4 Takeaways From Jeff Zucker’s Contentious Harvard Appearance

By A.J. Katz 

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker was booed and heckled by some GOP attendees of the Harvard Institute of Politics’ look back at the presidential campaign. Wednesday’s event, which has taken place every 4 years since 1972, is attended by campaign leaders, journalists and academics. It’s a formal dinner with an environment that’s traditionally civil. But based on the 94 minutes of audio we listened to this morning, civility was often absent.

In addition to Zucker, Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron, AP executive editor Kathleen Carroll and Elliot Schrage, vp of global communications, marketing and public policy at Facebook, participated in a panel discussion at the conference that was moderated by Bloomberg Politics’ Sasha Issenberg.

Here are some major takeaways from this discussion in regard to CNN’s coverage:

  • How Trump has been good for CNN’s business:

“From a business perspective, this was the most-watched year in the history of CNN, and it’s the most profitable year in the history of CNN,” Zucker said. “Trump played a huge role, but we had contested contests on both sides of the aisle and for CNN which was a network that was able to cover both sides of the election regularly, that helped.”

“It has been a very roller coaster experience for CNN with Trump. It is day-to-day as to whether or not he is going to go after us. Half the people want to blame CNN for Trump, and half of the people want to say that we’re terrible to Trump. I always think we’re doing the right thing when everyone is mad at us, and when Trump goes after us, I think it just means that we’re doing our job.”

  • How CNN was able to decide which candidates to put its resources towards, both in terms of day-to-day coverage and enterprise reporting prior to the summer of 2015 considering there were so many on the GOP side:

“We recognized pretty early on that there was something about Trump that was resonating. It’s well known that I have known him for a long time. I’ve never hidden that fact. I think we understood who he was and why he resonated.”

“I said a couple months ago here that if I had it to do over, I wouldn’t have put as many of those early Trump rallies unedited as we did. They were attracting huge crowds right away, and he was often making news at those rallies. We are in the business of covering news. Did we show too many of those rallies? Probably. But our coverage of the early ones is not why he is the president-elect of the United States today.”

Later, Zucker voluntarily brought up campaign managers of other GOP candidates who complained about disproportionate coverage. This is where the temperature went up.

“Frankly, and respectfully, I think their complaints are bullshit,” said Zucker. “Donald Trump was on CNN a lot 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. Almost to a person, they declined. Marco Rubio does an interview on CNN with Chris Cuomo, and he doesn’t like the way it goes. 30 minutes later, he is fundraising off of that interview, but declines to come on CNN for the next 10 weeks.”

People from the crowd then started yelling comments at Zucker. Someone from the audience shouted “you showed empty podiums.” Another shouted “you showed hours upon hours of unfiltered, un-scrutinized coverage of Trump. This was not about interviews.” The latter comment drew significant applause from the crowd.

He shot back: “All of the Republican candidates were invited to come on, in-person or to call into the morning show…I think this shows the emotion that is still running high here in this room.”

Zucker continued: “CNN should not be held responsible for the fact that Donald Trump said yes to those interview requests. Other candidates were invited to come on, and often times they declined. I can name names if you want. Some of the folks need to look in the mirror and decide whether or not they made a mistake by not taking us up on those invitations. That is the reality.”

  • One Harvard student brought up a stat his school focus group found: only 9 percent of American 18-29 year olds have trust in the media to do the right thing. He asked Zucker if that is a concern, and how is CNN looking at ways to try and improve its trust, particularly among youth:

“Many of our institutions are being denigrated, and that’s a real problem,” said Zucker. “It’s an even bigger problem when the president-elect stands at a rally and says the things he says about the media, or that he says about CNN. That hurts all of us. At CNN, we are very focused on reaching a younger audience. It’s why we have made such a concerted effort and investment in our digital products. That’s how I think we can continue to build a relationship with that younger audience, and it won’t be through television.”

  • Another question posed by a student was about fact-checking, and the effectiveness of it:

“The role of the media is to fact-check things that candidates, president-elects say, and I think that the media did a really good job of fact-checking this year,” said Zucker. “But look at what happened this week. The president-elect says something that is clearly not true (he would have won if not for ‘the illegal vote’) and he gets fact checked by every news organization in existence, including CNN, and then CNN gets called out for it. We also have to be honest that there was a good deal of the public that didn’t care about the facts being checked, and that’s something we can’t control.”