CNN Aftershocks: The Fallout for CEO Chris Licht After Trump Town Hall

CNN staffers were among those scandalized and embarrassed by former President Donald Trump’s town hall appearance on the network on Wednesday, despite CEO Chris Licht’s solemn statement to the channel’s newsroom on Thursday morning that “America was served very well by what we did last night.”

The CEO of CNN, Warner Bros. Discovery’s cherished news network, is walking a tightrope. While the town hall drove a huge ratings spike — 3.3 million viewers or roughly four to five times what that time slot usually gets — the existential question was obvious: What did the ratings bump cost the network’s credibility?

“Our old shop has seen many high highs and low lows, but tonight is a new darkest hour,” wrote a former CNN staffer in an alumni Facebook group page shared with TheWrap. “It’s one thing to screw up a story, another to help destroy the country.”

Another CNN alumnus described the night as an “unmitigated disaster.”

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The reasons for the furious reaction ranged from interviewer Kaitlan Collins’ inability to rein in Trump’s repeated election denials; his insults of writer and sexual assault accuser E. Jean Carroll (which reportedly led her to consider suing Trump anew for defamation, after winning a case against he former president this very week); his misstatements of the Presidential Records Act; and his egging on a pro-Trump audience that cheered and jeered his remarks like any election rally.

Social media spent all day Thursday eviscerating Licht and CNN for the decision to “platform” Trump. Which raises the question: At what point will Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav’s support waver over featuring a bullying, lying, twice-impeached Republican presidential candidate on a show where the interviewer could barely get a word in edgewise?

CNN “got the attention they were hoping to get,” Angelo Carusone, president of the watchdog group Media Matters, told TheWrap. “They’re getting accolades from the right wing, which has been a larger part of CNN strategy for a while now, which is to soften their reputation within the larger conservative circles, so that they can appeal to not just the audience, but also be a participant in conservative political media. They want to get these guests, they want to be able to have on the nominee [and] they want to host events.”

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A Warner Bros. Discovery insider told TheWrap that Zaslav’s support for Licht’s decision to invite Trump was as solid as his remarks on CNBC indicated on Friday. “I think every news organization, every network, will be grappling with how to cover Trump,” said the insider. “There’s no easy answer. CNN just came first.”

But the outcry against CNN choosing to “platform” a liar, someone who only one day earlier had been found liable for sexual assault in a civil case brought by Carroll, was not only wide and deep, but included Licht’s own newsroom.

Addressing the town hall during his Thursday broadcast, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper said it was “disturbing to hear him speak so highly of QAnon conspirators who assaulted police officers and our democracy on January 6, and it was awful to hear him spread ridiculous lies about the election.”

Ultimately, Cooper defended the network’s choice to host Trump as a signal of the reality that could once again face the nation. He posed a question to reluctant CNN viewers: “Do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away?”

One cable news insider told TheWrap, “Fast forward to February 2025 and Licht will be doing journalism panels apologizing for last night’s rally debacle with a ‘curated’ audience.”

The internal and external buzz is not the kind of post-event chatter that a CEO just a little over a year into his tenure wants being shared with Warner Bros. Discovery’s C-suite.

The town hall notched CNN a rare primetime win against rivals Fox News and MSNBC. These days the news network has had some evenings where it has been dangerously close to losing its permanent third place status to conservative upstart NewsNation.

Insiders told TheWrap on Thursday that “most staffers are afraid to speak up publicly and even privately within the halls of CNN, but the overall morale is lower than during layoffs and when CNN+ was shuttered.”

One producer said, “It was pretty clear Jake Tapper’s demeanor and harsh words for Trump and his lies was how most of his colleagues on the panel felt.”

An insider who speaks frequently to anchors and producers across the network said, “Of course the whispers are, ‘How much longer can Zaslav stick by this guy?’ It’d be different if the town hall disaster was an isolated occasion but Licht has spearheaded multiple anchor and host changes, primetime show experiments, a morning show reboot and all of those have steered CNN to its lowest ratings in a decade.”

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Yet, Licht is reportedly betting on his proverbial thoroughbred race horse champ again: Kaitlan Collins. According to Puck News’ Dylan Byers, Licht is planning to give Collins the coveted 9 p.m. primetime slot that hasn’t had a permanent host or show since Chris Cuomo departed the network two years ago.

An individual with knowledge of the situation told TheWrap, “Licht sees Kaitlan as one of the network’s new faces and he’s determined to make her a star in the news world. He thinks she represents the kind of down-the-middle nonpartisan anchor that he wants ‘his CNN to be synonymous with.'”

Carusone echoed that individual’s comments about the choice to have Collins take the spotlight for the town hall, noting that her background at right-leaning outlet the Daily Caller might make her more acceptable for the Trump campaign.

“Giving her this sort of high-profile moment, it does help grease the wheels for her to then slide into this 9 p.m, slot,” Carusone said. “Sometimes controversies or this type of attention can also be used to create some energy to help launch a show… I don’t think we should look at anything that CNN is doing right now without at least looking partly through the lens of their challenges with ratings.”

From Carusone’s perspective, Licht’s job is safe and the CEO likely considers the town hall a success, as the network edged its way to be the talk of the town the next day.

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Even if the network insists they couldn’t ignore a leading candidate for the Republican nomination, Claire Potter, professor of history at the New School for Social Research, said the event was misadvertised and should have had a range of Republican voters and true independents.

Instead, she noted that she “didn’t hear a single question from a person who is not already an enthusiastic Trump supporter.”

“CNN’s rebranding — or rather, return to its roots — as a nonpartisan news channel was not well served by putting on a purely partisan event in which Trump supporters cheered well-known lies and members of the audience laughed uproariously at a woman whose sexual assault and defamation claims were affirmed just the day before,” Potter told TheWrap.

She continued, “I think the bigger question is whether the Republican Party saw that performance last night and truly understood that they are planning on going into the next presidential election behind a candidate who is not in touch with reality and who delivers sound bites for attack ads every time he is in front of a friendly audience.”

Sharon Waxman and Loree Seitz contributed to this article.

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