A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
The sudden loss of CNN’s leader, Jeff Zucker, has caused tremendous turmoil internally and intensive news coverage externally. There is a lot being said about CNN right now that simply doesn’t make sense. So I want to address that – and channel the feelings of the 100+ staffers who I have spoken with since Zucker’s shocking resignation – by sharing some observations.
First: When journalists join CNN, they often marvel at the sheer size of the outfit.
CNN is so much bigger than it appears from the outside. It hit me when I joined eight years ago from The New York Times. And I have heard the same sentiment from several new hires in the past few months: “I had no idea,” one new reporter said to me. “This place is massive.”
CNN employs more than 4,000 people around the world. It has 39 bureaus and editorial operations. Its networks “are available to more than 2 billion people in more than 200 countries and territories,” the company says. And its digital operations are number one in online news.
When talking with friends or students, I usually describe this in terms of news “muscles.” Some newsrooms start off with more than others. And CNN can flex like no other commercial TV news outlet. The AP, Reuters and the BBC are in the same league by some measurements, but they’re in different businesses. CNN is unique on cable and online – but in ways that the outside world rarely recognizes.
Imperfect but impressive
CNN is far from perfect. It will never be perfect, because nothing ever is. Reporters will always make mistakes, segments will always go off the rails, shows will always struggle with story selection. Sometimes there will be too many pundit-filled panels, other times there will be too little analysis. Sometimes there will be too much groupthink and too little introspection.
But the place is always trying. Always pushing to be better. On Saturday I must have been copied on 30 emails about coverage of Joe Rogan and Spotify. I worked with multiple editors about anonymous sourcing and phrasing and the placement of specific paragraphs in a story. I emailed and texted with multiple anchors about the reporting to make sure we got it right. More than a dozen voices in multiple cities contributed to the coverage and made it better. And that’s just one tiny snapshot of one story on one day.
Most of this work is invisible. But it’s supremely important. CNN has vast numbers of beat reporters and producers and designers and copy editors and research librarians and experts around the world. It is perfectly fair to argue that some of the resources are underutilized or mismanaged. It is perfectly fair to say that more of X and less of Y should be on CNN’s screens. But the muscles? The muscles are impressive.
That’s why I emphasized, during Sunday’s “Reliable Sources,” that CNN is so much bigger than any one person, even a larger-than-life leader like Zucker.
The “Reliable” team went back to Wednesday and found that on the day when Zucker was ousted, when staffers were burning up text chains and Slack channels in disbelief, more than 135 correspondents were delivering live shots around the world. More than 215 stories and nearly 90 original videos were published on the website. And the number of internal news alerts? Too many to count. That’s the true raw product of CNN – not a gaffe by me that goes viral on Twitter, not a rant by a guest that gets scandalized on Fox.
Let me underscore again, because I’m channeling many CNN staffers here, that the raw product isn’t perfect. Ask ten CNN staffers and you’ll hear ten different gripes about inefficiencies behind the scenes. There are always ways to improve. But the actual flaws of the place bear no resemblance to the imagination of CNN’s strongest critics. For instance: Trolls bash CNN’s ratings, but the network is in the top 10 on cable. Partisans howl about specific commentators, but the brand is so much bigger than any pundit.
The people who say the Zucker-era CNN was lacking in real journalism clearly were not watching CNN directly. My best guess is that they were watching talking heads and reading columnists complain about CNN. And yes, I’m including John Malone in this.
The cable pioneer and key Discovery shareholder praised Fox and knocked CNN in a CNBC interview last fall. He said he’d like to see “CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing.” That phrasing – especially the words “actually have journalists,” which implied CNN currently doesn’t – was highly offensive to many staffers. I reported on Sunday’s “Reliable” that it was disturbing to Zucker, too. Malone’s comments stoked fears that Discovery might stifle CNN journalists and steer away from calling out indecency and injustice.
The relevant question now is: Will Malone’s opinions weigh on his mentee David Zaslav, who will run Warner Bros. Discovery once AT&T’s spinoff of WarnerMedia is complete? Veteran media analyst Ken Auletta said on Sunday’s “Reliable” that Zaslav disagrees with Malone but also said, “I would be a little nervous if I was at CNN, yes.”
Do outsiders like Malone have ideas that could improve CNN as an institution? Quite possibly so. Savvy journalists are always open to feedback and constructive criticism. But when Malone praised Fox’s delineation between news and opinion, it rubbed a lot of CNN staffers the wrong way, since Fox barely has any news muscles at all and hardly seems to care. When Afghanistan’s capital fell to the Taliban, Fox wasn’t there. The network’s closest correspondent was 2,400 miles away in Israel. CNN, on the other hand, had multiple crews in Kabul. (Fox often doesn’t cover the news at all; it merely complains about how others are covering the news.)
When I refer to CNN’s news “muscle,” that’s what I am talking about: An international desk with well-sourced staffers and local language speakers and the instincts to follow the news wherever it leads. CNN has that, but most outsiders don’t understand the global magnitude of the place. The same is true with domestic coverage; CNN has strengthened so many of its muscles in recent years. Yet some think CNN is only defined by the most provocative comments of its highest-rated hosts. And many staffers think that’s a problem.
Maybe CNN needs to do a better job telling its own story. That’s not my job. But here’s what I know to be true: When news breaks, CNN knows what to do. When something horrible or something wonderful happens in the world, the CNN machine clicks into high gear. And, because I study the ratings spreadsheets every day, I know this too: The audience rushes in. “The world turns to CNN,” an executive remarked to me. That can sound hyperbolic or braggadocious, except that it’s true.
So the leadership of CNN will change, like it has many times before. The shape of the place may change. The priorities and personalities may change. But CNN’s purpose will not. It cannot.
I opened Sunday’s “Reliable” by outlining the reasons for Zucker’s removal. I reported that he knew he had violated WarnerMedia’s code of conduct for not disclosing his relationship with his subordinate Allison Gollust, but he did not expect to get fired.
I asked three outside voices – Mara Schiavocampo, Claire Atkinson and Joanne Lipman – to share insights. “This was an unforced error by every measure by every person involved,” Lipman said. You can listen to the podcast of the show here or read the transcript.