On Oct. 13, Mr. Licht made his debut in front of Warner Brother Discovery’s board at a hotel in Los Angeles, where he outlined both his growth and content strategy. Asked about his efforts to make CNN less partisan, Mr. Licht gave this analogy: Suppose it’s raining outside. CNN plans to have people on who love the rain, and it will have people on who say they don’t like the rain. But it won’t have anyone on who says it’s sunny out.
Mr. Licht said he used the analogy to make clear that a less-partisan CNN did not mean it was any less committed to truth. “This wasn’t to plot a new course but to assure people we would not let up one inch in being truth tellers,” he said. “The change is we will not do Trump 24/7 or let him dictate our agenda.”
By all accounts, Mr. Licht’s presentation was warmly received by directors, including Mr. Malone.
Mr. Licht’s vision is contending with industrywide pressures to cut costs. (He said he appreciates but doesn’t really believe Mr. Zaslav’s professed indifference to financial results.) By announcing the need for more layoffs on Oct. 26, he said he hoped to engage in a “transparent” process that would leave everyone feeling they’d been heard. But, he said, “it would be irresponsible not to do the tough work now.” He added, “I promise you CNN will be more profitable next year.”
However transparent, many in CNN’s rank and file felt blindsided by the cuts, especially after what they perceived as his earlier reassurances that no further layoffs would be needed. In a all-staff meeting in November, Mr. Licht said he stood by his earlier remark that there would be no merger-related layoffs, and “I absolutely would not have said something that I did not believe to be true.” But he said he understood how his remarks had hurt his credibility. “I have to win that credibility back,” he acknowledged.
Mr. Licht said the firings were the “low point” of his tenure so far.
At another all-staff meeting this month, aimed at restoring morale, Mr. Licht took questions and then ended with a passage he wrote himself:
In terms of morale, let me just say, you work at a world-renowned news organization alongside the best journalists on the globe. Your jobs have meaning. Your jobs have an impact. You are part of something bigger, of something with tremendous meaning. And nothing about that has changed. And you have in me as a leader, who has done a lot of your jobs, someone who has your back every step of the way. My loyalty is first and foremost to this organization and to journalism without fear or favor to anyone else, including our parent company.
That’s why I’m here. That’s why I took this job.
“I want CNN to be essential to society,” Mr. Licht said in one of our interviews. “If you’re essential then the revenue will follow.”
And if it doesn’t?
“Maybe it won’t work,” Mr. Licht conceded. “But I’d rather try to win this way.”
Benjamin Mullin and Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.
James B. Stewart