CNN is so much bigger than Jeff Zucker

The sudden loss of CNN executive Jeff Zucker has caused enormous turmoil internally and intense media coverage externally. There’s a lot being said on CNN right now that just doesn’t make sense. So I want to address that — and channel the feelings of the more than 100 staff members I’ve spoken with since Zucker’s shock resignation — by sharing a few observations.

Number one: When reporters join CNN, they often marvel at the size of the outfit.

CNN is so much bigger than it looks from the outside. It hit me when I joined The New York Times eight years ago. And I’ve heard the same sentiment from several new recruits over the past few months: “I had no idea,” a new reporter told me. “This place is huge.”

CNN employs more than 4,000 people worldwide. It has 39 offices and editorial operations. Its networks “are accessible to more than 2 billion people in more than 200 countries and territories,” the company says. And his digital business is number one in online news.

When talking with friends or students, I usually describe this in terms of new “muscles”. Some newsrooms start with more than others. And CNN can adapt like no other commercial newscast. The AP, Reuters and the BBC are in the same league in some respects, but they are in different sectors. CNN is unique on cable and online, but in ways the outside world rarely recognizes.

Imperfect but impressive

CNN is far from perfect. It will never be perfect, because nothing ever is. Journalists will always make mistakes, segments will always go off the rails, shows will always struggle to pick stories. Sometimes there will be too many panels full of experts, other times there will be too little analysis. Sometimes there will be too much group thinking and too little introspection.

But the place is still trying. Always pushing to be better. On Saturday, I must have been copied over 30 emails regarding the cover of Joe Rogan and Spotify. I’ve worked with several editors on anonymous research and phrasing and placement of specific paragraphs in a story. I emailed and texted with several anchors about the report to make sure we understood. More than a dozen voices in multiple cities contributed to the coverage and made it better. And that’s just a little snapshot of a story in a day.

Most of this work is invisible. But it is extremely important. CNN has a large number of reporters, producers, designers, editors, research librarians and experts from around the world. It is perfectly fair to say that some resources are underutilized or mismanaged. It’s perfectly fair to say that more Xs and fewer Ys should be on CNN’s screens. But the muscles? The muscles are awesome.

That’s why I pointed out, on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” show“, that CNN is so much bigger than anyone, even a larger-than-life leader like Zucker.

The ‘Reliable’ team returned to Wednesday and found that on the day Zucker was ousted, when staffers were burning text channels and Slack channels in disbelief, more than 135 correspondents were streaming live footage. in the whole world. Over 215 stories and nearly 90 original videos have been posted on the site. And the number of internal news alerts? Too many to count. This is CNN’s true raw product – not a goof on my part that goes viral on Twitter, not a rant from a guest that goes off on Fox.

Let me stress again, because I’m channeling many CNN staff here, that the raw product isn’t perfect. Ask ten CNN staffers and you’ll hear ten different complaints about behind-the-scenes inefficiencies. There is always a way to improve. But the actual flaws of the place are nothing like the imaginations of CNN’s most vocal critics. For example: trolls denigrate CNN’s ratings, but the network is in the top 10 on cable. Fans howl about specific commentators, but the brand is so much bigger than any pundit.

Global scale

People who say Zucker-era CNN lacked real journalism were clearly not watching CNN directly. My best guess is that they were watching talking heads and reading columnists complaining about CNN. And yes, I’m including John Malone in there.

The cable pioneer and key Discovery shareholder praised Fox and hit on CNN in an interview with CNBC last fall. He said he would like to see “CNN go back to the kind of journalism it started with, and have reporters, which would be unique and refreshing.” This wording — particularly the words “actually have reporters,” which implied that CNN currently doesn’t — was highly offensive to many staffers. I reported in Sunday’s “Reliable” that it also bothered Zucker. Malone’s comments fueled fears that Discovery could stifle CNN reporters and avoid speaking out about indecency and injustice.
The relevant question now is: will Malone’s views weigh on his mentee David Zaslav, who will lead Warner Bros. Discovery once the AT&T spin-off on WarnerMedia is finished? Veteran media analyst Ken Auletta told “Reliable” on Sunday that Zaslav disagreed with Malone, but also said, “I’d be a little nervous if I was on CNN, yeah.”

Do outsiders like Malone have ideas that could improve CNN as an institution? Very probably. Knowledgeable journalists are always open to constructive feedback and criticism. But when Malone praised Fox’s delineation between news and opinion, it rubbed a lot of CNN employees the wrong way, because Fox has next to no news muscle and doesn’t seem hardly worry about it. When the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban, Fox was not there. The network’s closest correspondent was 2,400 miles away in Israel. CNN, on the other hand, had several teams in Kabul. (Fox often doesn’t cover the news at all; he just complains about how other people cover the news.)

When I refer to CNN’s news “muscle”, that’s what I’m talking about: an international bureau with well-stocked employees and local language speakers and the instinct to follow the news wherever ‘it leads. CNN has that, but most foreigners don’t understand the global scale of the place. The same goes for national coverage; CNN has flexed so many of its muscles in recent years. Yet some believe CNN is defined only by the most provocative comments from its top-rated hosts. And many staff think that’s a problem.

Maybe CNN needs to do a better job of telling its own story. It’s not my job. But here’s what I know to be true: When the news is out, CNN knows what to do. When something horrible or wonderful happens in the world, the CNN machine kicks into high gear. And, because I study the grade spreadsheets every day, I also know this: the audience rushes. “The world is turning to CNN,” one executive remarked to me. This may sound hyperbolic or boastful, except it’s true.

So the direction of CNN will change, as it has done many times before. The shape of the place can change. Priorities and personalities can change. But CNN’s goal will not be. It can’t.

“Unforced error”

I opened Sunday “Reliable” outlining the reasons for Zucker’s withdrawal. I reported that he knew he violated WarnerMedia’s code of conduct for not disclosing his relationship with his subordinate Allison Gollus, but he did not expect to be fired.
I asked three outside voices – Mara Schiavocampo, Claire Atkinson and Joanne Lipman – to share their insights. “This was a direct error in every way by everyone involved,” Lipman said. You can listen to the show’s podcast here or read the transcript.

About Shelley Hales

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