CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker (Danny Moloshok/Reuters)
Media critic

Dumping on the decisions of your predecessors isn’t classic CEO-ish behavior. Yet there was CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, telling the Wall Street Journal, “I think it was a legitimate criticism of CNN that it was a little too liberal. We have added many more middle-of-the-road conservative voices to an already strong stable of liberal voices. And I think that we are a much more-balanced network and, as a result, a much more inviting network to a segment of the audience that might not have otherwise been willing to come here.”

A much “more-balanced network,” huh? Note that Zucker didn’t say that the introduction of additional conservative voices made for a “more fair and balanced network.” Because that’s the target here: Zucker wants the expansive audience of the Fox News Channel. This statement, in other words, was an iteration of executive savvy — an attempt to position CNN for growth. And not the result of an ombudsperson’s earnest examination of past CNN programming tilt.

Just look at the breakdowns. The graph below depicting the ideological distribution of the Fox News audience comes from a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center:

Behold the large share of conservative and “mixed” groups.

Now behold the same graph for CNN:

As Pew notes, conservatives are “somewhat underrepresented” in the CNN audience profile. So: Any enterprising CNN chief would want to claim a sliver of that big, rightward-leaning chunk of the Fox News audience — a loyal group that has kept Fox News at the top of the cable-news ratings for a decade and a half. Seeking those viewers hasn’t required a rocket-science strategy at CNN: Zucker, as he himself noted, has hired more people who agree with them. Heck, the network has brought on two political commentators loyal to Donald Trump — Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany. Other additions include former Republican National Committee spokesman Doug Heye, former Ted Cruz staffer Amanda Carpenter and former MSNBC commentator S.E. Cupp. One result of the hiring spree is that in primary-night panel discussions, prominent candidates on the GOP side have had paid CNN commentators defending their positions. For example, political commentator Ana Navarro supported Jeb Bush; Trump has his two CNNers; Cruz has Carpenter.

All that said, one of Zucker’s biggest hires was Chris Cuomo, he of the liberal establishment Cuomo family. Though Cuomo presses all comers on CNN’s “New Day” program, he’s not the fellow that most folks would ID as a “middle-of-the-road conservative voice.” The point here is that some of Zucker’s chatter about commentators is a bit spinny.

And it doesn’t impress Fox News, either. Michael Clemente, former executive vice president of news and editorial at Fox News (now overseeing a new specials unit), told the Erik Wemple Blog in March that CNN has “actually tasted, after 20 or something years of watching us, what it’s like to have some conservatives or independents or center-right people on air and, ‘Wow, surprise!’ People watch.” A Fox News rep zipped this statement today: “It only took them 35 years to realize there’s actually another point of view in this country.”

All the chatter about commentator viewpoints may well miss the point. CNN’s hyperaggressive commitment to hosting debates and town-hall interviews goes a long way to explaining why its prime-time 25-to-54 demographic audience has doubled since the beginning of 2016, a metric noted by the Wall Street Journal. As this blog reported, CNN’s appeal to both the RNC and the Democratic National Committee has enabled it to outpace its rivals on the debate front, and it has gone nuts on the town halls, too. Along with ratings have come expenses — the network has spent around $40 million more than its 2012 outlays on campaign coverage.

This whole story will need a durability check in about a year. That’s because these are extraordinary times: This morning on CNN, a pair of Indiana activists expressed satisfaction that the primary in their state actually mattered. The extended campaigns on both sides of the American political divide, indeed, have propelled CNN, giving the network opportunity after opportunity in which to trot out its ever-expanding roster of spectrum-spanning political commentators. Yet what happens on Nov. 9? Barring a recount drama, there’ll be far less to politically commentate on, no candidates to rope into a presidential debate, and diminished opportunities for town halls. Meanwhile, Fox News will have its programming warhorses, provided that they renew their contracts.

Time, too, will allow for a more levelheaded assessment of the fissures in conservative America and how they affect the cable-news wars. Though a certain amount of infighting in primary season is common, the 2016 cycle has seen campaign-trail fights leach into big-time media fights. Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, has recently feuded with Fox News host Sean Hannity for allegedly favoring Trump. Trump publicly repudiated Fox News on repeated occasions. “I will say CNN treats me much better than Fox does,” said Trump in an interview with Fox News. Of course, Trump is a proven liar.