Warner Bros. Discovery CEO Zaslav backs CNN chief Licht amid anger over Trump town hall

David Zaslav

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Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav supported CNN CEO Chris Licht during an investor conference Thursday as tension at the network rises over the decision to air a live Donald Trump town hall packed with his supporters.

Zaslav said Licht “is working really hard” to improve CNN’s brand and image, citing a recent YouGov poll that said trust in CNN has improved by 11 percentage points in the past year. For context, trust in Republican-leaning Fox News improved 17 points and trust in Democratic-leaning MSNBC improved 16 points in the same period. Trust in CBS, ABC and NBC all improved by more than CNN, as well.

Zaslav emphasized CNN’s desire for more balance on the network, citing a common refrain that he wants to ensure CNN isn’t an “advocacy network.”

“We need to show both sides of every issue,” Zaslav said.

Zaslav continues to be supportive of CNN’s decision to host the Trump town hall, according to a person familiar with his thinking. Trump is leading early polls to win the 2024 Republican nomination for president. Zaslav told CNBC earlier this month Trump, who continues to falsely claim he was the victim of election fraud in the 2020, should absolutely appear on CNN.

“He’s the frontrunner — he has to be on our network,” Zaslav said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” “We’re happy he’s coming on our network.”

Amanpour slams ‘bothsidesism’

His comments came a day after veteran CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour publicly challenged the notion of covering “both sides” of the political spectrum if both sides weren’t factual. Amanpour spoke Wednesday at Columbia Journalism School’s commencement.

“Be truthful, but not neutral,” Amanpour told the graduates. She said the phrase was “her mantra.”

“Bothsidesism is not always objectivity. It does not get you to the truth. Drawing false moral or factual equivalence is neither objective or truthful. Objectivity is our golden rule, and it is in weighing all the sides and hearing all the evidence, hearing everyone and reporting everything, but not rushing to equate them when there is no equating.”

Amanpour said she met with Licht this week to convey her disappointment with airing a Trump town hall in the format in which it happened. She said Licht told her that “the execution was lacking a little,” as CNBC reported earlier this week. Amanpour noted the live audience should not have been allowed to cheer Trump’s every sentence, calling the behavior “appalling.”

At one point, Trump called town hall host Kaitlan Collins a “nasty person.” Amanpour said she would have dropped the microphone and walked out if he’d done that to her.

Amanpour said airing a taped Trump interview would have been a better solution, as it would have allowed CNN to better fight off Trump’s “disinformation and propaganda machine.” Trump is facing multiple criminal investigations and was found liable earlier this month for sexually abusing and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll. Trump has denied Carroll’s accusations. He was also indicted in New York for allegedly falsifying business records.

Amanpour is the first significant CNN journalist to publicly criticize Licht and Zaslav’s decision to air the town hall. Several of her colleagues jumped to support her comments on Twitter, showcasing an undercurrent of dissent within the CNN ranks.

“Speaking truth to power is a fundamental part of our job but to speak truth to the power that signs your checks? ⁦@amanpour⁩ showing everyone how it’s done,” tweeted Nima Elbagir, CNN’s chief international investigative correspondent.

CNN anchor Sara Sidner tweeted “she’s a real one” about Amanpour, which CNN correspondent Erica Hill echoed.

CNN Hong Kong anchor Kristie Lu Stout said Amanpour delivered “a masterclass in journalism.”

Falling ratings, rising discontent

Licht has inherited a CNN employee base largely put in place by former chief Jeff Zucker and his predecessors. Zucker was popular as a leader with many current staff members and led the network in a hands-on style that Licht has purposefully eschewed.

Zaslav’s mission with CNN has been to shed its “left-leaning” image to a more neutral brand, he reiterated Thursday. He touted the amount of Republicans CNN has interviewed recently in his comments Thursday.

Still, the changes aren’t helping CNN’s ratings. The network’s overall audience trailed not only Fox and MSNBC but also the much smaller conservative channel Newsmax on Tuesday in the 7 p.m. ET and 8 p.m. ET hours.

CNN’s profit fell below $1 billion last year, The New York Times reported, marking a six-year low. Slumping ratings won’t help its advertising revenue this year. Warner Bros. Discovery held its upfront presentation for ad buyers this week. Licht spoke at the event.

While the business struggles, Zaslav’s comments about CNN being more politically down the middle, especially when it comes to Trump, have irritated journalists who don’t equate fighting lies with partisanship.

It’s unclear whether CNN staff members’ show of discontent with Licht and Zaslav’s recent decision making will amount to anything other than public grousing.

But as the network struggles with falling ratings and millions of Americans cancelling traditional TV each year, which eat away at CNN’s revenue and profit, Zaslav may have an unwanted distraction on his hands that may only get worse as the U.S. edges closer to the 2024 presidential election.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of NBC, MSNBC and CNBC.

WATCH: CNBC’s full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav

Watch CNBC's full interview with Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav

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