First Mover: Mark Whitaker

CNN’s new managing editor on the challenges facing cable news and weekly newsmagazines

How do you see your role at CNN?

CNN has all these platforms: domestic, a robust international network, and we’re so strong on the Web. All of those parts of the empire have been managed quite separately. The role of the managing editor would be to sort of oversee from a bird’s-eye view the tone and direction of CNN content, reporting, and editorial voice across all of those platforms. The other thing is how to become known for more than just covering breaking news.


Maybe not go wall-to-wall when the next Balloon Boy happens?

CNN has a very developed set of muscles for covering breaking news; we can’t lose that because it’s still what people expect of us on big, historic news events. At the same time, we have to develop the muscles that will get people to come to us when there isn’t necessarily breaking news. That involves becoming better at in-depth storytelling, analysis, and commentary, at helping viewers understand what is coming next.


Which you did as editor of Newsweek (from 1998-2006).

We knew at Newsweek that we weren’t delivering headlines: By the time readers got to us, they already knew what the basic news stories were. So we woke up every day asking, how do we advance the ball in a way that’s compelling? The irony is that news moves so fast now that cable news is in the same boat that newsmagazines were 25 years ago.


Your thoughts on Tina Brown’s Newsweek?

I’m glad that it still exists. I’m really rooting for her. A big challenge is going to be how much can they do with a magazine that small? We were able to do the great investigative stories and 50,000-word reconstructions of the political campaigns because we had a lot more pages. And a lot more journalists.


Who is the anchor for the future?

I think we’re in a day and age when you can have all the qualities of a great journalist but have a human side as well, and even a sense of humor. In many ways Anderson Cooper is the model that we increasingly are going to, not that everyone has to be Anderson Cooper. But he has qualities that I think we want to see in our anchors and reporters. Anderson is not ideological, but he is demanding accountability; he’s asking tough questions; he’s not histrionic. He manages to relay the importance of events without being theatrical or over-the-top in any way.


What will Tim Russert’s legacy be?

He was incredibly authentic. He was this working-class guy from Buffalo. His father drove a garbage truck, and he never pretended to be anyone else and he never forgot his roots. He was someone who people felt was an advocate for them. He asked the tough questions on their behalf. People saw the guy on the air, but not everyone got to see what a really remarkable eye for young talent he had, in the way he just picked people out and then brought them along and threw them in the deep end when they didn’t think they were ready.


You were the first black editor of a national newsweekly. Are the tops of mastheads as diverse as they could be today?

Well, the next executive editor of the New York Times is going to be a woman, and her number two managing editor is going to be an African American. That is huge. That’s enormous. Is that true everywhere? No. I mean Jill [Abramson] and Dean [Baquet] are getting their jobs because they are good at what they do. I’m mixed race: My mother was French and came to America during World War II. My father was a black American who later became a scholar of Africa. As a student and in my early reporting, my focus was on international news, so I think your personal history does have a bearing, even for journalists, on the stories we’re interested in. I’ve been proudto be the first, or the highest ranking, or whatever, but I want to earn it on the merits. 



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