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Behind the ousting of CNN CEO Chris Licht after one tumultuous year

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What's the soundtrack to the CEO of a news empire heading for the exits? Well, it might include this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN THIS MORNING")

DON LEMON: Nikki Haley isn't in her prime - sorry - when a woman is considered to be in a prime in her 20s and 30s, and maybe 40s...

POPPY HARLOW: What are you talking - wait...

SHAPIRO: Or it could sound a bit like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CNN PRIMETIME")

DONALD TRUMP: Kaitlan, do you mind?

KAITLAN COLLINS: I would like for you to answer the question.

TRUMP: OK. It's very simple to answer.

COLLINS: That's why I asked it.

TRUMP: It's very simple - that you're a nasty person, I'll tell you.

SHAPIRO: Those are just a couple of the moments on CNN that led up to Chris Licht losing his job as chairman and CEO. He was there just over a year. Media journalist Dylan Byers is a founding partner and senior correspondent for Puck and also used to work at CNN. Thanks for being here, Dylan.

DYLAN BYERS: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: To begin with, briefly remind us about where Licht came from and how he wound up in charge of CNN.

BYERS: Sure. He, before joining CNN, had a sort of reputation in the broader news media industry as a sort of wunderkind executive producer. He had been the founding executive producer of "Morning Joe," "CBS This Morning" in the Gayle King, Charlie Rose, Norah O'Donnell era, and then finally, the executive producer for "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." And so his reputation was as a programmer. What he did not have on his CV was the experience running a major media organization, let alone a global, 24-hour, multiplatform channel such as CNN.

SHAPIRO: So let's talk about a couple of the things that went wrong. We heard two of the misfires there - the new CNN morning show featuring anchor Don Lemon, who Licht later fired, and he ended the morning show. We heard from the live town hall with former President Donald Trump and moderator Kaitlan Collins. Apart from those two big misfires, what else went wrong for Licht over the last year?

BYERS: Sure. The problems were myriad, truly. And they started almost from the beginning. He never succeeded in establishing a relationship with the organization itself, with the people who work for him, and that was true from some of the most notable on-air talent all the way down to the rank-and-file staff. He also crucially failed to articulate a vision, not just a vision for how CNN could succeed in a future when traditional television is sort of in decline but even how it could succeed on TV. I mean, he went a year without doing a prime-time - putting in place a prime-time lineup. He tried to launch a morning show with Don Lemon, which sort of blew up in his face, as you noted with that clip. He programmed a Trump town hall, which he thought was going to be the sort of crowning achievement of his early tenure and which quickly turned into a Trump rally...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

BYERS: ...Or at least it felt like one, that angered a lot of the staff. And then last one, quickly, I would say he left so many of the staff there feeling sort of alienated and as though he wasn't proud of the work that they had been doing before he arrived.

SHAPIRO: And that was exacerbated by a 15,000-word profile The Atlantic published over the weekend by Tim Alberta, which followed - after that was published, Licht apologized to staffers this week for being a distraction, promised to turn things around. Do you think the profile led to his departure or simply made clear why it was needed?

BYERS: The profile made clear why it was needed. I would say the frustrations continued to mount over the course of his entire tenure, again, starting very early. They were exacerbated certainly by that Trump town hall. But the profile did - you could argue was the straw that broke the camel's back. It is certainly something that took these problems - turned them into a very - into sort of almost national story and so frustrated some of the most notable names at CNN that it became an untenable situation for the CNN parent company, Warner Brothers Discovery, to keep Chris Licht in that chair.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, you've reported that the chief of CNN's parent company, David Zaslav, who saw the network as too liberal and too outspoken, was kind of the guiding hand behind the scenes. So is the next CEO going to face many of the same challenges that Licht did?

BYERS: Yes, the thesis - the editorial pivot to the center will not change. So I think it's a question now of execution. Can you get a CEO in there who is more capable at pulling this off...

SHAPIRO: Right.

BYERS: ...This editorial pivot while simultaneously making good television?

SHAPIRO: That is Dylan Byers, former media reporter for CNN, now founding partner and senior correspondent for Puck. Thank you.

BYERS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CURREN$Y & STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "GRAN TURISMO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.