After a long night covering the San Bernardino mass shooting, CNN Worldwide chief Jeff Zucker sat down with BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Thursday morning for a Paley Center for Media event. The exec said he knew that for many news of the massacre first reached them through social media channels. “We’re OK with that. We know that you’re going to come to CNN to know if it’s true,” he said.
Zucker kept close tabs on the developments Wednesday, telling the audience that the network had confirmed the suspect’s name around 8pm but didn’t report it until 11:45pm because it wanted to make sure it was fleshed out entirely. And the wait didn’t matter. “Our audience levels dominated everyone else on TV… It’s not like people weren’t still coming to us. They came to us because they knew when we reported it, we would be right.”
Some may remember that CNN and other media outlets had incorrectly reported that a suspect had been arrested in the Boston Marathon bombing shortly after Zucker came on board. “Lots of other people had it wrong, but everyone focused on CNN. It was after that that I made it clear to everybody that I didn’t care if CNN was first.” He’s also made it a mission to ease off of the use of the “Breaking News” banner, which has becoming ubiquitous across many news outlets. “At some point it loses credibility,” he said. “I’m sure we still do it more than we should, but I’m sure we do it less than others” who don’t think it’s a problem.
Smith grilled the CNN chief on whether Donald Trump, who Zucker greenlit as the star of “The Apprentice” when he was at NBC Entertainment, gets too much time on CNN. But the BuzzFeed editor’s question was a bit more pointed: “Given the bigoted, lying campaign he’s been running, do you have any regrets about the role you’ve played in his career?”
“I don’t think it’s our role to editorialize the way you are in asking me your questions,” Zucker said. “I don’t think it’s our role to take a point of view. I think it’s our role to report what he says, what he does, to fact check what he says and what he does. It’s not our role to build up or take down a campaign.” As for Trump’s demand that CNN donate $5mln to charity in return for his appearance in the next debate, Zucker said that wasn’t happening. “We do not pay candidates to appear at debates,” he said.
The hour-long conversation delved into whether CNN would over consider unbundling and going over-the-top, like sibling HBO. “Right now, the ecosystem in which CNN exists works incredibly well,” Zucker said, then adding that CNN can “exist in whatever the world becomes.”
As for the race for first between cable news nets, Zucker sounded OK with its number 2 position in linear ratings, behind Fox News. “We are closer to Fox than we have been in 11 years,” he said, reminding the audience of CNN’s strong performance in international and digital. Still, he would like to take that crown from Fox at some point. “I believe we can get there. I don’t know when.”