CNN Battle: David Zazlav, Jeff Zucker Chris Licht and Backstabbing

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Jeff Zucker was breezing by way of the Faena Resort in Miami Seaside when he noticed David Zaslav throughout the room. The previous CNN chief was there on trip on March 31, whereas the present Warner Bros. Discovery CEO was available for the Saudi-backed FII Institute’s International Precedence Summit. As company 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 within the press, in keeping with sources aware of the dialog. Zucker insisted he would by no means deploy such a low-blow tactic. It was an odd declare on condition that, to that time, Licht had solely finished a single revealed profile with The New York Occasions’ James B. Stewart, wherein Zucker was by no means talked about.

Zaslav stopped him. As a substitute, he wished to know if Zucker was indulging in a unique “fantasy,” as Zaslav put it — to assemble a group of traders to attempt to purchase the community. Zucker vehemently denied that he had any want to take action. However sources inform Selection that the alternative is true, and that Zucker has spent the previous yr touring the globe to fulfill with potential companions in a bid for CNN.

Zucker and Zaslav’s energy struggles over the cable information community — some of the prestigious property within the WBD portfolio and in addition one of many greatest perennial complications for the mother or father firm — make clear the chaotic and roiling surroundings Zucker left behind after his 2022 ouster. The previous community chief, who was compelled out after failing to reveal a romantic relationship with a CNN subordinate and for committing moral breaches within the newsgathering course of, probably will fail in any bid to take again the community. However his battles with Zaslav and his behind-the-scenes makes an attempt to undermine Licht (whom Zaslav fired final month) are extra than simply energy performs from one of many media world’s most consequential egos. They counsel that Zucker sees a gap — nonetheless slender — and isn’t fearful about damaging CNN as he makes an attempt to ram his method by way of it. At stake is the way forward for CNN, arguably probably the most iconic and influential information model on the earth and one that may make or break a presidential candidate as a divided America heads into the 2024 election cycle.

Whereas Zaslav by no means took Zucker’s CNN overtures critically, the exiled chief apparently was severe. Sources say Zucker and his proxies have pitched a few of the richest individuals on the earth on a possible CNN play. Most of the particulars of his pursuit of CNN emerged in a confidential Warner Bros. Discovery investigation right into a prime CNN government — a Zucker loyalist who mysteriously exited the community in January.

“Any allegation or insinuation that Jeff has made any effort to buy CNN is unequivocally false,” says a spokeswoman for Zucker who denied that Zaslav and Zucker mentioned Licht on the Faena Resort. “He has by no means had any assembly or dialog about shopping for CNN with anybody.”

A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson says, “Warner Bros. Discovery is dedicated to CNN. It’s not on the market.” Licht declined repeated requests for remark for this story.

Kelsey Dake for Selection

After practically a decade operating the community, Zucker by no means may let go, say these in his orbit. The previous president and CEO of NBCUniversal took his place at CNN in 2013 — famously departing Katie Couric’s speak present after solely a yr. Whereas Zucker was community president, CNN flooded the zone with tales from the disappearance of Malaysia Airways Flight 370 to Carnival Cruise Line’s “poop cruise” to, finally, the rise of Donald Trump. CNN surged in viewership and profitability below the forty fifth president, and Zucker seemed like its mastermind. However these Resistance rankings finally dried up, and CNN lagged. Although Zucker was compelled to resign effectively earlier than 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 strong board member. Licht, a profession producer who’d by no means led a corporation of CNN’s measurement, was handed the not possible process of managing a politically impartial post-Zucker community.

Following a gentle drumbeat of destructive press about Licht that culminated with a devastating profile in The Atlantic, the CNN chief was ousted by Zaslav on June 7. Sources inside each WBD and CNN consider Zucker had been agitating behind the scenes to depose Licht. Those that have labored intently with Zucker prior to now and are aware of his media-savvy playbook declare that he orchestrated unflattering leaks about his successor to reporters.

“This has been an enormous dick swing between David Zaslav and Jeff Zucker, and Chris received performed proper in the course of it,” says one insider who has been aware of main current choices at CNN. “When all is alleged and finished, we’re going to search out out this entire factor was a giant sport, and the value of CNN goes to get pushed down.”

Zucker, whose CNN discovered its defining tone on the tumultuous 2016 marketing campaign path, thrives in chaos. And his tried energy seize comes at a time of profound instability for the trade, with Fox Information and MSNBC each going through questions on the way forward for their primetime lineups. However not even Fox’s $787 million settlement with Dominion Voting Techniques can examine to the drama that’s enveloped CNN throughout and after the one-year reign of Licht, who some insiders have described as a Julius Caesar determine surrounded by backstabbers.

That local weather of betrayal crystallized on Jan. 30, when Rani Raad, Zucker’s former prime lieutenant, abruptly left his perch as president of CNN Industrial Worldwide. Previous to Raad’s departure, questions swirled round his ongoing relationship with Zucker. In late 2022, WBD launched an inner investigation into Raad, who was suspected of collaborating with the now-outsider Zucker, say sources aware of the probe. (Either side are certain by a nondisclosure settlement.) Final month, Raad formally joined Zucker at private-equity agency RedBird IMI.

A Warner Bros. Discovery spokesperson declined to debate a confidential matter. Raad declined remark concerning the investigation.

For these aware of the Zucker-Raad entanglement, the information of his exit got here as no shock. One supply calls Raad’s conduct “a mutiny” — and a profitable one. One other supply says Raad used his place as a prime government to help Zucker find capital for a CNN pursuit and foment chaos inside the community. That the asset was devalued within the course of was yet one more break in Zucker’s favor.


Zucker’s quest to recapture the CNN throne started a couple of months after he was fired for trigger in February 2022 by then-parent firm WarnerMedia after a third-party investigation discovered that he engaged in an affair with Allison Gollust, a PR government. The investigation additionally discovered that Zucker and Gollust violated the corporate’s information requirements and practices through their cozy relationship with former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. (Gollust additionally was fired for trigger.) The Zucker scandal left a stain on the community that billed itself as “The Most Trusted Identify in Information,” simply as Zaslav was about to inherit CNN as a part of Discovery’s $43 billion acquisition of WarnerMedia from AT&T. Zaslav, lengthy enamored with Licht, named the previous showrunner of “The Late Present With Stephen Colbert” to the job three weeks later with out contemplating different candidates, a head-scratching transfer to some given the breadth of the task.

Licht was requested to show across the tarnished community and return it to its nonpartisan roots. It was a Herculean process, made harder by Zucker’s machinations. As early as August 2022, chatter about Zucker was shifting by way of enterprise channels. On Aug. 7, Allied Turkish Financial institution IBU Northern Cyprus despatched a letter of intent on firm stationery to the regulation agency Clifford Likelihood’s Istanbul workplace. The letter discusses Clifford Likelihood because the agency that represents Zucker in “the acquisition of CNN Worldwide” and “is legitimate for the spherical of negotiations with potential traders and is regulated by the hooked up confidential contract in accordance with the business laws of Turkey,” in keeping with sources who’ve seen the documentation.

Delcan & Co for Selection

“Jeff has by no means talked to any Turkish financial institution,” says a spokeswoman for Zucker. “He has no relationship with Clifford Likelihood.”

At yr’s finish, Zucker was sitting on a $1 billion struggle chest when Gerry Cardinale’s private-equity agency RedBird Capital Companions and Abu Dhabi-based Worldwide Media Investments tapped him to steer three way partnership RedBird IMI. (Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, a United Arab Emirates authorities minister, had put up 75% of the funds.) An announcement of Zucker’s position said that the manager would goal “large-scale” media and sports activities funding alternatives, with no specifics on what these could be.

Nonetheless, it will require much more than $1 billion to land a media asset akin to CNN. Thus, the courting of billionaires ensued, sources aware of the Raad probe say. On Nov. 20, Zucker and Cardinale met at a Formulation One race in Abu Dhabi, with Raad and Gollust available. Raad, nonetheless a CNN worker below Licht, was there to schmooze on behalf of the community, however was noticed in RedBird’s VIP space, assembly with Zucker and members of the oil-rich nation’s sovereign wealth fund. (Malone’s Liberty Media owns Formulation One.)

Across the identical time, Zucker approached Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs and Alex Soros about investing in his CNN bid, in keeping with those self same sources. “He has by no means mentioned shopping for CNN with Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs or Alex Soros. Jeff has by no means met or spoken to Alex Soros,” Zucker’s spokeswoman says. That denial not less than partially contradicts revealed stories that Zucker had beforehand approached Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, a few potential spinout of the community in late 2020. This time, Powell Jobs took the overtures critically sufficient that she contacted CNN anchor Fareed Zakaria to inquire about Zucker, despite the fact that she had begun offloading a few of her media investments lately. (She did maintain on to a majority stake in The Atlantic, the identical publication that sealed Licht’s destiny.) Powell Jobs declined remark. Zakaria didn’t reply to a request for remark.

In the meantime, Raad was concurrently working below 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, whereas nonetheless gathering a paycheck from CNN. (A rep for Raad says he “has by no means met Al Jazeera management, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, and he has by no means mentioned or engineered an method amongst any social gathering to accumulate CNN.”)

After Raad decamped CNN, the tempo of pitching accelerated. Sources say Zucker most just lately focused Mario Ferreira, who licenses the information community’s content material because the proprietor of CNN Portugal, about collaborating in a CNN acquisition. (A Zucker spokeswoman says he has by no means met with or spoken to Ferreira.) Individually, sources say Cardinale met with Paul Singer of Elliott Capital Administration, although a supply near the RedBird principal says the conversations have been about soccer group A.C. Milan and had nothing to do with CNN. Singer, a Republican mega-donor whose Hollywood investments have included CNN’s former mother or father firm AT&T, isn’t any stranger to controversy. He’s presently enmeshed in a conflict-of-interest scandal following revelations that Supreme Court docket Justice Samuel Alito took an unreported luxurious fishing journey with Singer and didn’t recuse himself from instances that concerned the billionaire.

David Zaslav
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This spring, Turkish Financial institution Group signed a nondisclosure settlement with worldwide mergers and acquisitions agency Pandion Companions a few potential deal for RedBird to accumulate CNN, say sources aware of the settlement. “RedBird and RedBird IMI have no idea TBG or Pandion Companions, haven’t signed any NDA with or round these events and have by no means expressed or mentioned an curiosity in shopping for CNN with anybody at any time,” says a consultant for RedBird and RedBird IMI. An alternate principle has emerged in banking circles: {that a} secret worldwide group of traders is utilizing Zucker and RedBird’s names with out their information to method Warner Bros. Discovery about shopping for CNN.

However sources aware of the Raad investigation say Zucker in current months approached Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who owned Chelsea Soccer Membership till 2022 however was compelled to unload it after being sanctioned by the West for his shut ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin amid the continued struggle in Ukraine. (“He has by no means met or spoken to Roman Abramovich,” the Zucker spokeswoman says.)

The group of international traders allegedly tied to a Zucker CNN gambit would probably spark intense scrutiny from the federal authorities. Nevena Simidjiyska, a associate at Fox Rothschild who makes a speciality of regulatory regulation, says the Treasury Division’s Committee on International Funding in the US, which determines the impact of any such transactions on U.S. nationwide safety, may stop an funding of this type. 

“‘Nationwide safety’ just isn’t outlined below CFIUS, however the entire objective of this [committee] is to make sure that there aren’t any nationwide safety implications,” Simidjiyska explains. “Definitely, in case you have a international social gathering that’s taking a stake in a really giant information group that’s considered by loads of viewers and has the power to have an effect on viewpoint, I feel within the present geopolitical local weather, the U.S. will surely step in.”

 Even when a CNN bid backed by international traders managed to go regulatory hurdles, it will obtain public backlash. Contemplate the proposed LIV-PGA merger, which might see the Saudis controlling a serious U.S. sport. The PGA pales as compared with CNN by way of cultural affect, but information of the deal generated outcry from gamers and followers alike. Wall Avenue analyst Hal Vogel says Zaslav wouldn’t probably wade into such controversial waters, regardless of the monetary headwinds WBD faces.

“CNN isn’t on the market, however it’s on the market on the proper value,” he says. “Zaslav nonetheless has a $40-plus-billion-dollar debt stage that places strain on him to eliminate stuff. And so, CNN can be within the combine. However Emirates cash could possibly be the place you draw the road. Any international entity seeking to spend money on CNN isn’t shopping for it for profitability. They’re shopping for it for affect.”

Contained in the halls of CNN, the specter of Zucker hovered lengthy after his ouster. Zucker buddies like Don Lemon have been suspicious of the Zaslav regime and the brand new overlord’s want to push CNN to the political middle. And that stress made Licht unpopular internally and within the broader trade. He was branded aloof by the press, whereas brokers — significantly UTA’s Jay Sures, who represents a few of CNN’s greatest stars, together with Lemon — bristled as a result of he didn’t play ball with them on expertise offers.

Jeff Zucker
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As for Zaslav, he sought to rapidly exorcise the ghost of Zucker, with one insider calling his transfer to close down CNN+, which had been Zucker’s brainchild, as “the largest fuck-you to Jeff straight away as a result of he may have finished loads of issues with CNN+ wanting shutting it down.”

The regime adjustments and firings which have characterised CNN’s previous few years additionally usually led to stress. On the day Licht dismissed Lemon, following a collection of on-air gaffes and a Selection exposé on the anchor’s historical past of misogyny, prime government Amy Entelis was scrambling to get the anchor on the telephone to do harm management as Lemon started tweeting about his exit, say sources aware of the chain of occasions. Sures, who reps Lemon, informed Entelis to name the anchor’s new publicist — Gollust. Entelis had solely just lately sat within the room as Gollust was fired. This wasn’t the primary time Lemon had prompted awkwardness amongst CNN’s brass: One educated supply says Licht was ready to fireplace Lemon the weekend after he declared that 50-year-old presidential candidate Nikki Haley was not “in her prime,” however reconsidered on the eleventh hour, a vacillation that left some workers offended and annoyed.


Whereas Zucker and Raad have been in fundraising mode, Licht was taking a beating within the press. Some former Zucker colleagues noticed his hidden hand with regard to the latter. Tellingly, probably the most relentless critiques of Licht’s abbreviated reign originated with a single reporter at startup information outlet Puck. The reporter in query, Dylan Byers, is a former Zucker disciple at CNN who, by his personal admission, wrote about Licht incessantly and even took a victory lap after his exit. “By now, Zaslav & Co. have realized — after greater than 50 Puck articles and one devastating 15,000-word Atlantic profile — that Licht lacked the expertise, acuity, and management abilities,” he wrote.

Along with blasting Licht, Byers’ columns raised eyebrows in media circles for his or her hyperbolic lionization of Zucker, calling his former boss a “generationally-talented leisure programmer,” a “producing genius” and a “brash and beloved media government,” however by no means mentioning that CNN was already in rankings freefall earlier than Licht stepped within the door, or that Zucker was the one who greenlit the epic fail of CNN+, which value greater than $300 million to launch. 

A number of former Zucker colleagues word the disconnect between Byers faulting Licht for a broadly ridiculed Donald Trump city corridor on Could 10 however failing to say Zucker’s decadeslong entanglement with the previous president. (When Zucker was in command of NBC, he greenlit “The Apprentice,” serving to
to remodel Trump within the eyes of TV watchers from a struggling actual property developer to the embodiment of moguldom. Zucker additionally was broadly criticized for CNN platforming Trump all through the 2016 election cycle on the expense of different Republican candidates, in addition to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.) “Zucker aided and abetted the rise of Donald Trump, plain and easy, no query about it. And it labored to his benefit,” says Lisa Napoli, writer of “Up All Evening: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Delivery of 24-Hour Information.”

However Byers’ battle of curiosity runs a lot deeper than a kinship with a former boss. As he was drubbing Licht and writing what insiders describe as Zucker fan fiction, Puck was concurrently courting a brand new investor — none aside from Zucker himself. (Buried in a New York Occasions story about Zucker is the startling element that RedBird IMI has held discussions to spend money on Puck.) Puck has a singular possession construction, wherein its prime journalists have a stake within the firm. In an added wrinkle, Zucker and Puck are each represented by publicist Risa Heller, who runs a boutique disaster communications agency whose purchasers have included Jared Kushner and disgraced former NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell. Byers has by no means disclosed in his columns the Zucker-Puck funding talks, nor that his publication has the identical PR strategist.

College of Oregon journalism professor Tim Gleason calls the setup “incestuous.” “The underside line in these instances is transparency. Reporters and publications must be clear about their pursuits and the conflicts that will have some bearing on what they’re reporting,” Gleason says. “In case you’re writing tales about somebody and you’ve got a previous historical past with that particular person or you may have a monetary curiosity in what that particular person is doing, these are conflicts that must be disclosed on the very least, if not taking you off the beat altogether.”

Chris Licht
Getty Photos for TIME

However Byers remained singularly obsessed, writing about Licht and CNN in 64 of the 127 tales he filed throughout Licht’s tenure.

“Dylan is the most effective media reporter there’s, and I’m thrilled and honored to name him my associate,” says Puck co-founder Jon Kelly.

By any goal measure, the Licht period was rocky, if not disastrous — from the much-derided Trump city corridor to nosediving rankings. (At occasions, Newsmax eclipsed CNN in whole primetime viewership.) But he dodged each bullet till the Atlantic piece, a startling takedown of his management model wherein Licht’s each quote was introduced to its worst benefit. The chattering courses devoured the story, however some inside CNN noticed it as a coordinated strike to impose most harm on the reeling information chief. Its origins stay murky, however sources preserve it was by no means pitched as a profile. In August 2022, simply as Zucker launched into his quest to lift sufficient cash to purchase CNN, Atlantic author Tim Alberta met with former community communications government Matt Dornic to safe Licht’s participation for a chunk he deliberate to put in writing, with or with out the manager. It was introduced as a broad story about restoring belief within the media, citing a Pew research that confirmed American religion in journalists was at an all-time low. Licht, the pitch went, would function a case research.

A lot of the preliminary response to the piece centered on how a lot entry Licht granted and the way unfiltered he was. However these aware of the Atlantic backstory say Alberta had simply 4 conferences with Licht, about the identical quantity of facetime as Stewart acquired for his Occasions profile, which performed the story straight. Those self same sources say liberties have been taken with the Atlantic piece, together with that key off-the-record particulars and quotes have been used on the report. On-the-record interviews that have been impartial or painted Licht positively weren’t used. Licht’s coach, Joe Maysonet, who was current for a few of the Atlantic conversations, tells Selection that Licht’s feedback have been taken out of context a number of occasions.

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

Two sources say the piece’s now-infamous quote from the health club wherein Licht stated, “Zucker couldn’t do that shit,” was one thing that Alberta stated and that Licht merely repeated.

“Tim Alberta is a fastidious, moral reporter, and in quoting Licht and others, he adhered to the bottom guidelines established for every specific dialog. Licht’s phrases within the health club have been his personal, not Tim’s,” says an Atlantic spokesperson. “The Atlantic stands by Tim’s story and his reporting.”

At the very least 4 individuals have been fired as a direct results of the story, together with Licht, Dornic, CNN’s lead spokesperson Kris Coratti Kelly and Licht’s chief of workers Devan Cayea.

Including to the layers of tangled loyalties, CNN COO David Leavy referred to as former CNN media reporter Brian Stelter days earlier than Licht was fired to gauge his opinion on whether or not Warner Bros. Discovery ought to lower Licht free, despite the fact that Licht was the very one who axed Stelter. The previous “Dependable Sources” anchor stated sure. Stelter declined remark.

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

“This concept that [CNN] was a rankings juggernaut when it simply wasn’t earlier than Chris walked by way of the door, that’s simply … that’s simply dangerous reporting,” Scarborough stated on air. On a later episode of “Morning Joe,” he famous: “If I have been a CEO, I’d die earlier than I let {a magazine} article decide who I used to be going to rent and hearth.” Scarborough isn’t neutral right here both. Licht helped create “Morning Joe,” which made the MSNBC host a star. 

As CNN CEO, Licht was in over his head. Not like Zucker, who ran NBCUniversal earlier than he joined the community in 2013, Licht had by no means run something near a sprawling worldwide operation like CNN, with its workforce of practically 4,000. Some say he deserved extra time, noting that Zucker’s first yr additionally was crammed with hiccups. Others say Zaslav’s mandate to deliver CNN again to the middle could have been an not possible process.

“It’s extremely difficult within the present media surroundings to be a down-the-middle community,” says Katie Couric, a CNN alum in the course of the community’s early days who additionally labored with Zucker at “In the present day” and on her titular syndicated speak present. “Because the slices of the pie get smaller and smaller, it’s extra essential than ever to have an engaged viewers that could be extra curious about affirmation than info. I feel that’s why there’s a lot commentary on cable. It could take a really sensible programmer to determine how CNN may as soon as once more change into a city sq. with completely different views on essential, advanced points. And even then, I’m not satisfied individuals would even need to watch that on this hyper-partisan world. It’s an enormous conundrum.” (Couric reportedly had a falling out with Zucker when he left her speak present after just one yr to run CNN.)

In an announcement following Licht’s departure, Zaslav stated, “I’ve nice respect for Chris, personally and professionally. The job of main CNN was by no means going to be simple, particularly at a time of giant disruption and transformation.”

Within the quick time period, Licht will proceed to take warmth for the Trump city corridor. However one in all his current strikes will probably outlast these criticisms: touchdown Gayle King and Charles Barkley for a weekly primetime present scheduled to debut within the fall. On April 22, the pair filmed a CNN promotional video that by no means aired (and certain by no means will) wherein they mentioned how the present got here collectively.

“The one reply for me is Chris Licht,” King stated within the promo. “He got here to me with the thought. We labored collectively earlier than. That, to me, is why I’m at CNN.”

Whether or not or not Zaslav engages with Zucker or anybody on a possible CNN bid appears unlikely in the mean time. However a brand new Zucker-induced drawback has emerged for Zaslav within the type of Chris Cuomo’s $125 million arbitration demand towards his former employer. That battle, which has been simmering since March 2022, is heating up. Again in December 2021, Zucker fired the previous CNN anchor for serving to his brother, Andrew, navigate the fallout from a number of sexual-misconduct allegations. Chris Cuomo’s authorized group is now arguing that Zucker sacrificed his star anchor to curry favor with the incoming Discovery regime and safe a promotion. (Throughout a CNBC interview, Malone had expressed disdain for the community’s partisan speaking heads like Cuomo.) On the time, Zucker referred to as Zaslav, who was the incoming CEO, to convey that Cuomo had been fired earlier than the information broke, sources say. Cuomo’s legal professionals plan to name Zaslav as a witness within the case. It’s yet one more instance of the Zucker method at CNN — unrelenting drama that others, finally, are tasked with cleansing up, if they’ll.

Although Cuomo, who has discovered a brand new house at fledgling nonpartisan community NewsNation, wouldn’t touch upon the report on the case itself, his arbitration demand provides a succinct evaluation of his former boss Zucker: “CNN fostered a tradition wherein the community’s requirements and practices have been a continually shifting goal, modified at CNN executives’ discretion as they noticed match. And that tradition started on the prime with Zucker.”

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