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Inside the Battle for CNN

Author: Editors Desk Source: Variety:
July 25, 2023 at 19:49
Over 18 months, a battle of backstabbing has been raging within CNN that involved Jeff Zucker, David Zaslav and Chris Licht.
Jeff Zucker was breezing through the Faena Hotel in Miami Beach when he spotted David Zaslav across the room. The former CNN chief was there on vacation on March 31, while the current Warner Bros. Discovery CEO was on hand for the Saudi-backed FII Institute’s Global Priority Summit. As corporate leaders mingled with Saudi princesses, Zucker approached Zaslav with tears in his eyes. Zucker complained that Chris Licht, his CNN successor, was unfairly maligning him in the press, according to sources familiar with the conversation. Zucker insisted he would never deploy such a low-blow tactic. It was a strange claim given that, to that point, Licht had only done a single published profile with The New York Times’ James B. Stewart, in which Zucker was never mentioned.

Zaslav stopped him. Instead, he wanted to know if Zucker was indulging in a different “fantasy,” as Zaslav put it — to assemble a team of investors to try to buy the network. Zucker vehemently denied that he had any desire to do so. But sources tell Variety that the opposite is true, and that Zucker has spent the past year traveling the globe to meet with potential partners in a bid for CNN.

Zucker and Zaslav’s power struggles over the cable news network — one of the most prestigious assets in the WBD portfolio and also one of the biggest perennial headaches for the parent company — shed light on the chaotic and roiling environment Zucker left behind after his 2022 ouster. The former network chief, who was forced out after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a CNN subordinate and for committing ethical breaches in the newsgathering process, likely will fail in any bid to take back the network. But his battles with Zaslav and his behind-the-scenes attempts to undermine Licht (whom Zaslav fired last month) are more than just power plays from one of the media world’s most consequential egos. They suggest that Zucker sees an opening — however narrow — and isn’t worried about damaging CNN as he attempts to ram his way through it. At stake is the future of CNN, arguably the most iconic and influential news brand in the world and one that can make or break a presidential candidate as a divided America heads into the 2024 election cycle.

While Zaslav never took Zucker’s CNN overtures seriously, the exiled chief apparently was serious. Sources say Zucker and his proxies have pitched some of the richest people in the world on a potential CNN play. Many of the details of his pursuit of CNN emerged in a confidential Warner Bros. Discovery investigation into a top CNN executive — a Zucker loyalist who mysteriously exited the network in January.

“Any allegation or insinuation that Jeff has made any effort to purchase CNN is unequivocally false,” says a spokeswoman for Zucker who denied that Zaslav and Zucker discussed Licht at the Faena Hotel. “He has never had any meeting or conversation about buying CNN with anyone.”

A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson says, “Warner Bros. Discovery is committed to CNN. It is not for sale.” Licht declined repeated requests for comment for this story.


CNN Broken Illustration Full
Kelsey Dake for Variety

After nearly a decade running the network, Zucker never could let go, say those in his orbit. The former president and CEO of NBCUniversal took his position at CNN in 2013 — famously departing Katie Couric’s talk show after only a year. While Zucker was network president, CNN flooded the zone with stories from the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 to Carnival Cruise Line’s “poop cruise” to, eventually, the rise of Donald Trump. CNN surged in viewership and profitability under the 45th president, and Zucker looked like its mastermind. But those Resistance ratings eventually dried up, and CNN lagged. Though Zucker was forced to resign well before Zaslav took the reins following Discovery’s $43 billion acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T, he blamed Zaslav and John Malone, a right-leaning billionaire who owns a 1% stake in WBD and is a powerful board member. Licht, a career producer who’d never led an organization of CNN’s size, was handed the impossible task of managing a politically neutral post-Zucker network.

Following a steady drumbeat of negative press about Licht that culminated with a devastating profile in The Atlantic, the CNN chief was ousted by Zaslav on June 7. Sources inside both WBD and CNN believe Zucker had been agitating behind the scenes to depose Licht. Those who have worked closely with Zucker in the past and are familiar with his media-savvy playbook claim that he orchestrated unflattering leaks about his successor to reporters.

“This has been a massive dick swing between David Zaslav and Jeff Zucker, and Chris got played right in the middle of it,” says one insider who has been privy to major recent decisions at CNN. “When all is said and done, we’re going to find out this whole thing was a big game, and the price of CNN is going to get driven down.”

Zucker, whose CNN found its defining tone on the tumultuous 2016 campaign trail, thrives in chaos. And his attempted power grab comes at a time of profound instability for the industry, with Fox News and MSNBC both facing questions about the future of their primetime lineups. But not even Fox’s $787 million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems can compare to the drama that’s enveloped CNN during and after the one-year reign of Licht, who some insiders have described as a Julius Caesar figure surrounded by backstabbers.

That climate of betrayal crystallized on Jan. 30, when Rani Raad, Zucker’s former top lieutenant, abruptly left his perch as president of CNN Commercial Worldwide. Prior to Raad’s departure, questions swirled around his ongoing relationship with Zucker. In late 2022, WBD launched an internal investigation into Raad, who was suspected of collaborating with the now-outsider Zucker, say sources familiar with the probe. (Both sides are bound by a nondisclosure agreement.) Last month, Raad officially joined Zucker at private-equity firm RedBird IMI.

A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson declined to discuss a confidential matter. Raad declined comment about the investigation.

For those familiar with the Zucker-Raad entanglement, the news of his exit came as no surprise. One source calls Raad’s behavior “a mutiny” — and a successful one. Another source says Raad used his position as a top executive to assist Zucker in finding capital for a CNN pursuit and foment chaos within the network. That the asset was devalued in the process was yet another break in Zucker’s favor.

Zucker’s quest to recapture the CNN throne began a few months after he was fired for cause in February 2022 by then-parent company WarnerMedia after a third-party investigation found that he engaged in an affair with Allison Gollust, a PR executive. The investigation also found that Zucker and Gollust violated the company’s news standards and practices via their cozy relationship with former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Gollust also was fired for cause.) The Zucker scandal left a stain on the network that billed itself as “The Most Trusted Name in News,” just as Zaslav was about to inherit CNN as part of Discovery’s $43 billion acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T. Zaslav, long enamored with Licht, named the former showrunner of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” to the job three weeks later without considering other candidates, a head-scratching move to some given the breadth of the assignment.

Licht was asked to turn around the tarnished network and return it to its nonpartisan roots. It was a Herculean task, made more difficult by Zucker’s machinations. As early as August 2022, chatter about Zucker was moving through business channels. On Aug. 7, Allied Turkish Bank IBU Northern Cyprus sent a letter of intent on company stationery to the law firm Clifford Chance’s Istanbul office. The letter discusses Clifford Chance as the firm that represents Zucker in “the acquisition of CNN Worldwide” and “is valid for the round of negotiations with potential investors and is regulated by the attached confidential contract in accordance with the commercial legislation of Turkey,” according to sources who have seen the documentation.

CNN Broken Crown
Delcan & Co for Variety

“Jeff has never talked to any Turkish bank,” says a spokeswoman for Zucker. “He has no relationship with Clifford Chance.”

At year’s end, Zucker was sitting on a $1 billion war chest when Gerry Cardinale’s private-equity firm RedBird Capital Partners and Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments tapped him to lead joint venture RedBird IMI. (Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a United Arab Emirates government minister, had put up 75% of the funds.) An announcement of Zucker’s role stated that the executive would target “large-scale” media and sports investment opportunities, with no specifics on what those might be.

Still, it would require a lot more than $1 billion to land a media asset akin to CNN. Thus, the courting of billionaires ensued, sources familiar with the Raad probe say. On Nov. 20, Zucker and Cardinale met at a Formula One race in Abu Dhabi, with Raad and Gollust on hand. Raad, still a CNN employee under Licht, was there to schmooze on behalf of the network, but was spotted in RedBird’s VIP area, meeting with Zucker and members of the oil-rich country’s sovereign wealth fund. (Malone’s Liberty Media owns Formula One.)

Around the same time, Zucker approached Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs and Alex Soros about investing in his CNN bid, according to those same sources. “He has never discussed buying CNN with Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs or Alex Soros. Jeff has never met or spoken to Alex Soros,” Zucker’s spokeswoman says. That denial at least partially contradicts published reports that Zucker had previously approached Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, about a potential spinout of the network in late 2020. This time, Powell Jobs took the overtures seriously enough that she contacted CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria to inquire about Zucker, even though she had begun offloading some of her media investments in recent years. (She did hold on to a majority stake in The Atlantic, the same publication that sealed Licht’s fate.) Powell Jobs declined comment. Zakaria did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Raad was simultaneously working under Licht and on behalf of Zucker. Sources say he met with Nasser Al-Khelaifi, chairman of Qatari state-owned beIN Media Group, and sat down twice with Sheikh Hamad bin Thamer bin Mohammed Al Thani, chairman of the board of Al Jazeera, while still collecting a paycheck from CNN. (A rep for Raad says he “has never met Al Jazeera leadership, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and he has never discussed or engineered an approach among any party to acquire CNN.”)

After Raad decamped CNN, the pace of pitching accelerated. Sources say Zucker most recently targeted Mario Ferreira, who licenses the news network’s content as the owner of CNN Portugal, about participating in a CNN acquisition. (A Zucker spokeswoman says he has never met with or spoken to Ferreira.) Separately, sources say Cardinale met with Paul Singer of Elliott Capital Management, though a source close to the RedBird principal says the conversations were about soccer team A.C. Milan and had nothing to do with CNN. Singer, a Republican mega-donor whose Hollywood investments have included CNN’s former parent company AT&T, is no stranger to controversy. He is currently enmeshed in a conflict-of-interest scandal following revelations that Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito took an unreported luxury fishing trip with Singer and did not recuse himself from cases that involved the billionaire.

David Zaslav
David ZaslavGetty Images

This spring, Turkish Bank Group signed a nondisclosure agreement with international mergers and acquisitions firm Pandion Partners about a potential deal for RedBird to acquire CNN, say sources familiar with the agreement. “RedBird and RedBird IMI do not know TBG or Pandion Partners, have not signed any NDA with or around these parties and have never expressed or discussed an interest in buying CNN with anyone at any time,” says a representative for RedBird and RedBird IMI. An alternative theory has emerged in banking circles: that a secret international group of investors is using Zucker and RedBird’s names without their knowledge to approach Warner Bros. Discovery about buying CNN.

But sources familiar with the Raad investigation say Zucker in recent months approached Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owned Chelsea Football Club until 2022 but was forced to unload it after being sanctioned by the West for his close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin amid the ongoing war in Ukraine. (“He has never met or spoken to Roman Abramovich,” the Zucker spokeswoman says.)

The group of foreign investors allegedly tied to a Zucker CNN gambit would likely spark intense scrutiny from the federal government. Nevena Simidjiyska, a partner at Fox Rothschild who specializes in regulatory law, says the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which determines the effect of any such transactions on U.S. national security, could prevent an investment of this kind. 

“‘National security’ is not defined under CFIUS, but the whole purpose of this [committee] is to ensure that there are no national security implications,” Simidjiyska explains. “Certainly, if you have a foreign party that is taking a stake in a very large news organization that is viewed by a lot of viewers and has the ability to affect viewpoint, I think in the current geopolitical climate, the U.S. would certainly step in.”

The group of foreign investors allegedly tied to a Zucker CNN gambit would likely spark intense scrutiny from the federal government. Nevena Simidjiyska, a partner at Fox Rothschild who specializes in regulatory law, says the Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which determines the effect of any such transactions on U.S. national security, could prevent an investment of this kind. 

“‘National security’ is not defined under CFIUS, but the whole purpose of this [committee] is to ensure that there are no national security implications,” Simidjiyska explains. “Certainly, if you have a foreign party that is taking a stake in a very large news organization that is viewed by a lot of viewers and has the ability to affect viewpoint, I think in the current geopolitical climate, the U.S. would certainly step in.”

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker / Getty Images

As for Zaslav, he sought to quickly exorcise the ghost of Zucker, with one insider calling his move to shut down CNN+, which had been Zucker’s brainchild, as “the biggest fuck-you to Jeff right away because he could have done a lot of things with CNN+ short of shutting it down.”

The regime changes and firings that have characterized CNN’s past few years also often led to tension. On the day Licht dismissed Lemon, following a series of on-air gaffes and a Variety exposé on the anchor’s history of misogyny, top executive Amy Entelis was scrambling to get the anchor on the phone to do damage control as Lemon began tweeting about his exit, say sources familiar with the chain of events. Sures, who reps Lemon, told Entelis to call the anchor’s new publicist — Gollust. Entelis had only recently sat in the room as Gollust was fired. This wasn’t the first time Lemon had prompted awkwardness among CNN’s brass: One knowledgeable source says Licht was prepared to fire Lemon the weekend after he declared that 50-year-old presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not “in her prime,” but reconsidered at the eleventh hour, a vacillation that left some employees angry and frustrated.

While Zucker and Raad were in fundraising mode, Licht was taking a beating in the press. Some former Zucker colleagues saw his hidden hand with regard to the latter. Tellingly, the most relentless critiques of Licht’s abbreviated reign originated with a single reporter at startup news outlet Puck. The reporter in question, Dylan Byers, is a former Zucker disciple at CNN who, by his own admission, wrote about Licht incessantly and even took a victory lap after his exit. “By now, Zaslav & Co. have realized — after more than 50 Puck articles and one devastating 15,000-word Atlantic profile — that Licht lacked the experience, acuity, and leadership skills,” he wrote.

In addition to blasting Licht, Byers’ columns raised eyebrows in media circles for their hyperbolic lionization of Zucker, calling his former boss a “generationally-talented entertainment programmer,” a “producing genius” and a “brash and beloved media executive,” but never mentioning that CNN was already in ratings freefall before Licht stepped in the door, or that Zucker was the one who greenlit the epic fail of CNN+, which cost more than $300 million to launch. 

Several former Zucker colleagues note the disconnect between Byers faulting Licht for a widely ridiculed Donald Trump town hall on May 10 but failing to mention Zucker’s decadeslong entanglement with the former president. (When Zucker was in charge of NBC, he greenlit “The Apprentice,” helping to transform Trump in the eyes of TV watchers from a struggling real estate developer to the embodiment of moguldom. Zucker also was widely criticized for CNN platforming Trump throughout the 2016 election cycle at the expense of other Republican candidates, as well as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.) “Zucker aided and abetted the rise of Donald Trump, plain and simple, no question about it. And it worked to his advantage,” says Lisa Napoli, author of “Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News.”

But Byers’ conflict of interest runs much deeper than a kinship with a former boss. As he was drubbing Licht and writing what insiders describe as Zucker fan fiction, Puck was simultaneously courting a new investor — none other than Zucker himself. (Buried in a New York Times story about Zucker is the startling detail that RedBird IMI has held discussions to invest in Puck.) Puck has a unique ownership structure, in which its top journalists have a stake in the company. In an added wrinkle, Zucker and Puck are both represented by publicist Risa Heller, who runs a boutique crisis communications firm whose clients have included Jared Kushner and disgraced former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell. Byers has never disclosed in his columns the Zucker-Puck investment talks, nor that his publication has the same PR strategist.

University of Oregon journalism professor Tim Gleason calls the setup “incestuous.” “The bottom line in these cases is transparency. Reporters and publications need to be transparent about their interests and the conflicts that may have some bearing on what they’re reporting,” Gleason says. “If you’re writing stories about someone and you have a past history with that individual or you have a financial interest in what that individual is doing, those are conflicts that need to be disclosed at the very least, if not taking you off the beat altogether.”

Chris Licht
Chris Licht / Getty Images for TIME

But Byers remained singularly obsessed, writing about Licht and CNN in 64 of the 127 stories he filed during Licht’s tenure.

“Dylan is the best media reporter there is, and I am thrilled and honored to call him my partner,” says Puck co-founder Jon Kelly.

By any objective measure, the Licht era was rocky, if not disastrous — from the much-derided Trump town hall to nosediving ratings. (At times, Newsmax eclipsed CNN in total primetime viewership.) Yet he dodged every bullet until the Atlantic piece, a startling takedown of his leadership style in which Licht’s every quote was presented to its worst advantage. The chattering classes devoured the story, but some within CNN saw it as a coordinated strike to impose maximum damage on the reeling news chief. Its origins remain murky, but sources maintain it was never pitched as a profile. In August 2022, just as Zucker embarked on his quest to raise enough money to buy CNN, Atlantic writer Tim Alberta met with former network communications executive Matt Dornic to secure Licht’s participation for a piece he planned to write, with or without the executive. It was presented as a broad story about restoring trust in the media, citing a Pew study that showed American faith in journalists was at an all-time low. Licht, the pitch went, would serve as a case study.

Much of the initial reaction to the piece focused on how much access Licht granted and how unfiltered he was. But those familiar with the Atlantic backstory say Alberta had just four meetings with Licht, about the same amount of facetime as Stewart received for his Times profile, which played the story straight. Those same sources say liberties were taken with the Atlantic piece, including that key off-the-record details and quotes were used on the record. On-the-record interviews that were neutral or painted Licht positively were not used. Licht’s trainer, Joe Maysonet, who was present for some of the Atlantic conversations, tells Variety that Licht’s comments were taken out of context multiple times.

“It makes me incensed,” Maysonet says of the finished product.

Two sources say the piece’s now-infamous quote from the gym in which Licht said, “Zucker couldn’t do this shit,” was something that Alberta said and that Licht merely repeated.

“Tim Alberta is a fastidious, ethical reporter, and in quoting Licht and others, he adhered to the ground rules established for each particular conversation. Licht’s words in the gym were his own, not Tim’s,” says an Atlantic spokesperson. “The Atlantic stands by Tim’s story and his reporting.”

At least four people were fired as a direct result of the story, including Licht, Dornic, CNN’s lead spokesperson Kris Coratti Kelly and Licht’s chief of staff Devan Cayea.

Adding to the layers of tangled loyalties, CNN COO David Leavy called former CNN media reporter Brian Stelter days before Licht was fired to gauge his opinion on whether Warner Bros. Discovery should cut Licht loose, even though Licht was the very person who axed Stelter. The former “Reliable Sources” anchor said yes. Stelter declined comment.

With Zuckerites cheering Licht’s demise, some on-air talent have sounded the alarm. MSNBC “Morning Joe” anchor Joe Scarborough blasted Zaslav while taking a swipe at the revisionist history about Zucker’s tenure.

“This idea that [CNN] was a ratings juggernaut when it just wasn’t before Chris walked through the door, that’s just … that’s just bad reporting,” Scarborough said on air. On a later episode of “Morning Joe,” he noted: “If I were a CEO, I would die before I let a magazine article determine who I was going to hire and fire.” Scarborough isn’t impartial here either. Licht helped create “Morning Joe,” which made the MSNBC host a star. 

As CNN CEO, Licht was in over his head. Unlike Zucker, who ran NBCUniversal before he joined the network in 2013, Licht had never run anything close to a sprawling international operation like CNN, with its workforce of nearly 4,000. Some say he deserved more time, noting that Zucker’s first year also was filled with hiccups. Others say Zaslav’s mandate to bring CNN back to the center may have been an impossible task.

“It’s incredibly challenging in the current media environment to be a down-the-middle network,” says Katie Couric, a CNN alum during the network’s early days who also worked with Zucker at “Today” and on her titular syndicated talk show. “As the slices of the pie get smaller and smaller, it’s more important than ever to have an engaged audience that may be more interested in affirmation than information. I think that’s why there’s so much commentary on cable. It would take a truly brilliant programmer to figure out how CNN could once again become a town square with different perspectives on important, complex issues. And even then, I’m not convinced people would even want to watch that in this hyper-partisan world. It’s a huge conundrum.” (Couric reportedly had a falling out with Zucker when he left her talk show after only one year to run CNN.)

In a statement following Licht’s departure, Zaslav said, “I have great respect for Chris, personally and professionally. The job of leading CNN was never going to be easy, especially at a time of huge disruption and transformation.”

In the short term, Licht will continue to take heat for the Trump town hall. But one of his recent moves will likely outlast those criticisms: landing Gayle King and Charles Barkley for a weekly primetime show scheduled to debut in the fall. On April 22, the pair filmed a CNN promotional video that never aired (and likely never will) in which they discussed how the show came together.

“The only answer for me is Chris Licht,” King said in the promo. “He came to me with the idea. We worked together before. That, to me, is why I’m at CNN.”

Whether or not Zaslav engages with Zucker or anyone on a potential CNN bid seems unlikely at the moment. But a new Zucker-induced problem has emerged for Zaslav in the form of Chris Cuomo’s $125 million arbitration demand against his former employer. That battle, which has been simmering since March 2022, is heating up. Back in December 2021, Zucker fired the former CNN anchor for helping his brother, Andrew, navigate the fallout from several sexual-misconduct allegations. Chris Cuomo’s legal team is now arguing that Zucker sacrificed his star anchor to curry favor with the incoming Discovery regime and secure a promotion. (During a CNBC interview, Malone had expressed disdain for the network’s partisan talking heads like Cuomo.) At the time, Zucker called Zaslav, who was the incoming CEO, to convey that Cuomo had been fired before the news broke, sources say. Cuomo’s lawyers plan to call Zaslav as a witness in the case. It’s yet another example of the Zucker way at CNN — unrelenting drama that others, eventually, are tasked with cleaning up, if they can.

Though Cuomo, who has found a new home at fledgling nonpartisan network NewsNation, would not comment on the record on the case itself, his arbitration demand offers a succinct assessment of his former boss Zucker: “CNN fostered a culture in which the network’s standards and practices were a constantly moving target, modified at CNN executives’ discretion as they saw fit. And that culture began at the top with Zucker.”

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