David Zaslav and Friendships Damaged as a Result of Overseeing CNN

By Mark Mwachiro 

The New York Times published a report today concerning the dynamic between Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav and former CNN chiefs Jeff Zucker and Chris Licht, along with former CNN on-air personalities such as Don Lemon and Brian Stelter (who is also the founder of TVNewser).

Their account of Zaslav’s interactions with leading figures at CNN is based on interviews with more than a dozen people with knowledge of the network’s inner workings, the Times says.

Zaslav was once close with all these figures. However, after taking over as the head of CNN’s parent company in 2022, his positive relationships with each of them would soon fall by the wayside as oversight of the news organization would take precedence over any personal bond.

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A snippet of some the stories uncovered in the NYT story.

Zaslav and Jeff Zucker:

When the merger between Discovery and the then WarnerMedia was initially announced, it looked like Zucker’s fate was safe at the media organization, as he and Zaslav were friends, with Zucker even describing him as of his best friends.

That was not the case, as Zaslav was looking to replace him even before he started running WBD. Zaslav had already begun talking to Licht about running CNN while Zucker was still in charge of CNN.

Zaslav, luckily, avoided a confrontation when Zucker was pushed out by the former WarnerMedia management because of an inappropriate relationship with a fellow CNN executive.

Zucker did not hear from Zaslav after his ouster, and the two only talked after a coincidental stay at a Miami hotel a year later. Zucker said he was disappointed that of all his friends, the only one who wasn’t there for him was Zaslav. They agreed to move on, “but later, in a call with Mr. Licht after the meeting, Mr. Zaslav belittled Mr. Zucker as a weakling who had tears in his eyes, several people with knowledge of the conversation said. ‘Can you believe this?’ Mr. Zaslav asked, injecting an expletive.”

According to the Times, the two no longer speak.

Zaslav and Brian Stelter:

Stelter and Zaslav regularly met for breakfasts and lunches, the Times reports. Zaslav acknowledged the heat he received after Licht axed Stelter’s Reliable Sources Sunday show, a decision that Licht made on his own.

“Stelter stepped off the set after his final show, Mr. Zaslav called him and said he was “taking a lot of heat” for the decision. Mr. Stelter put the call on speakerphone. “Buddy, you’re a great talent,” Mr. Zaslav said and suggested that they might work together again, according to three people familiar with the exchange.”

Zaslav and Don Lemon:

Lemon and Zaslav frequently socialized in New York City and the Hamptons. Lemon and Stelter had been identified as those within CNN who were considered partisan, and Licht, in trying to protect Lemon, moved him from his cushy nighttime show to CNN This Morning.

“Mr. Lemon wasn’t happy about the morning show, but he still considered Mr. Zaslav his friend and protector, according to two people aware of his thinking….Mr. Lemon often called and texted Mr. Zaslav and felt free to criticize Mr. Licht, telling Mr. Zaslav that Mr. Licht was losing the confidence of CNN’s newsroom.”

As a result of his on-air gaffe about GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, Lemon was on thin ice at CNN.

“By early March, Mr. Zaslav had promised Warner Bros. Discovery board members that Mr. Lemon would be off the morning show before Memorial Day. Mr. Licht tried to find a job for Mr. Lemon at another Warner Bros. Discovery TV network, multiple people said. But after continuing pressure from Mr. Zaslav, Mr. Licht announced on April 24 that CNN and Mr. Lemon had “parted ways.”

Lemon met with Zaslav for breakfast sometime later after his firing, with Zaslav apologizing for how things had transpired, “Mr. Zaslav said he was sorry for the way Mr. Lemon had been treated and blamed Mr. Licht for the outcome, according to three people familiar with their talk. While the discussion was cordial, the two no longer socialize.”

Zaslav and Chris Licht:

As mentioned earlier, Zaslav had initially reached out to Licht, asking him to run the news network while Zucker was still in charge. After Zucker’s ouster, Licht accepted the position, with Zaslav pointing out, “We’ve been friends for 15 years. We’re not friends anymore. You work for me.”

Licht’s many missteps have been well documented, but the mysterious appointing and un-appointing of Laura Coates to the 11 p.m. ET slot had not been previously reported on.

“Although the decision was up to Mr. Licht, who defended Ms. Coates, the clear implication was that she didn’t measure up. When Mr. Licht told his staff that Ms. Coates would not be the 11 p.m. anchor after all, some suspected the decision was Mr. Zaslav’s. But during the meeting, Mr. Licht attributed the decision to budget constraints.”

Coates would eventually assume the 11 p.m. slot, which finally debuted in October.

As a result of the debacle that was Licht’s The Atlantic profile, Zaslav warned him that he had six months to fix the narrative, but that lasted only six days as Zaslav summoned Licht “for an early-morning walk in Central Park and broke the bad news, acknowledging that both he and Mr. Licht had made mistakes over the previous year.”

Thompson would soon after be named the next leader of CNN.

The New York Times profile ended by noting that Zaslav and Licht have not been friends since Licht’s dismissal.

In a statement to the Times, a Warner Bros. Discovery spokesman didn’t address Zaslav’s relationship with the former CNN staffers. The spokesman said, “The network continues to make meaningful strides in transforming itself for the future under the leadership of new chairman and C.E.O., Mark Thompson.”

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