Why is Chris Licht leaving CNN? Is his ouster proof that cable news is on its way out?

Chris Licht standing in front of CNN logo
Chris Licht, Chairman and CEO, CNN Worldwide speaks onstage during the Warner Bros. Discovery Upfront 2022 show at The Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Warner Bros. Discovery

The CEO of CNN is out.

Just 13 months into his tenure, Chris Licht, formerly the executive producer of “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” is stepping down from the role of leading one of the largest news organizations in the world after a series of missteps and failed initiatives prompted a mass exodus of viewers fleeing for newsier pastures. 

While many are casting Licht’s departure as a result of self-inflicted wounds—an ill-received primetime CNN town hall with former president Donald Trump and an unsavory profile in The Atlantic that Licht helped engineer—others note the difficult task he faced in taking the network in a new direction after the ouster of his predecessor Jeff Zucker

“He had a tough task … coming in there,” says Mike Beaudet, professor of the practice of journalism at Northeastern. “Even before he got there, the network was struggling big time.”

headshot of Mike Beaudet (left) and Dan Kennedy (right)
Northeastern Professor of Practice Mike Beaudet and Dan Kennedy, associate professor of journalism. Photo courtesy of Mike Beaudet and Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

CNN had been facing a ratings decline prior to Licht’s takeover, but it only accelerated under his tenure, plummeting 61% in March 2023. The ratings dip came after longtime anchor Don Lemon sparked outrage when he said 51-year-old Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley was “not in her prime.” Lemon was subsequently fired.  

“If you look at the past year—all of the things that have happened—it’s not surprising that, for CNN’s parent company [Warner Bros. Discovery], the bottom line was the network’s ratings,” Beaudet says. “He was brought in to increase viewership, and the exact opposite happened.” 

Licht had spent some decades in television news—producing shows such as “Scarborough Country” and “Morning Joe”—before transitioned into the world of late-night entertainment.  

“He did not come across as someone who was inappropriately trying to impose entertainment values on CNN, but rather as someone looking to restore CNN’s journalistic props with no idea how to do it,” Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy says. 

When he joined CNN in early 2022, Licht sounded off on the state of journalism and the culture of mistrust between the news media and the broader public.  

“Sadly too many people have lost trust in the news media,” he wrote to CNN employees. “I think we can be a beacon in regaining that trust by being an organization that exemplifies the best characteristics in journalism: fearlessly speaking truth to power, challenging the status quo, questioning ‘group-think’ and educating viewers and readers with straightforward facts and insightful commentary, while always being respectful of differing viewpoints.”

Then, under his direction, the network parted ways with several high-profile correspondents, including John Harwood, Brian Stelter and Jeffrey Toobin. The Washington Post described the personnel changes as part of a broader strategy shift to forge a more politically neutral tone. 

Indeed, Kennedy says the network needed an editorial rework. But firing Stelter, who Kennedy described as “an outstanding media reporter”—someone who another critic noted was an “authoritative source” at a moment of great “factual instability”—was a particularly bad omen for the network in decline.  

“Zucker had turned all of primetime into anti-Trump talk shows, and was not leveraging what I think is CNN’s greatest strength, which is the fact that it has excellent reporters stationed all over the world,” Kennedy says. 

But, he says, instead of “pumping up the reporting,” Licht appeared merely to follow suit.  

“Licht comes in and he starts saying he wants more reporting, less opinion; and that all sounded pretty good,” Kennedy adds. “But it seems that what he was trying to do instead—or perhaps in addition to it—was please the new ownership.”

The Trump town hall—which Kennedy says “wasn’t just a disaster, but was a disaster in all of the ways people had predicted”—was perhaps the final nail in the coffin. Before a howling crowd of Trump supporters, the former president again refused to acknowledge he lost the 2020 election to Joe Biden, and said he’d pardon Capitol rioters. The network’s own media reporter acknowledged the damage, writing on CNN’s website: “It’s hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”

Can CNN rebound? Kennedy and Beaudet both think so, with Kennedy saying the network should look to digital rather than the shrinking cable audience.

“[CNN is] by far the largest news website in the country,” Kennedy says. “It attracts a much larger audience than the New York Times and The Washington Post. It will be interesting to see what they will do next.”

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.