Nearly 60 people attended a conversation with CNN president Jeff Zucker at Wallis Annenberg Hall Tuesday. Zucker discussed the inner workings of the news business, his experience leading CNN and his time as the former president and CEO of NBC Universal.
The event was hosted by the Center on Communication Leadership and Policy.
Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism Dean Willow Bay started the conversation by addressing rumors that Zucker would be resigning as president of CNN, especially in light of a tweet made by President Donald Trump earlier in the month on the subject.
“I’m not resigning. That was actually fake news. So there’s no truth to that,” Zucker said. “There were all kinds of rumors … a couple of years ago that I was going to be fired from CNN. And I didn’t pay attention to those rumors at that time. So I don’t believe these rumors at this time, and I don’t pay attention to them now.”
Aside from social media platforms, CNN is considered the number one source of digital news and information, according to a CNN Digital press release. To compete with social media’s information-sharing capabilities, Zucker has implemented a new system at CNN to focus on the technological and digital aspects of news media right from the hiring stage.
“We were only about hiring people who were editors and writers and producers. We didn’t hire people who understood technology, who knew how to write code,” Zucker said. “What we’ve been doing over the last two, three years and going forward will be [is hiring] people who understand technology.”
Bay asked about a 2016 interview with Variety when Zucker said he did not consider BuzzFeed and Vice “legitimate news organizations.”
“I think that part of the back-and-forth that I’ve had with places like Vice and BuzzFeed is that … they’re always hitting up at us and they’re always trying to take shots at CNN, because they want to be mentioned in the same breath with us and they want to play in the big leagues,” Zucker said. “Has Vice and BuzzFeed done some good journalism? Yes. But on the whole, are they big, strong journalistic outlets? I don’t think they are. I think that they want to be, but they don’t have enough of the journalism and they don’t have enough of a business model to back it up.”
Teddy Williams, a sophomore majoring in communication, disagreed with Zucker and said she considers Vice to be a credible news outlet and should not be disregarded due to its non-traditional approaches to news.
“I really like Vice,” Williams said. “I think it especially creates entertaining ways to convey news to people who don’t take news in the traditional sense like reading newspapers or going online.”
The conversation also touched on the growing threats against journalists, not only in conflict-ridden areas abroad, but in the United States as well — specifically with the Trump administration.
“What Donald Trump is doing in terms of denigrating media and journalism is incredibly destructive not just here at home, to destroying this institution that the United States is frankly built on, but it’s also giving license to authoritarian leaders around the world to mistreat, ignore, arrest and put in danger journalists around the world,” Zucker said.
Once the floor was open to audience questions, Dan Toomey, a senior majoring in journalism who interned at CNN over the summer, asked Zucker for advice for students interested in pursuing a career in broadcast media even with it’s dwindling prevalence.
“In terms of broadcast news, and sports, live programming, I think that is going to sustain for the next five, 10 years,” Zucker said. “So if you have dreams of broadcast television news, pursue it and just do a great job. The key thing to being a good journalist is knowing how to how to report a story and telling the story.”
Morgan Stephens, a senior double-majoring in journalism and political science, asked how CNN attempts to approach objectivity in journalism, especially with public criticism of CNN’s inclination to show liberal and conservative views of an issue.
“I do think it is important, and I have gotten criticism for having people on our payroll and voices who are Republican voices, pro-Trump voices, and I defend them, and I think it is really important for two reasons. First of all, I don’t want to be MSNBC. MSNBC doesn’t really have any of those voices. I think that’s a mistake,” Zucker said. “Two, I think that if we don’t understand what Trump voters and supporters are saying and thinking … then we wake up the day after an election and are surprised that Donald Trump has been elected.”
”It’s our obligation at CNN to call that out and hold them accountable and correct them, but I think not hearing from them is a disservice,” he added.