CNN Staffers Breathe a Sigh of Relief, But Wonder: What Next?

The stunning departure of CNN CEO Chris Licht — after only a year on the job and just days after a brutal profile in The Atlantic — was welcomed with a sigh of relief by staff, according to multiple CNN insiders.

But that sigh was mixed with a continued sense of anxiety, say staffers, who find themselves entering the 2024 election cycle without clear leadership, and with uncertainty about CNN’s strategic priorities as part of Warner Bros. Discovery, which is run by David Zaslav, an executive known for rolling up his sleeves and getting involved in the nitty-gritty of his business lines.

For the time being, CNN’s editorial and news departments are being led by a trio of top executives: veteran CNN executive Amy Entelis, head of editorial Virginia Moseley and programming chief Eric Sherling. The commercial and marketing arms of CNN will be led by David Leavy, a longtime Zaslav lieutenant who was tapped as CNN’s COO last week.

Zaslav told CNN staff Wednesday that the company is just now beginning a search for Licht’s successor, and that it will look both internally and externally. The search “will take a while” he said, adding that he was not in a rush.

If CNN does look internally, Entelis, Moseley and Sherling are all top candidates, with Entelis seen as having an edge thanks in part to her long tenure at the channel (she joined in 2012), and the close relationship she has forged with talent (Entelis leads talent development for CNN, and led the division that oversaw CNN original films and series before it was dismantled last year).

That being said, with Leavy overseeing a big portion of CNN’s business, whoever Licht hires may have a smaller fiefdom.

Top news anchors, along with many producers and other employees, had lost respect for Licht after a series of perceived leadership failures, culminating in the town hall with Donald Trump, which angered staff over the format, and led to a ratings decline in the weeks that followed as regular CNN viewers tuned out.

Building trust with CNN’s journalists will be the top priority for whoever gets the job.

Externally, there are few obvious candidates, with one media executive noting that there “doesn’t seem to be a deep bench” of TV news talent.

Former NBC News president Noah Oppenheim departed the channel last year, but he is leaning into his entertainment background, developing scripted shows for NBC and Netflix. NBC turned to The New York Times for Oppenheim’s successor in Rebecca Blumenstein, while CBS News also looked outside of the TV news executive suites when it brought on Hearst executive Neeraj Khemlani).

But while finding a new leader for CNN is likely occupying Zaslav’s time, there is also the question of what happens to the strategy that Licht was executing, a strategy that Zaslav has championed.

“Our view is there’s advocacy networks on either side, and that we have the best journalists in the world,” Zaslav said at a MoffettNathanson conference May 18. “We need to show both sides of every issue.”

And for Zaslav, that has meant making CNN a safer place for Republicans to appear.

“Republicans are back on the air, the Republicans weren’t on the air,” Zaslav added at the conference. “As I’ve said, to a number of them, and Chris has said to them, they’re not going to get one more vote on Fox News, they already got that. CNN should be the place that people come for the best version of the truth and for journalism. And that’s what we’re building.”

Zaslav’s effort to paint Fox News and MSNBC as “advocacy” networks and CNN as a more neutral or journalistic alternative has also been a staple of CNN’s earnings call for the past year. But while CNN’s journalism was on full display (and led to big ratings) in the early weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the channel has struggled in recent months to maintain a significant audience, and following the departure of Don Lemon and Kaitlan Collins’ impending move to 9 p.m., the lineup has little to show for it.

Licht did overhaul the dayside hours with a new, more dynamic format, but as one observer noted, a format can’t dictate the news. And it has held town halls with GOP hopefuls other than Trump, but those have mostly failed to break into the larger news zeitgeist (top executives are currently in Iowa working on a town hall with Mike Pence set for Wednesday evening). CNN This Morning, which launched just six months ago, will need to get another overhaul following Lemon’s exit and Collins’ move, though Poppy Harlow is expected to stick around.

(Excerpt) Read more in: The Hollywood Reporter


CNN Staffers Breathe a Sigh of Relief, But Wonder: What Next?

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