- Holy moly did CNN boss Chris Licht get smoked by The Atlantic.
- I was a conference with other media bosses when the story dropped. I asked them what they thought.
- “He needs a handler — fast.”
I spent the last couple days at a conference in a fancy resort town with current and former bosses of news organizations. We shared notes. We tried to figure out how to survive a world where AI models are vacuuming up everything we write without giving credit, and Facebook has basically stopped serving news links.
Most of the details would bore you.
But then, yesterday morning, over coffee and chia seed pudding, I sensed a change in the air. Something had happened.
Then I heard someone say, “I couldn’t keep reading it. It was like watching a snuff film.”
A snuff film, of course, is a video where someone is murdered.
The victim was CNN chair and CEO, Chris Licht. And the guy who dropped the bomb on him was Tim Alberta of the The Atlantic.
The story is called, “INSIDE THE MELTDOWN AT CNN: CEO Chris Licht felt he was on a mission to restore the network’s reputation for serious journalism. How did it all go wrong?”
I finally read it on the plane home last night, and, uh, yeah, it’s brutal.
Licht and his comms boss Matt Dornic gave Alberta full access – including multiple long, on the record interviews with Licht in weird locations, including at the gym while he worked out.
You should read the whole thing, but here’s that scene:
It was 6:07 a.m. and sweat dripped from Licht’s nose.
He pumped his arms and legs on a machine inside a workout studio two blocks from the Hudson River. Joe Maysonet, a former boxer who wore polka-dot pajama pants, a green oxford shirt, and a peach-colored beanie, stood with his arms crossed, chirping at his client: “Did I say stop? No, I did not!”
Three years ago, Licht weighed 226 pounds. Worried that he was losing control of his lifestyle, he went all in. No more breakfast. No drinking during the week. No more carbs or sweets. (“I’m a fucking machine,” Licht told me one day, when I asked why he was skipping a meal.) He also found Maysonet, whose gym, J Train, caters to New York’s elite—actors, athletes, business tycoons. On this morning, in March 2023, the CNN boss was down to 178 pounds.
Licht jumped off the machine. At Maysonet’s instruction, he squatted down to grab a long metal pole lying flat on the ground. “Zucker couldn’t do this shit,” Licht said through clenched teeth, hoisting the pole with a grunt.
Yikes. For those who don’t know, Jeff Zucker was Licht’s predecessor at CNN. That line is brutal. It was probably a joke by Licht. Maybe it was unfair of Alberta to include it. But why did Licht have a reporter with him at the gym? And maybe the joke is a telling one?
The whole story portrays Licht as someone who is more obsessed with his predecessor and the way he ran the company than someone with a good or even well-articulated plan for how to lead CNN into the future. It leaves you wondering if Licht actually has a vision or has been handed one by his bosses.
Other ugly moments from the story include:
Licht trashing his CNN colleagues for the way they reported on COVID.
A Christmas party in DC where Licht refused to socialize with colleagues and instead stared at his phone the whole time. “It became so awkward that guests began texting one another, wondering if there was some crisis unfolding with an international bureau. When a pair of them caught a glimpse of Licht’s phone, they could see that he was reading a critical story about him in Puck.”
A clear-the-air town hall where he gets irritated with the CNN journalist interviewing him. (“Yeah. At one point, I wanted to just say, ‘We’re not going to turn into BuzzFeed, okay?'” Licht told Alberta. “But that probably wouldn’t have helped.”)
The big blunder Alberta returns to over and over in the story is the May 10 Trump town hall. In Alberta’s depiction, it went so poorly because Licht was unprepared and perhaps had unserious ideas about how to cover Trump.
At one moment in the story, months before the town hall, a student asks Licht how he’ll guide the network’s coverage of a twice-impeached, election-denying, Capitol riot-cheering former president.
“I am so not concerned about that.” Licht says. “You cover him like any other candidate.”
Then, in cinematic style, Alberta describes a disastrous lead up, night of, and aftermath. Here’s Licht pushing to make the town hall “extra Trumpy.” There he goes removing anti-Trump pundits from the post-event coverage. And wow, look at him go into “war mode” attacking CNN staff for critical coverage of the evening.
Really, you should go read the whole thing.
After I was done with it, I went to Whatsapp and asked a group of people from the conference what they thought. Because they’re all in the same industry as Licht and because the conference and its attendee list is off the record, and finally because I wanted the most candid thoughts possible, I promised them all their quotes would be anonymous. But trust me, these are people who run big newsrooms.
Here’s what they told me …
“Licht seems to be suffering the opposite PR problem as Zucker. Zucker had an army of image protectors and broke through them when he wanted to. Licht seems to have no one looking out for him—to tell him how grunting during a workout is, in this moment, going to make him look. He needs a handler — fast.”
“[Licht’s] covid comments demonstrate such naïveté and should make us all fear that this man is in charge of the country’s largest news organization. Also it’s so clear Licht lacks the management experience to steer a behemoth like cnn and he’s seeing his task more like running a show than a multi-billion-dollar company. Well that’s what it once was. Cnn revenues have now shrunk under his disastrous leadership.”
“Let’s get real. The problem isn’t Licht, it’s his paymasters. The American billionaire class has convinced themselves that the way to save journalism is to make it as bland and as both-sidesy as possible. They chose Licht as their latest champion of harmless vanilla inoffensiveness. The problem is, no one wants vanilla. Not even a tasting spoon of it.”
“You are welcome to use my snuff film line anonymously!”
“It was doubly shocking to me that they thought Tim Alberta was the best idea for this. The last big piece he did was this masterful takedown of Nikki Haley that continues to dog and define her. Like Licht she gave him lots of access. Like him (I assume), she came to regret it. She pissed off Trump and anti-Trumpers and made it all worse by trying to go down to Mar A Lago to apologize a week or so later.”
Another media big wig, but one not at the conference, told me he thinks Licht is “done” at CNN.
“The way he was painted, whatever support he had left at the company is likely gone.”
I reached out to CNN’s comms boss Matt Dornic to see if he had a reaction to The Atlantic’s story. That was Saturday morning, and he didn’t respond to a Twitter DM or LinkedIn message before publication time.