CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker opened up on a variety of topics during this morning’s Paley Dialogues session at the Paley Center for Media, which was moderated by BuzzFeed editor in chief Ben Smith. The conversation started with Smith mentioning that neither of them got much sleep because of last night’s unfolding coverage of the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
“Both of our teams were cranking all night on a really horrific, crazy story,” Smith said before jumping right into an aggressive line of questioning aimed at Zucker. The CNN boss discussed a potential political run, digital media and, of course, Donald Trump.
On being right vs. being first:
Everybody is a reporter now because they can tweet. Everybody is a reporter now because they have a blog. Whatever it is, right? Social media has changed everything. We’re very conscious of that and we’re very conscious at CNN that there are many times, including yesterday and last night, when you’re going to find out about what’s going on from Twitter or Facebook. We understand that and we’re OK with that. But we know, then you’re going to come to CNN to see if it’s true. That’s really the role that we think we play now. We don’t care if we’re first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh reporting something. The most important thing is that we be right.
Smith then turned the discussion to Trump and it was no secret that Smith isn’t a fan of the GOP presidential front runner. After Zucker joked, “well, we made that switch right away,” Smith replied by saying, “this is like CNN programming, we’re always cutting to Trump.”
Smith bluntly stated that Trump has been running a “bigoted, lying campaign” before asking if Zucker has any regrets about the role he played in his career.
Why don’t we put a little context around that question, which is to explain the role that I played in his career, right? I think what you’re referring to is when I was at NBC Entertainment, I am the one who put The Apprentice on the air. The reason that I green lit it was, I was from New York and working in L.A. at NBC Entertainment at the time and I understood that The Apprentice was Survivor in a different jungle. Right? In the boardroom. That’s the way it was pitched, Survivor had been this huge phenomenon for several years at the time and everybody was looking for their Survivor. I understood immediately what Donald Trump was and what it meant to have him at the center of that show. I think, in a way, the folks who were running the other entertainment divisions in Los Angeles at the time didn’t fully appreciate it because they weren’t from New York. I had lived everyday with the New York Post and the New York culture and I understood the magnet for attention that he was. We wanted Survivor, you add Donald Trump and that sounds like a pretty good combination. It turned out to be a phenomenon. It did great.
Would he do it again?
There is no question that The Apprentice made Trump even a bigger celebrity than he already was. But he was already a pretty big celebrity. I have no regrets about The Apprentice or any of that. It was absolutely the right decision. I have no regrets about the part that I played in his career.
Things started to get combative when Smith then asked about CNN’s coverage of Trump’s “demagogue” campaign and asked if CNN hired “a guy named Jeffery Lord at his [Trump’s] personal urging.”
“No. That’s not true at all. At all. But, what I would say is there have been people who have asked about the amount of coverage that Trump gets and I don’t think it’s our role to editorialize the way you are in asking me the questions,” Zucker said.
“Do you think it’s editorializing to say that he’s a demagogue?,” Smith replied. “Or a bigot?”
I think that is your opinion. I’m not taking a point of view. I don’t think it’s our role to take a point of view. It’s our role to report what he says, what he does, to fact check what he says, what he does. Really, it’s not our role to build up a campaign. Or take down a campaign. It’s our role to be skeptical of what every candidate puts out there and says. It’s not our role to editorialize the way that some of those comments [made by Smith] are.
Smith then asked, “are you going to let him extract $5 million dollars from you for the next debate?”
“No, we do not pay candidates to appear at debates,” Zucker said.
On overuse of the breaking news banner:
I do not think that this is a problem that is unique to CNN. Every news division is guilty of this. At some point, it just loses credibility for when it actually is breaking news. I would much rather spend time breaking actual news than pretending that something is breaking news. We have tried to crack down on the overuse of things that are labeled breaking news. I’m sure we still do it more than we should, but I know we do it less than others who continue to just not think it’s a problem.
On digital media:
We pay a tremendous amount of attention to digital and it has become a really important part of what we have done. We have allocated a tremendous amount of resources into it. We’re making a significant amount of money in digital. I’d argue among all legacy media companies, other than those in the Valley whose full-time thing this is, we’re probably doing as well as anybody in terms of the monetization of it. I think that at CNN we are a multi-platform provider of news and information. A global multi-platform provider. That’s television and that’s digital.
People come to our digital product, it almost doesn’t matter anymore where those three little red letters are. if they’re on a television screen, on a phone, on your computer… we are paying a lot of attention and we are investing heavily in digital. Everybody thinks of CNN as this U.S. domestic television network, and I get it. Because that’s what we all watch, right? That’s what reporters and bloggers write about. But that is so missing what CNN is. CNN is a global network. More people saw our coverage last night outside the United States than saw every network who was covering it combined in the United States. Digitally, it’s the same thing.
Zucker continued to discuss the digital space, stating that “yesterday was one of the most traffic days in the history of CNN digital.” According to Zucker, CNN digital had 28 million video views yesterday, which is their most of 2015 and third most of all time.
The conversation shifted to a 2014 New York Magazine report that Zucker would consider running for office himself.
“I would still think about that, yeah,” Zucker said before Smith chimed in with, “mayor of New York?”
Zucker fired back, “see, you have a lot of opinions. I would consider anything.”
Check out the entire hour-long discussion: