The ghost of Jeff Zucker still haunts the halls of CNN as the network's current chief tries to win over staffers who continue mourning their fallen, scandal-plagued captain.
Chris Licht has been tasked to carry out the mission directed from CNN's new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery. Its CEO David Zaslav has been public about his desires for CNN to be more balanced, saying in an interview last year, "America needs a news network where everybody can come and be heard; Republicans, Democrats."
Licht officially took the reins in May 2022 after Zucker was forced out as CNN president just over a year ago, and some CNN employees are still longing for what they see as the good old days, even though Zucker's tenure was marked by its leftward lurch, sagging ratings and multiple scandals.
"There are people who don't seem to get that the Jeff-era CNN isn't even possible," a CNN insider told Fox News Digital.
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The insider compared the "Zucker loyalist" mindset to the 2022 film "Don't Worry Darling" where staffers are "refusing to acknowledge their world isn't real and getting angry at anyone who challenges it."
"I think most of the anchors have woken up, it's the rank and file," the insider said. "And it's not even about Jeff. It's more the era."
While the anchors have "woken up" to the reality that Zucker won't be returning, they aren't necessarily "believers" in Licht, either, according to the source.
CNN declined to comment.
Insiders point to how Zucker was known for "micromanaging" as the CNN boss and that he was hands-on when it came to programming decisions. Licht has taken a different approach.
"They feel like they had direction with Zucker. He was a micromanager," a second CNN insider told Fox News Digital. "He’d look at ratings every five minutes. He was very hands-on with booking guests. Chris Licht is a bit more hands off. For whatever reason, the rank and file at CNN appreciate Jeff Zucker’s approach to leadership."
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"Life was easier for many of them under Jeff and Warner Media," the first insider said, referring to CNN's former parent company before the corporate merger that resulted in Warner Bros. Discovery. "They had someone telling them exactly what to do, and they got paid well to do it. Licht expects people of that caliber to do incredible work without him micromanaging."
What might have been Licht's first obstacle when boarding CNN was to confront its talent about its liberal perception among a large swath of Americans.
"I love all the people at CNN, but journalists, reporters and analysts truly believe they are impartial and they are appalled to think they are viewed as left-leaning," the second CNN insider told Fox News Digital. "They were aghast at the thought they did anything less than fair and balanced."
The insider praised Licht, who they say has "done a lot to right the ship," but he still has his work cut out for him.
Licht wasn't given a honeymoon period when he joined CNN, which had suffered a devastating blow just days prior with the implosion of its streaming service CNN+, something that was developed during the Zucker era and was meant to be part of the ex-boss's long-lasting legacy at the network.
One source said a "big source of contention" among staffers was when CNN was hit with layoffs in November after they were told by Licht in June he didn't anticipate such job cuts. Another insider at the time said morale had collapsed at the network.
Licht's latest test was addressing the crisis plaguing morning show host Don Lemon. The 56-year-old infuriated colleagues with his sexist remarks earlier this month about women like GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, 51, being "past their prime" due to their age. Lemon issued multiple apologies, not all of them well-received, and Licht said he had agreed to "formal training." But some at CNN don't agree with how he handled it as Lemon returned to the airwaves last week.
"I don’t know why Don got another chance," said the second CNN insider.
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Ultimately, it's a matter of trust. Insiders say it isn't that staffers dislike Licht but rather they simply miss Zucker, whose tenure from 2013 to 2022 saw CNN veer sharply to the left and become defined by its overt hostility toward Donald Trump.
"Zucker was out in the trenches during elections and debates. They went through the wars with him, and they haven’t gone through that with Licht," the insider said.
His tenure has been rocky to say the least.
In addition to the behemoth undertaking of restoring CNN's journalistic credibility, Licht desperately needs to turn around the network's flailing viewership, which has only gotten worse under his watch. One programming headache Licht inherited was CNN's vacant 9 p.m. time slot emptied by the 2021 firing of Chris Cuomo. The void in primetime further expanded when Licht pulled Lemon from his solo gig for a new morning show with Poppy Harlow and Kaitlan Collins, a move widely considered a demotion despite Lemon's insistence to the contrary.
Expectations were high for what is Licht's first pet project at CNN, since his resume includes launching MSNBC's "Morning Joe" and revitalizing "CBS This Morning" as its executive producer. The show, "CNN This Morning," stumbled right out of the gate in November with lackluster viewership, even falling short of Zucker's brainchild "New Day."
Constant tabloid drama and reported tensions between Lemon and his co-hosts already in the first three months of "CNN This Morning" signal that Licht hasn't found the magic formula. Sources previously told Fox News Digital that Licht is well aware that the show needs improving.
But Licht's biggest challenge is filling the primetime holes left by Lemon and Cuomo.
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While CNN's 8 p.m. ET anchor Anderson Cooper often pulls double duty with back-to-back hours of programming, Licht still needs a permanent fix. A brief run by Jake Tapper heading into last year's midterms – which Tapper insists was meant to be temporary and not a "tryout" for a permanent primetime job – was a ratings bust. CNN's Alisyn Camerota and Laura Coates have been filling in Lemon's vacant slot in the meantime, also with lackluster results.
Reports in recent weeks indicated Licht was eying big names from outside the network to turn CNN primetime around. Basketball commentator and NBA legend Charles Barkley confirmed that he's discussing hosting a show with Gayle King, who Licht previously worked with at CBS. However, Barkley told the New York Post that him hosting a show five nights a week will "never" happen, which will only prolong Licht's programming dilemma.
It had also been reported that CNN was looking at comedians to potentially be placed in primetime, particularly following the success of Fox News' "Gutfeld!", which has quickly become the most-watched late-night show on television.
Before taking the CNN gig, Licht served as executive producer of "The Late Show" and helped Stephen Colbert and CBS ascend to the top of late-night during the Trump era. Names that were allegedly floated at CNN included Jon Stewart, Trevor Noah, Arsenio Hall and Bill Maher.
A CNN spokesman previously told Fox News Digital, "Chris is having conversations with dozens of culturally relevant individuals from the worlds of news, sports, entertainment and comedy."
Earlier this month, CNN announced that it would be airing Maher's "Overtime" segments on Friday nights, which were previously released on YouTube immediately following HBO's broadcast of "Real Time," a property of Warner Bros. Discovery.
Despite the viral buzz that was generated, CNN did not reap the benefit from its in-house exclusive as viewership on Friday nights has not seen a boost.
With all the turmoil that has unfolded in recent months, Warner Bros. Discovery boss David Zaslav signaled he still has confidence in Licht, saying on the company's fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday, "Chris Licht and the team are focused on building an asset for the long term across cable and digital that is worthy of that great global brand… I believe we are on the right path."