CNN boss Chris Licht is a dead man talking. That’s the damning judgment from dozens of CNN on-air talent, producers, and journalists who’ve spoken with Confider in the days since press-obsessed Licht’s assisted career suicide-by-profile ran in The Atlantic.
More on that shortly, but the deeper story insiders want to know is how David Zaslav got the network in this mess in the first place. This newsletter has made light of Licht on a regular basis as Confider’s “favorite schmoozer,” because that’s how he got the CNN gig: Instead of casting a wide search for a replacement to Jeff Zucker, Zaz went with someone who had little more experience than running shows with a couple dozen staffers at Morning Joe and CBS This Morning and had started showing up at Zaz’s annual Hamptons party.
Zaslav has now parachuted in his buddy and longtime lieutenant David Leavy to fix the mess he created. While hardly a rock star in the Warner Discovery universe, Leavy is throwing his weight around and calling CNN talent to try and shore up support. But it’s going to be a long, hard road back for the likes of Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer, and Erin Burnett—CNN bedrocks who, Confider has learned, have lost confidence in the boss.
The fact anyone thought two flashy profiles in less than a year was a good idea is alarming, insiders griped to Confider. The most comical part of the Atlantic profile, our newsroom insiders said, was the starring role of Licht’s celebrity trainer, Joe Maysonet, and the lofty claims Licht has lost 50 pounds thanks to the rigid self-discipline of early-morning workouts and skipping breakfast. The reality may be more complicated, however, as the Daily Mail reported that Licht has bragged to associates about taking weight-loss drug Ozempic—a claim Confider’s sources have also confirmed hearing firsthand.
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Ultimately it was Licht’s comments about CNN’s COVID coverage—that it was feverish, lacked context, and often broke from reality—that most enraged network staffers. Further insulting staffers over the weekend, insiders told us, was the fact that Licht’s camp appeared to leak unflattering internal data to try to defend his negative portrayal of the network’s COVID coverage.
Licht made a weak attempt at damage control during Monday’s 9 a.m. staff-wide editorial call. “I know these past few days have been very hard for this group,” he reportedly said. “I fully recognize that this news cycle and my role in it overshadowed the incredible week of reporting that we just had and distracted from the work of every single journalist in this organization. And for that, I am sorry.”
But network staffers at all levels who spoke with us suggested that if Licht’s ego would allow him, he’d be smart to start negotiating an exit with Zaslav so both execs can soon put this sorry mess behind them. “Perhaps the parent company can tolerate shitty management at CNN. But how long will they stomach lousy ratings and shrinking revenue?” one CNN staffer asked Confider. Another question that came up often in chats with insiders: Does right-wing billionaire John Malone really want to own a piece of what is quickly becoming a distressed asset?
The most telling part of this shambolic episode, sources pointed out, is how Zaslav—too busy co-hosting Graydon Carter’s fuck-you-to-Vanity Fair party at Cannes—did not sit for an on-record interview with The Atlantic to offer support for his own hire.
And realizing how brutal the profile would be, Zaz seemingly wasted no time inserting Leavy into the newly created position of CNN’s chief operating officer. While that role has been sold as Leavy “reporting to CNN CEO Chris Licht,” Licht himself did not announce the gig in one of his trademark staff-wide memos featuring his name in a gigantic font at the top.
Speaking of Zaz, CNN sources told Confider that the Warner Discovery boss last month raised eyebrows inside the newsroom when he commented “Looking great buddy….miss u” on a picture posted to Instagram by Brian Stelter, whom Zaslav fired last summer.
A rep for Warner Discovery and a rep for CNN declined to comment.