Much has been made of CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker’s attempts to defend his network’s coverage of campaign 2016 last week at a post-election confab at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. Republican political operatives shouted down Zucker as he defended all the air time accorded to then-candidate Donald Trump and the comparatively little amount given to competing candidates.
“I have to respectfully push back on the campaign managers who spoke here today, because frankly, respectfully, I think that’s bull—-. Donald Trump was on CNN a lot,” Zucker said, refusing to back down. “That’s because we asked him to do interviews and he agreed to do them. We continuously asked the other candidates to come on and do interviews.”
Responded Sarah Isgur Flores, an aide to Carly Fiorina’s campaign: “I don’t remember getting invited to call in, though.” The Post’s Karen Tumulty pressed Zucker on the proclamations of many “nutjob surrogates” that polluted CNN’s airwaves.
Though the back-and-forth between the entire professional political corps and Zucker made for wonderful drama (listen here!), the responses from Zucker weren’t particularly new. He’d made many of the same arguments in a Harvard appearance in October. Those arguments can be shrink-wrapped as follows: We erred in showing too many live and unfiltered Trump rallies, but he was the front-runner — and front-runners get more attention than non-front-runners. If other campaigns want to complain, why didn’t they agree to come on air more often? And why are people so upset that we hired insider Trump supporters to defend Trump when we did the same thing on the Hillary Clinton side?
Now for his worst argument: “The irony of this whole thing: People think that we put up too many of his rallies, half the people think that … on his side he’s trashing me half the time and CNN — and CNN sucks. And my position on this is that we must be doing something right, because everybody is a little angry.” Herewith a standard of Beltway self-congratulation. If the Republicans and the Democrats are attacking me, I must be doing something right! Another possibility is that you’re doing everything wrong.
Yet here’s the thing: Zucker has thrust himself into the public square at least twice this fall to answer for his network’s journalism. Where were the heads of MSNBC and Fox News during the Harvard event? This blog would have appreciated a similar level of accountability falling on folks from those organizations, particularly Fox News. Consider that shows such as “Fox & Friends,” “The O’Reilly Factor” and “Hannity” broadcast, in their own special ways, coverage extremely favorable to Trump. As the campaign wore on, in fact, Trump retreated primarily to his touchstones on the No. 1 cable news network, while stiffing the interview requests of Zucker’s troops.
Nicco Mele, director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that Andy Lack, who oversees NBC News and MSNBC, had scheduling conflicts and couldn’t attend the event (the network offered another senior executive but the panel was full). As for Fox News, several of their officials were invited, though not as panel “participants.” Why was that? “The panel was just getting crowded and I felt like it was important to address cable news, fake news on social media, and investigative reporting,” responded Mele.
So whatever you feel about Zucker’s arguments, credit him for the scrutiny to which he subjected himself. TV news has too few moments like this one.
Updated to add parenthetical about NBC News/MSNBC offering another senior executive to participate on panel