CNN’s chairman and CEO Chris Licht told anxious staffers Friday that more changes are coming to CNN, as he addressed the news of Brian Stelter’s exit following the cancellation of his Sunday show Reliable Sources.
According to sources who were present, Licht told CNN employees at Friday’s well-attended editorial meeting, “There will be more changes, and you may not like it.”
He added, “I want to acknowledge to everyone that this is a time of change. I know that it is unsettling.”
Licht also expressed some irritation over media reports about CNN’s plans, characterizing them as incorrect assumptions. The exec stressed to staff that those fluid plans are only known by a few in CNN management’s inner circle.
Still, the sudden axing of longtime media reporter Stelter and the decades-running Reliable Sources has left both on-air and behind-the-scenes talent at the Warner Bros Discovery-owned cable newser worried about both the direction CNN is going and their own jobs.
Warner Bros. Discovery has been in the midst of trimming costs and laying off staffers following the merger. In a recent town hall meeting, Licht told staffers that the network will not have mandatory layoffs. He said that the brass was in the process of looking at the entire organization and examining whether resources were being deployed in the right way. That process is likely to lead to changes, Licht said.
The Reliable Sources cancellation and Stelter’s exit has heightened those anxieties. “No one is safe or secure right now,” a CNN staffer told Deadline on Friday.
Stelter’s departure also triggered immediate speculation as to the role of John Malone, one of the largest investors in Warner Bros. Discovery.
As the merger was being examined by the Justice Department, Malone in November told CNBC that he wanted CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists.” After Jeff Zucker’s exit from the network in February, Stelter wrote in his newsletter about Malone’s potential influence and talked about it on his show. He wrote that Malone’s comments had “stoked fears that Discovery might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice.”
“This is coming from above,” one insider told Deadline this morning. The source added about the influential stockholder, “If this isn’t coming from John Malone directly, it sure represents his thinking with lieutenants doing his bidding.”
Pulling the plug on CNN+ mere days after the streaming entity launched and now taking out the often-critical Stelter and his show’s staff has painted Licht as the one doing the unenviable work of letting people go, at least right now. “This isn’t why Chris came to CNN, to fire people,” a well-placed corporate source noted. “He is caught between a rock and a hard place and getting squeezed.”
But that is denied by a network source, as the network has been rethinking its Sunday programming and wanted a more consumer-facing show to a broader audience and not one about the media industry. Malone himself told The New York Times in an email that he had “nothing to do with” the cancellation of Reliable Sources. He also told the Times that he wants “the ‘news’ portion of CNN to be more centrist, but I am not in control or directly involved.”
In that vein, Licht tried to paint the best face possible on Thursday’s dismissals, which also include staffers of Reliable Sources, who are being given the option of applying for their jobs elsewhere at the network. “I have known Brian since the days he was running TVNewser as a college student,” the CEO said of Stelter.” I wish him all the best on his new venture.”
What that venture will be is unknown right now. What we do know is that Stelter will be hosting the very last Reliable Sources on August 20 and likely will address his exit. “As for me, well, I have to gather my thoughts,” Stelter wrote on the augmented version of his widely read “Reliable Sources” newsletter last night.
Reliable Sources’ Oliver Darcy announced on social media Thursday that he would remain at CNN, a statement he reiterated in Thursday’s newsletter. To quell concerns, Licht made a point of noting Darcy’s role and future plans in today’s meeting. “Oliver Darcy will be working on a reimagined ‘Reliable Sources’ newsletter,” he told staff. “We will be expanding. We hope to relaunch in the next few weeks.”