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Jeff Zucker and CNN Are Making a Strategic Mistake. Here’s What CNN Should Do Instead.

Yesterday at South by Southwest in Austin, TX, Jeff Zucker launched a broadside against Fox News and those who work there. His network has been going after Fox for some time. Brian Stelter, CNN’s news chief media correspondent has been going after Fox for a while and now the boss of bosses has really amped it up. But Zucker is now going on record that he thinks Fox does tremendous damage to the country.

This is a strategic mistake for several reasons and CNN needs to rethink this. To be sure, CNN is not wrong in Fox’s remarkably favorable treatment of the President, willingness to downplay stories the President may not like, and the increasingly blurred lines between news and editorial voices. But the attack is not a smart way for CNN to operate.

On one level, CNN has new problems with which it has not yet had to grapple. I have no doubt that Zucker has been wanting to say this for a while, but AT&T still had the Justice Department to worry about in its purchase of Warner. That matter has only just recently concluded. Evidence has come out, in fact, that President Trump wanted to obstruct the merger because of CNN’s coverage.

Now Jeff Zucker’s new bosses find themselves in a sticky situation.

The new head of Warner, John Stankey, has promised to leave things alone as AT&T takes over, but things are starting to fall apart as the merger is complete.

The head of Warner Brothers, if you missed it, has found himself in a sex scandal where it turns out the head of Warner Brothers himself could not even get a woman a role in a film. Someone has leaked text messages between the CEO and his mistress wherein it appears he was trading sex for bit parts on screen.

The highly successful CEO of HBO is stepping down. Richard Plepler is credited with almost single handedly overseeing a second “golden-age” of television.

HBO, under his watch, won more than 160 Emmys for series like “Game of Thrones,” “Big Little Lies” and “Veep.” From his office at the network’s Manhattan headquarters overlooking Bryant Park, Mr. Plepler, 60, had a strong hand in creating what is often referred to as television’s second golden age. He rose to prominence in a heyday for cable, and HBO’s Sunday night lineups showcased critically acclaimed hits like “The Sopranos,” “Sex and the City,” “Girls” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

And now the head of CNN, who is about to also helm AT&T’s new sports coverage, has gone public with his contempt of the most watched news network in America while failing to acknowledge his own role in making Donald Trump and his network’s wall to wall coverage of Trump during the Republican primaries — coverage that inarguably served as an unkind contribution to Trump 2016. Even Fox News did not cover Trump landing at campaign events as if Air Force One had just landed, but CNN did and did so under Zucker’s guidance.

While Fox will avoid that last bit of Zucker’s role in making Trump, Fox News’s coverage of the various scandals within AT&T is probably going to be amazing to watch. And they still have massive viewership and viewer trust. Fox News can arguably cause more problems for Zucker than Zucker can can cause for Fox and Fox does not even have to mention Zucker or CNN. It can give maximum coverage to the Warner Brothers sex scandal and point out CNN is not covering it as much. It can give massive coverage to any problems that arise with AT&T as well.

Do you really think Rupert Murdouch will not turn molehills into mountains at AT&T in a way they cannot reciprocate? And when CNN pushes back in the newsrooms they will be obligated to say they are owned by AT&T or they will open up a new attack from Fox. Murdouch fights assymetrically. CNN’s boss waging war with Fox will see Fox turn its viewers’ attention to AT&T as a whole.

But there are other problems with CNN’s coverage of Fox.

Yes, Brian Stelter and Jeff Zucker raise legitimate issues with Fox’s blurring of editorial and news sides. But there’s a huge problem they will not acknowledge even though everyone else knows it: CNN does it too.

This exchange between Steve Krakauer and Brian Stelter highlights the issue.

Even Piers Morgan, formerly of CNN, piled on.

To say that Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo do not blur editorial lines with news coverage is to not pay attention. That leaves CNN open to charges of hypocrisy. Their defense amounts to being only a little big pregnant. Their staff are forced to spend time claiming the situations are different and that difference mostly boils down to one network having the attention of the President and the other being jealous of it. CNN might not like it characterized that way, but that is how it will come across. Fox and conservative critics can also point to Obama Administration officials and those with ties to Hillary Clinton embedded within CNN. Or people can just examine the social media feeds of CNN employees, reporters on the campaign trail helping Kamala Harris try on outfits, etc.

To the extent CNN fights this fight, Fox does not have to win it, they just have to cast doubts of CNN’s objectivity. Sure, CNN can say this is a principled issue and not a fight, but does anyone really believe that in a ratings obsessed business?


There is an alternative for CNN, but it would take a bit of time and reprogramming of staff world-views to pull off. We are, after all, talking about a staff that was willing to leak disparagingly about CNN hiring Sarah Flores for a management role in a way that staff never complained about hiring Obama Administration personnel for objective reporting roles.

There are a lot of conservatives on the right, particularly Gen X and younger, who are tired of the talking head shout-fests on Fox and share Jeff Zucker’s programming concerns. But CNN has not provided them alternative programming. CNN has just offered up a variation on the threeway shout-fest, most often with a six-way shout-fest. Likewise, there are a lot of center-right people who do not care for Fox or even for the President, but perceive (fairly I think) that CNN has made everything Trump Contra Mundum. The result is coverage that focuses on Trump and his supporters versus Trump and his critics. It leaves out widely shared nuance not reflected in Twitter.

Get rid of the roundtables. Get rid of the split screens. And reduce the amount of coverage of Trump, his tweets, and the outrage. Not every tweet really is newsworthy. And those tweets, when newsworthy, are not worth the talking head panels that news programming has resorted to. CNN covers Washington more than it should and makes it matter more than it does.

Quick: name reporters for Fox News. I’ll wait. [Insert Jeopardy music]. This is Fox’s Achilles heel. Fox downplays its reporters for its anchors and talking heads. CNN should use this to its advantage. It invests more in reporters and so should spend more time reporting.

That reporting should be thorough and committed to equal time explanations. If Trump proposes something, rely on multiple reporters instead of multiple pundits to say the Trump Administration says X, Republicans say Y (remember X and Y are not the same in private usually), and Democrats say Z. Explain how policies will be implemented. But most of all, take Trump out of the equation as much as possible.

The pushback from the left, of course, is that Trump is everything. But reality is different from the perception. Most of the Trump Administration policies are implemented by people who do not actually care for and did not support President Trump. That internal dynamic can be reflected in the news without making every story about the President himself.1

Likewise, because CNN is more invested in actual reporters, report. Report outside Washington. People want to be informed. They want to be informed about what is happening in London, South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, etc. CNN has reporters there and around the world that Fox does not have. CNN spends a lot of time reporting on how Trump affects the world and very little time reporting on how the world affects the United States.

Lastly, incumbent in all of this, is CNN needs to exercise some humility. Editorially, as seen in this fight with Fox, CNN has taken a position that it is better than Fox, if not in ratings than in its behavior. But it is not really. CNN has been affected by the Age of Trump too. It does not realize it. It will not admit it. It is not as bad as MSNBC. It has some very solid, dependable, and reliable anchors. And it delivers the quality of news I much prefer. But it has become way too obsessed with not just the President, but being part of the pushback against the President. In the process, it has tripped up more than once in ways conservatives, even conservative critics of the Trump Presidency, can point to suggest CNN is not living up to the reputation it still thinks it has.

The biggest winner in all of this is, frankly, is NPR. I know plenty of people who have taken to getting their news there, including conservatives who acknowledge NPR’s own biases, because they are both tired of the talking heads as substitute for news and they are tired of Donald Trump living rent free in the heads of TV news networks.


1. This also, by the way, would require a behavior change for Jim Acosta. He has become a distraction. CNN, I think, actually loves the attention, but the attention CNN gets and loves is about Acosta standing up the President. He’s gone above and beyond that, however, into editorializing and showboating in a way that beclowns CNN’s own efforts at trying to be the objective grownup in the room. I spent a great deal of time defending Acosta, but I have a harder and harder time doing so. He is becoming the news and that is not good.

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