Warner Bros Discovery chief turns to longtime confidant to save wounded CNN

Whenever questions about CNN’s declining ratings have come up over the past year, Warner Bros Discovery chief executive David Zaslav has urged patience. Just last month he endorsed the work that Chris Licht, his handpicked choice to lead CNN, was doing to revive the news network.

But when Zaslav installed a longtime confidant, David Leavy, at CNN last week as chief operating officer, it was viewed as a sign that his patience could be starting to run out, current and former employees said. “They are now down in the ratings, down in financial performance, down in employee morale and they’re down in public perception,” said a former senior employee. “It’s clearly not the right business strategy.”

The situation at CNN took on an even greater sense of urgency shortly after Leavy’s appointment was announced, when a damning profile of Licht was published by The Atlantic magazine. The 15,000-word article, published on Friday, depicted Licht as thin-skinned, isolated and struggling to find a strategy to reverse the network’s sharp ratings decline. It went off like a bombshell in the US media world. 

Although he was not due to start in his new role for another two weeks, Leavy worked the phones through the weekend, calling CNN journalists and offering reassurance. “It’s interesting that Leavy is reaching out to a lot of the talent directly,” noted one veteran CNN employee at the weekend. Confidence in Licht, this person added, was “completely absent” within the newsroom.

Licht apologised to CNN staff on Monday morning, vowing to “fight like hell” to regain the trust of employees, which had already eroded before the article was published. Only weeks earlier, CNN hosted a controversial town hall meeting with Donald Trump, who insulted the network’s moderator to cheers from an audience packed with the former president’s supporters. CNN journalists were furious, but Licht defended the decision, saying that “America was served very well by what we did”.

Licht’s comments were in line with Zaslav’s goal to reposition the cable news pioneer as a less “activist” network than it had been in the Trump years, a stance that was also advocated by the cable billionaire and Discovery board member John Malone. 

But Malone’s criticism of CNN’s journalism — he said in a 2021 CNBC interview that it would be “unique and refreshing” if the network would “actually have journalists” — has remained lodged in the minds of many of the network’s reporters.

Into this heated environment steps Leavy, who was working at Discovery when Zaslav became chief executive in 2006. The two have been close colleagues for the past 17 years, with Leavy serving as a confidant all the way through last year’s $44bn merger of Discovery and Warner Bros.

In the early 1990s, Leavy served as a personal assistant to former President Bill Clinton’s press secretary, Dee Dee Myers. He later earned his stripes as a communications official during the conflict in Kosovo, and joined Discovery in 2000.

Now his brief is to run CNN Worldwide’s commercial, operational and promotional activities, leaving Licht to manage the…

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