NEW YORK – Chris Licht, the embattled chief executive of CNN, apologized to network employees on Monday for distracting from their work and promised to “fight like hell” to earn their trust amid criticism of his year at the helm.
Licht's tenure hit a low point last week with publication of a lengthy, damaging profile of him in Atlantic magazine and the appointment of a new executive from parent company Warner Bros. Discovery to help manage CNN.
Licht said on an editorial conference call that he was sorry that his role in the news cycle overshadowed the work of CNN's journalists, according to a transcript of the call. He described it as a humbling experience.
Licht said he would work to win their trust, “because you deserve a leader who will be in the trenches, fighting to ensure CNN remains the world's most trusted name in news.”
“CNN is not about me,” he said. “I should not be in the news.”
A CNN spokesperson had no further comment on Monday.
Licht replaced a popular leader, Jeff Zucker, with a mandate to win back some of the viewers alienated from CNN by former President Donald Trump's attacks. That has caused some internal resentment and, for many, Trump's town hall meeting last month was a misstep.
The executive's revamp of CNN's morning show fell flat, leading to the firing of longtime personality Don Lemon. Licht's plans to restructure the network's prime-time lineup have moved slowly. Kaitlan Collins is to begin a new show later this month, and CNN has signed Charles Barkley and Gayle King to host a once-a-week program.
In his Atlantic profile, writer Tim Alberta wrote that Licht had “swaggered” into his new job, telling employees their hostility toward Trump had alienated viewers who saw CNN as the safe center. This put him in the position of fighting to win over Republicans as well as some CNN journalists who believed they were being made scapegoats by Licht’s efforts to please his boss, Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav.
“One year into the job, Licht was losing both battles,” Alberta wrote.
CNN's prime-time viewership averaged 494,000 in May, the Nielsen company said. That's less than half of what MSNBC gets, and down 16% from April. An accelerating trend of cord-cutting isn't helping cable networks hold viewers, either.
CNN reached 3.3 million people for its Trump town hall on May 10, yet two nights later its prime-time viewership plunged to 335,000 people, Nielsen said.
One of Zaslav's top aides at Warner Discovery, David Leavy, was appointed last week as chief operating officer of CNN Worldwide, reporting to Licht. Leavy will be responsible for commercial, operational and promotional activities at CNN, the network said.