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‘Huge nerves’ at CNN as CEO Chris Licht pressed about layoffs by anxious staffers

CNN CEO Chris Licht faced questions from tense employees Tuesday as the company prepares to make cost-cutting layoffs by early December.

At a town hall moderated by CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota, Licht addressed questions about his own credibility, – since he’d signaled earlier this summer that layoffs weren’t happening – the future of CNN’s primetime programming, and even how the network would cover a hypothetical Donald Trump presidential run that could launch as early as Tuesday night.

A CNN insider told Fox News Digital that the mood at the company is anxious, adding that Licht didn’t get into specifics about who would get laid off but did say that aspects of CNN not central to its “core mission” were on the chopping block. 

“There are huge nerves about that,” the insider said. “It wasn’t clear from that town hall who they’re going to fire. We’re waiting for answers on that.”

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The global media company has a large digital and television footprint that could see cuts in the coming weeks, and under Licht it’s already scaled back its original programming and documentaries. CNN has also continued to languish in the ratings under the former “Late Show” showrunner’s time at the helm.

The layoffs, Licht said, will be done by early December. It’s a long way from what he said in June, according to Puck’s Dylan Byers, when he remarked at a staff-wide event, “As it relates to CNN, there are no layoffs per se. A layoff is a downsizing, where you are given a target, and that is not happening at CNN.” Now, according to Byers, he’s been tasked by his boss David Zaslav to make another $100 million in cuts to CNN’s budget as part of a wider money-saving effort by parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.

While Licht wouldn’t get into specifics, the insider said it was likely that the list of staffers to be let go has already been finalized. They also said that Licht was essentially asked how he could be trusted again by company workers; he was not apologetic about his earlier words about layoffs but did say he honestly felt that was accurate at the time.

However, last month, he wrote a company-wide memo warning of “unsettling” changes that will affect “people, budgets, and projects.” 

“We have also begun to reduce or eliminate areas that aren’t core to our mission. All these moves are designed to keep CNN essential across platforms to ensure that wherever and however people get their news, they must have CNN,” Licht wrote. “There is a lot more to be done. I am writing to you today to say that over the next several weeks, that work will accelerate. There is widespread concern over the global economic outlook, and we must factor that risk into our long-term planning. All this together will mean noticeable change to this organization. That, by definition, is unsettling. These changes will not be easy because they will affect people, budgets, and projects.”

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To that end, the insider told Fox News Digital that Licht made a point of telling the staff on Tuesday that, “at this time,” there are no plans for future layoffs after the December cuts are made, suggesting things could always change as corporate America prepares for an economic downturn.

Another questioner noted to Licht that morale had never been lower in their 20 years with the company. It’s indeed been a tumultuous year for CNN, starting with Jeff Zucker’s stunning forced exit in February and Licht’s ascension under new parent company Warner Bros. Discovery. 

In 2022 alone, Licht oversaw the shutdown of short-lived streaming service CNN+, the ousters of liberal CNN mainstays Jeffrey Toobin, Brian Stelter and John Harwood, and the launch of its new AM program, “CNN This Morning.” Insiders have told Fox News Digital he’s not one to wait out contracts to make sweeping changes as he tries to put a more news-heavy stamp on the network.

At the town hall on Tuesday, he said CNN’s coverage of Trump would be a good test for its new outlook. Trump could announce Tuesday he’s making a third bid for the presidency, a long-expected move that would nevertheless send shockwaves through the political world after Republicans performed more poorly than expected in last week’s midterms. 

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CNN has been criticized by progressives for amplifying Trump too much in his first bid for the presidency in 2016; then-CNN President Zucker helped make Trump a TV star on “The Apprentice” in their NBC days in the 2000s. 

However, the relationship between the two rapidly devolved, and CNN and Trump became sharp mutual antagonists under Zucker’s leadership. Forcing out figures like Harwood and Stelter, who hardly bothered to hide their anti-Trump opinions while holding ostensibly non-partisan roles, was part of the new approach.

Left-wing anchor Don Lemon was reassigned from primetime to “CNN This Morning,” but Licht said he didn’t think a non-opinion show would work in Lemon’s now-empty primetime slot. 

Chris Cuomo, who was fired last year following an investigation of his misconduct around his brother’s sexual harassment scandal, and Lemon anchored the hours of 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. for years, leaving CNN with a huge hole in three of the network’s most significant hours.

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