CNN chief Chris Licht to leave cable news network days after Atlantic profile

Chris Licht, the controversial chairman and chief executive officer of CNN, is out after a short and turbulent time in charge of the news network.

Puck News first reported Licht’s departure early on Wednesday morning. Not long after, CNN’s own news website said Licht’s “brief one-year tenure at the network was stained by a series of severe missteps, [and he] will depart the company”.

“I met with Chris and he will be leaving CNN,” David Zaslav, chief executive of parent company Warner Bros Discovery, told employees at the start of the daily editorial call, CNN said, adding: “Licht has not commented on his departure and he did not immediately respond to requests for comment.”

In an email to staff reported by Reuters, Zaslav said the company would conduct a wide search for a new leader.

“This job was never going to be easy, especially at a time of great disruption and transformation, and Chris poured his heart and soul into it,” Zaslav wrote. “Unfortunately, things did not work out the way we had hoped – and ultimately that’s on me.”

Licht apologised to employees on Monday after the publication of an explosive Atlantic magazine profile last week that revealed, among other damaging scenes, that the chief executive had known the crowd at a widely criticized town hall with former president Donald Trump last month would prove to be “extra Trumpy”.

According to the Atlantic, Licht was also critical of CNN under his predecessor, Jeff Zucker, telling employees the network alienated viewers through hostility to Trump.

Licht’s time at CNN also included firings of senior presenters amid widespread reports of unrest, as he pursued a stated goal of bringing the network more into the political center and winning over Republican viewers.

For Puck, the media reporter Dylan Byers, who has covered Licht exhaustively, wrote: “After a year of leadership missteps, programming misfires, a disastrous Trump town hall and the near-total decimation of staff morale in the wake of a chilling all-access Atlantic story, Licht will be vacating the CEO position.”

After “one of the most turbulent periods in the network’s 43-year history”, Byers wrote, Licht would be replaced “for an interim period by Amy Entelis, the revered longtime CNN executive, talent whisperer and CNN Films chief who served as a loyal deputy for years to Licht’s predecessor, Jeff Zucker”.

Byers later said Licht learned of his firing on Wednesday morning, adding that other senior senior staffers expected to follow Licht out of the door.

Zucker was forced to resign after failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague. Before joining CNN, Licht was executive vice-president of special programming at CBS and executive producer and showrunner for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Before that, he worked at MSNBC.

The Trump town hall, in Manchester, New Hampshire, on 10 May, was a disaster for CNN – and a huge boost for Trump, who dominates polling for the Republican presidential nomination next year.

Trump repeated lies about election fraud, abused E Jean Carroll, the writer against whom he was found liable for sexual assault and defamation, and attacked the CNN host, Kaitlan Collins. The “extra Trumpy” crowd lapped it up, cheering and booing with glee.

Despite such spectacle, and controversy over firings such as that of Don Lemon, a high-profile morning show anchor, CNN’s ratings have not prospered. At times, it has trailed Newsmax, a pro-Trump rightwing competitor to Fox News.

After the publication last week of the Atlantic article about Licht, the chief executive was subjected to a barrage of criticism privately from staff and publicly from media observers.

Bill Grueskin, a Columbia Journalism School professor, wrote brutally: “It wouldn’t be fair to say a trained seal could do a better job running CNN than Chris Licht. It’s just that, after reading this piece, it feels like we should give the trained seal a shot.”

On Wednesday, the media reporter and former CNN host Brian Stelter, who was fired by Licht, reported the call in which Licht’s departure was announced to staff.

According to Stelter, Zaslav told employees: “Chris has had an amazing career … [but] for a number of reasons, it didn’t work out.”

As reported by Stelter, Zaslav also said he took “full responsibility” for Licht’s failure.

According to the author of the Atlantic profile, Tim Alberta, Zaslav agreed to speak on record but then tried to change the rules, seeking an off-record meeting – a request Alberta refused.

On the Wednesday call, Stelter said, Zaslav said Entelis would be part of an “acting leadership team” also including Virginia Moseley, the editorial chief; the programming chief, Eric Sherling; and David Leavy, the chief operating officer whose arrival last week was widely seen as a sign that Licht was doomed.

Few observers expected a drastic change of course.

Matthew Gertz, senior fellow at the progressive watchdog Media Matters for America, said: “Chris Licht was shaping CNN’s programming toward the ideological vision preferred by David Zaslav and John Malone [a Warner Bros Discovery board member].

“There’s little reason to expect a course correction following his defenestration.”