense dynamic already there. And then Zucker is forced out, and Licht walks into that. Meanwhile, theres incredible financial turmoil. Theres been a change in ownership with a new parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, taking over CNN, and their financials are pretty wobbly, and so theres massive cost cutting. And Licht, sort of stepping into that position, I think, really went out of his way from the outset to be everything that Zucker wasnt. So if Zucker was warm and affectionate and intimate with everyone, Licht was sort of cold and detached, almost aloof, purposely inaccessible. In fact, one of the first things he did after taking the job was turn Zuckers office on the 17th floor, which was right outside some of the main studios, right in the heart of the newsroom ... into a conference room as sort of a symbolic move. And then he himself picked an office up on the 22nd floor in a space most employees at CNN, including longtime veteran reporters, they didnt even know how to find that office. And that one move, although it seems small, I think really in many ways came to define Lichts relationship with his journalists. Rosin: And so why do you think he thought this mission was important? Was it just about saving CNN, or was it about something broader? Alberta: So, it became clear to me from the earliest conversations that I began having with people, well before Licht even agreed to participate in this piece, that to Chris Licht, this was about more than CNN. This was about the journalism industry itself. He had made it known that he didnt blame a lot of these folks for their souring on the mainstream media. That he saw some of the big news organizations getting over their skis on certain stories or perhaps giving too much attention to the stylistic stuff at the expense of the more substantive stories that they could have been covering. In other words, Licht was sort of making it known that he felt that all of media had gotten played by President Trump. And he believed that if something was not done to fix that, that if there werent dramatic measures taken to restore and rehabilitate the medias image in the eyes of much of the country, that it posed a real threat to democracy itself. I mean, thats not an overstatement. Rosin: Wow. So it was not just a business decision to save CNN. It was not just about saving cable news. It was not even just about journalism and media. It was an even bigger project, it sounds like. Alberta: I think whats clear is two things: No. 1, to the people at the top at Warner Bros. Discovery, from the Board of Directors to the CEO, David Zaslav, they were very much invested in CNN as a, you know, profit centera place that was, you know, accustomed to making over a billion dollars annually and a prestigious brand that could generate a lot of revenue. And I think Licht viewed it somewhat differently. Licht was trained as a journalist. He calls journalism his first love. He practiced being Walter Cronkite in his basement as a kid putting on fake newscasts. I mean, this is a guy who really loves the news, and so I think, whether one agrees with him or completely disagrees with him or is somewhere in between, its worth recognizing just at a sort of ground level that this is someone who really does consider himself a journalist, first and foremost, and really believed that the institution of journalism in America was under assaultand that some of its trouble was self-inflicted. And he believed that if he could introduce a new model at CNN that was built around toning down the commentary, dialing back the outrage, and leading with facts, and just really being very careful with tone and orienting everything toward sort of fact-forward journalismthat if they could restore trust in the CNN brand by doing that, then it would create a model that the entire industry might try to replicate. And that was really his vision from the outset. Rosin: . So he starts off on this incredibly ambitious, serious mission almost to turn back time on journalism. Was there a moment you could pinpoint when this mission started to go wrong? Alberta: Well, I would say two things. First, you could argue that it was almost doomed from the beginning because, you know, cable news has been in a sort of long decline, predating Trump, postdating Trump, even though Trump breathed some artificial life into ratings and revenues for a few years there, its been clear for a long timebecause of cord cutting, because of these silly little things we carry around in our pockets all day and stare at too much, for a whole host of reasonsthat cable news has been in trouble. I also think that theres not any compelling evidence to suggest that Americans, or at least any critical mass of Americans, want to get their news without fear or favor, that theres any critical mass of Americans who just want the facts and then wanna make up their own mind. I mean, theres quite a bit of evidence to suggest, in fact, that Americans want to get their news from sources that will sort of reaffirm their existing worldviews and tell them what they want to hear and not necessarily challenge them where their idols lie. And thats, I think, the thing Chris Licht tried to challenge from the outset, and really, really sold people around him hard on the idea that, for the sake of American democracy, we needed to do something about that. And I think in that sense, he was probably fighting a doomed mission from the very beginning. Rosin: So he was fighting a doomed mission; it was difficult from the outset; he decided to do it anyway. So what actually happened? I mean, he must have known it was gonna be difficult. Alberta: Yes, well, and as the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. And thats sort of what happened at CNN. Chris Licht had a plan, and then he came in and he got punched in the mouth a bunch of times. The recurring theme that I heard from a lot of the top talent at CNN was that, in a lot of ways, they actually agreed in theory with the mission that Chris Licht had laid out, as far as toning down some of the outrage, trying to be more selective with when they really wanted it dialed up to 11, as he would say, and go strong on certain stories. But the execution of that mission was really what started to become shaky, and really, I think the first glimpse into that that I got was watching behind the scenes as CNN prepared last fall to launch its new morning show. Now, Licht had made a decision to take Don Lemon, who was probably the most polarizing personality at CNN and make Lemon the face of this new morning show called CNN This Morning . And so in some ways, Licht had tied his fate to Don Lemons fate, and as of the springtime, when Lemon had committed sort of a series of blunders and had made some enemies internallyand obviously the most notable incident was when he said that Nikki Haley, the presidential candidate whos 51 years old, was past her prime and that a womans only in her prime if shes in her 20s or 30s or 40s, and it caused so much turmoil at the network, and it was a messit was clear at that point that the one thing that he had really been counting on as a win, this morning show, was looking more and more like a loss every day. Rosin: In addition to this morning-show drama he was wading through, not everyone at CNN was on board with this mission, right? He may have defined it as truth and journalism, but lots of other people there pointed out many, many problems with what he was actually trying to do, in practice. Alberta: Yeah. Because beyond just giving that sort of broad definition that I think a lot of us would agree to, around what good journalism should beyou know, leading with the facts and telling the truth without fear or favor the specifics became a bit troubling. And, you know, specifically the question of what do you do with Republicans who systematically attempted to deconstruct our democratic institutions a couple of years ago and prevent a peaceful transition of power. I mean, what do you do with those folks? Do you treat them as rational actors who need to be given a platform to reach the viewing masses? Do you have to have some rules in place around how you cover those people? And, you know, Licht would fall back repeatedly on this analogy of Some people like rain, some people dont like rain, and we will have anybody on this network whether they like rain or dont like rain, but we will not have people on this network who say that its not raining outside when it really is . Now, its an interesting metaphor, but I think the problem for Licht is that the application of it was a little bit uneven. Even going back to the very beginning of his tenure, one of the first programming decisions he made after taking over as the new boss at CNN was to tell his producers to downplay the first hearing of the January 6 committee in Congress. Remember, it was shown in prime time, this was sort of a get your popcorn ready prime-time special event that MSNBC went wall to wall with its coverage and earned monster ratings. But because of Lichts edict to the staff, CNN covered it very casually, didnt give it the sort of attention that it would have given something like that in previous years, and it got slaughtered in the ratings by MSNBC. So there were a lot of examples along the way that gave cause to some of Lichts own journalists to question, Okay, well he says the mission is this thing, but is our execution really in keeping with that? , and ultimately it was the town hall with Donald Trump that really broke the camels back. Rosin: Okay. Tell me how that whole event came about. Alberta: Licht and his team had been working for some time to reach an agreement with the former president Donald Trump to bring him on CNN for some sort of big interview. What they ultimately agreed on was a town hall in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state, and Licht knew that he was going to get a lot of pushback from his own employees on thisa lot of people who felt that Trump should not be platformed, that hed caused sufficient distress to the country with his lies and his assaults on the ballot box and his disruption of the transition of power that CNN should not be platforming him at all, much less in a town-hall format. And, you know, I would just flash back quickly to the very first conversation I ever had with Chris, where we talked about how the media covered Trump in the past and how it needs to cover him in the future. And I was really slack-jawed, just shocked, frankly, when Chris said to me, Well, I think the media has learned its lesson . This is not something that I lose sleep over. This idea, this question of how do we cover Trump? And I said, What, really? Like, you think youve got the answer? And he said, Yeah, we cover him the same way as anybody, right? We hold him accountable with the facts, and we dont let him play us. And we dont dial it up to 11 every time, so that we lose the trust of the audience. You know, this is pretty simple stuff. Thats what he said to me. And Rosin: Ive heard other editors say that, by the way, but go ahead. Alberta: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so he did two things. First, he picked Kaitlan Collins, the rising-star reporter at CNN, who everybody there has a ton of respect forpicked her to host this town-hall event with Trump. And second, he made a really forceful case to his senior staff and told them, Look, if not CNN, then who? We alone have the experience putting these events on. We have the journalistic chops; weve got Kaitlan; we can fact-check in real time. We can hold him accountable in front of a live international audience in ways that nobody else can. So why shouldnt we do it? And he really made a strong case to his team, and he won over people who had been resistant to it. He really got a lot of buy-in. But in the process of doing that, he made it very clear that all the chips were now in the center of the table, that this was it. That this was the big bet that Licht was willing to make, that he needed this win badly. That he needed this sort of signature moment to validate his approachnot only his approach to courting Republican viewers, but also his approach to dealing with his own staff, people who were really sort of resistant to some of what he was prescribing and how he was going about executing this mission. So really this was setting up to be the make-or-break moment for Chris Licht at CNN, and he knew it going into Manchester. Rosin: And it sounds like it was also part of his bigger mission of We can have a different kind of conversation that involves truth and involves airing things more honestly , like it was part of that conversation as well. Alberta: Yes, thats exactly right. Rosin: Now, you were there; you were close to them as this was all going, not just present at the town hall, but talking to Licht as this was happening. What was he like during the event? Alberta: So, I only talked to him briefly before the program, and then we spoke after the program. So, he pulled me into a hallway that was kind of on the sidelines of the main auditorium, where the event had just emptied out. And we talked for a few minutes there, and I asked him, Did this advance the mission, the journalistic mission of CNN that youve spent so much time describing to me? And, you know, he couldnt say, no, it didnt. But he also, in that moment, to his credit, I dont think he was even capable of lying to me and putting on a brave face and saying, yeah, of course it did. And so he just looked at me, and he said, thats too early to say. Rosin: Hmm. So what did people say? Like how did people respond to that town hall? Alberta: Not well; it was immediately and widely panned across the ideological spectrum of left and right, the partisan spectrum of blue and red, the, you know, journalistic spectrum. I mean, it was justit was hard to find anybody defending it. And in fact, Lichts own employee, the media writer Oliver Darcy, published his newsletter, Reliable Sources, a couple of hours after the town hall concluded, and Olivers opening line in the newsletter was Its hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN [Wednesday evening]. Rosin: So it sounds like, if Lichts original mission was to model a different kind of conversation with a new kind of open tone, it accomplished exactly the opposite. Alberta: I think thats right. And again, theres a difference between theory and execution. In theory, the town hall was defensible, but the execution of the town hall was not. Rosin: After the break, an inside look at Lichts final days. And what happens at CNN after. [ The break. ] Rosin: So how did things unfold in the weeks following the town hall that led to the news this week of him being pushed out? Alberta: So the week following the town hall, I was in New York and I had a prearrangedhard-won prearrangedmeeting with David Zaslav, the CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, the parent company of CNN. And at the very last minute, the office of Zaslav informed me that he was no longer willing to speak on the record with me for this story, even though that had been the agreement, and as I said, it was sort of a hard-won agreement over some time of negotiations. So that was another red flag that just told me that obviously if the boss, the big boss, if hes unwilling to put himself out there on the record in support of his embattled leader at CNN, thats not a good sign for him. And in fact, I even told Zaslavs office, I told them very plainly, Do you know how this is gonna look? You do recognize Im giving you a chance here to defend your guy and to defend Zaslav himself, and youre passing on it. Youre hiding from me, and youre changing the rules of our agreement to do this interview. And they decided to do that. And so that was another moment where it was very clear to me that he was in trouble. So the next day after the canceled meeting, I sat down with Licht for our final interview. And I could sense, having, again, gotten to know him fairly well over some period of time, that there was something a little bit different in his body language, that there was some self-doubt. There was maybe even a bit of sadness that things had gone so wrong. There was, I think, an acceptance at that point of just how bad things were for him internally. You know, when I was asking about his employees being so upset with him, when I was poking and prodding on specific things that they were upset with him about, he didnt make any effort to push back on it or to dispute the premise or to try to kind of talk his way out. He just seemed in that moment almost resigned to the realities of how badly things had gone awry inside of his organization. And that in and of itself was just almost stunning to me, because this was a guy who, in all of our interactions, he was just so predictably confident and self-assured and always had this kind of look in his eye like he knew something you didnt know. Rosin: Yeah, I mean, I think I know the answer to this, but your Atlantic story was published on June 2. He was out on June 7. When I read your story, I thought, Ooh, it would be very hard for this person to keep their job . And I did wonder, were you surprised by the news this week? Alberta: [ Sighs. ] I cant say that I was surprised, if only because in the days after the piece was published, I was just inundated with text messages and emails and phone calls from people at CNN telling me the situation there was untenable, that there was no way he could survive this. And that was all unsolicited. I was not reaching out, trying to follow up on the situation. I was not looking to try to break the news of him, you know, being ousted, or anything like that. It was just organically obvious that the situation there just wasnt sustainable. He had lost the trust of too many people. And frankly, I think its worth saying that hed lost the trust of a lot of these folks before the story had come out. And I think when the story came out, what I heard time and time and time again from journalists there was that there was no coming back from it. That the relationships there could not be rebuilt after some of the things he had said in the piece. And so in that sense, no, I was not surprised. Rosin: You know, its weird to be a reporter in a position of having a story come out and then someone gets fired. In your case, it sounds like you see yourself as just a chronicler of something that was already unfolding, not like a causer of events, but just: You wrote this story, this happened; it was already on its way. Alberta: Well, yes, Ilet me say it this way: Ive had a number of CNN reporters reach out, people who are friends of mine, people who Ive known and worked with and respected for a long time, who all were saying basically the same thing to me, independent of one another, which is, Hey, dont feel bad about this. Because I think because they think Im a nice guyI hope because they think Im a nice guy. Rosin: So is your conclusion that Lichts experiment, his mission, did fail? There was no reset with Republican voters viewing CNN, like it didnt work. Alberta: Its hard to draw any other conclusion just based on the ratings. I mean, Chriss biggest problem was, as I think I said earlier, that he just didnt have a win that he could point to. Rosin: Mhmm. Alberta: And if your goal is to reclaim some significant chunk of lost voters who have written off your news network, thats going to take time. And I think everybody understood that it was going to take time. And one year in the grand scheme of things is not a ton of time, but in that one year, there was just no measurable improvement. And in fact, all of the measurables actually showed that things were getting worse. And so just in judging the execution of the journalistic vision that Licht had laid out for me and laid out for his staff up front, I dont know how you could view it as anything other than a failure, because the metrics by which you would judge it do not look good. Rosin: Now, youve said a few times this is a matter of execution. But I have to say, his failure does leave me wondering if anyone could have succeeded. Like, my immediate thought after hearing that he was out at CNN was, In our political climate, is it even possible to do a reset like he was trying to do? Alberta: I think thats the $64,000 question here, to be honest. And lets be clear: I think that theres been a pile onbecause of social media and the way that our news environment workstheres been a pile on and a lot of people taking shots at Chris Licht, some of which I think are probably unfair. You know, this is a talented guy and a guy whod been pretty successful everywhere hed been. And I do think that he was dealt an exceptionally difficult hand, but I also think he made it even harder on himself than it had to be. And to your specific question, I dont know if anybody at this point is capable of doing what Chris set out to do, which is sort of reimagining the mainstream medias relationship with a Republican base that has been sort of systematically manipulated into not trusting the mainstream media for decades. I think its really healthy to have at least some piece of the market offering what Licht was envisioning and trying to win back disaffected, distrusting Republican viewers with more of a straight-news, just-the-facts-maam approach. I think that thats very much worth trying. Its justin some ways, it strikes me as an utterly impossible task. And I think if he could do it all over again, even if his goals were the same, Im pretty sure that Chris Licht would go about emphasizing them and articulating them a little bit differently, because he, in a lot of ways, sort of set himself up for failure. Rosin: All right. Well, Tim, thank you so much for coming on the show. We are very glad that you were following this story so closely. Alberta: Youre welcome, Hanna. Thank you for having me.