Unsolicited advice for Jeff Zucker, CNN’s new boss
After the bosses at Time Warner installed Jeff Zucker as president of the 23 news and information brands that constitute CNN Worldwide, the press (Ad Age, Marketwatch, Politico, Guardian, New York Times, et al.) speculated on which strategies he might employ to return the network to ratings and cultural primacy, positions it lost long ago to Fox News Channel and more recently to MSNBC.
As the auteur behind the Today show’s return in the 1990s to No. 1 in the ratings, Zucker knows all about network comebacks. As the former president and CEO of NBC Universal, who was pushed out in 2010 as Comcast purchased controlling interest in the operation, Zucker craves a personal comeback. Although he only took over a month ago, his first moves as CNN’s leader indicate a plan that plays to the network’s existing strengths and the competition’s inherent weaknesses.
CNN’s decline began in 1996 when Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch started Fox News Channel, acting on their hunch that conservative consumers of television news and talk were woefully underserved and would respond to a network that served as the Republican Party’s light infantry. MSNBC also arrived that year, but it didn’t make its mark in the cable news and talk racket until midway through the past decade, after positioning itself as the liberal mirror image of Fox. For all the talk of decline, CNN has remained hugely profitable, estimated to be making $600 million in operating profit in 2012, second only to Fox. So it’s not as though Zucker had been called on to rescue a failing enterprise.
Fox and MSNBC’s aggressive courting of right- and left-wing audiences has left many to judge CNN as centrist by default. MSNBC just renewed its lease on liberal-land by signing longtime Obama aide David Axelrod and former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs as political “commentators.” Fox has made a similar move, rotating in Scott Brown, the former senator from Massachusetts, and Herman Cain and rotating out Sarah Palin and Dick Morris.
With the exception of Glenn Beck’s short tenure as the host of a conservative show on CNN’s sister network, HLN, CNN has generally packaged partisanship in offsetting pairs — Tom Braden versus Pat Buchanan; Michael Kinsley versus Robert Novak; Eliot Spitzer versus Kathleen Parker, and so on. But calling CNN centrist because it has conducted a 30-year-long balancing act accords the network a more distinct definition than it deserves. To paraphrase George W.S. Trow, CNN has long possessed the character of no character.
One hint that Zucker might be bringing CNN’s balancing act to a close came last month, as he served political palookas James Carville, Mary Matalin, Bill Bennett and Maria Cardona with their walking papers. Having gotten started, Zucker ought to terminate the other members of the commentariat (Paul Begala, Donna Brazile, Ari Fleischer and more), whom CNN pays to trade punches during the network’s nightly boxing matches. Their arguments have grown stale and sound scripted.
As Zucker seeks inspiration for CNN, I can guarantee he won’t devote himself to the 300-year history of the American newspaper. But he could do worse than to review the early decades of the 19th century, when most newspapers operated as adjuncts to the political parties, much as Fox and MSNBC have aligned themselves with the Republicans and the Democrats. The newspapers of that era relied on the parties for support and content, transmitted political catechism to the party, and warred with the opposition, much as Fox and MSNBC do today.
Purely partisan newspapers dominated the news market until the arrival of Benjamin Day’s New York Sun in 1833. Day considered readers, not the parties, his customers, writes Christopher B. Daly in Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism. “No longer would the newspaper (or at least his newspaper) be dependent on officeholders for subsidies, printing contracts, or other spoils of political victory. Instead the Sun would be independent, handing out praise and criticism to politicians of any party according to merit,” Daly writes. Inspired by Day’s success, James Gordon Bennett started the competing New York Herald in 1835, and New York readers switched en masse to these upstarts.
These two papers strove to provide something for everyone. They were concise and entertaining, they relied on storytelling to convey the news, they squeezed the police blotter for the most salacious criminal news and gave saturation coverage to the financial beat, and they brought showmanship to the pages. By moving the definition of news outside the limited penumbra cast by the political press, they vastly expanded the newspaper audience, which had been limited to popularity of the parties, Daly observes. In his debut issue, Bennett wrote:
We shall support no party, be the organ of no faction or coterie, and care nothing for any election or any candidate, from president down to constable. We shall endeavor to record facts on every public and proper subject, stripped of verbiage and coloring, with comments when suitable, just, independent, fearless, and good-tempered.
Note that Bennett did not promise his readers a centrist perspective, nonpartisanship, or even “objective” reporting (objectivity came later, and is fat enough a topic to deserve its own column). He promised his readers independence from the political powers, and as Daly notes, reserved the right to tell the parties what to do rather than letting them tell him what to print. “[T]hey presented themselves as free of the distorting lens of party loyalty,” Daly writes.
The historical parallels aren’t perfect. Fox and MSNBC make their money from advertising and carriage fees, and they don’t collect political subsidies. Likewise, their devotion to parties is more a marketing ploy than it is a marker of any partisan fervor on the part of the owners. But putting all that aside, Fox’s and MSNBC’s political tunnel vision creates an opening for the cable analogue to the Sun and the Herald, and Zucker’s first big hire—ABC News reporter Jake Tapper — presages such an independent approach to the news. Tapper pushes harder and smarter than any political beat reporter working in Washington today. He’d savage his mother if she were president.
In a December interview with Ad Age, Zucker spoke explicitly about moving the fences to expand CNN’s potential audience beyond the traditional niche of cable news. “If we only look at the competition set as Fox News and MSNBC, we are making a mistake. Our competition is anyone who produces nonfiction programming,” he said, including the Discovery Channel. How is that not legit? If newspaper stories can be about more than just the news, why not cable news networks, too? CNN’s continuous coverage of the Dorner murder spree and the recent Carnival Triumph fiasco, which earned the network ridicule and high ratings, would have made Day and Bennett proud. It’s probably a harbinger of the sort of network Zucker has in mind: When there is no news, make news with what you’ve got. It’s not perfect, but would you rather watch David Gergen talk about the deficit?
I’ve even devised a slogan for Zucker’s CNN, one that beats the hell out of “We report, you decide,” or “Lean forward.”
Independent, like you.
Yeah, I’d watch that.
Jeff Zucker was so young — just 26 — and so slight when he took over the Today show in 1991 that he was known around the studio as “Doogie Zucker.” What should they call him now? Send names to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is ageless. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
PHOTO: REUTERS/Danny Moloshok