CNN's Chris Cuomo Scandal Is a Jeff Zucker Problem

(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Jeff Zucker became president of CNN Worldwide eight years ago.

You have to understand that CNN, while always offering a left-leaning bias, was much more news-centric before he got there. And while he promised that news was going to remain the central focus for the network, his plan for CNN was to offer “attitude and a take.” So what we’ve seen CNN become since 2013 is by design. It wasn’t just some organic ideological realignment, but a forced change on the network that had branded itself as the news you can trust.

On Tuesday, I pointed out that a large part of the media bias we see isn’t just reporters’ and anchors’ own leanings, but the desire to accumulate more viewers.

There is a reason that the media acts like this, and it goes beyond “They are leftist partisan hacks.” There is a reason they didn’t want to touch any of this. It’s all because these people know who butters their bread.

News executives, account managers, and editors know that the goal in journalism isn’t journalism. The goal is to do it in a way that gets eyes on the advertisements of the people who pay them big bucks to get their ads on television and in print. As I mentioned yesterday, when Jeff Zucker came to CNN, he brought with him a background in the entertainment industry. That brought a new set of eyes to the audience and helped the network grow. But a lot of Zucker’s audience-building was aimed at people who are naturally more progressive. To keep them, the programming had to get more progressive.

That’s the problem with news coverage in general. It’s about audience and advertising. Unless you are run by a non-profit, state-run, or privately funded, you are at the mercy of the statistics and the money bags.

Jeff Zucker, head of CNN
Mary Altaffer

Zucker’s solution was initially to bring in documentaries and docuseries to the network. They experimented with this during prime time slots, even. But eventually, that didn’t gather enough of an audience to keep growing. So Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon became prime time hosts, giving a lot more than just “attitude and a take.” They were given free rein to go beyond the scope of news and journalism and dive deep into straight-up activism. And that worked for a bit, though it came at the expense of delegitimizing the more straight news guys at the network.

Then along came Donald J. Trump, and Zucker saw his opportunity.

He allowed Jim Acosta to become combative with the President and make the news about himself rather than the issue at the time. Acosta would later be rewarded with a hosting slot. Cuomo and Lemon were untouchable, no matter how unhinged their ranting became. Brian Stelter’s job became solely to attack Fox News. Reporters and anchors were given the chance to show outright hostility toward a major American party (much more so than they previously had) and there was nothing to keep it in check. The numbers were on the rise. His strategy was working.

And then COVID-19 happened.

The coverage became hysterical. The activism increased, the sloppy journalism increased, and the accountability somehow decreased. As we now know, the Chris Cuomo scandal runs far deeper than even the harshest of critics believed.

According to News Cycle Media’s Jon Nicosia, Chris Cuomo will not be the last to be suspended at CNN. Nicosia’s source is saying that Cuomo’s staff (producers, etc.) are being investigated by CNN concerning their help with smearing Andrew Cuomo’s accusers.

So it looks like it’s not just Chris involved. If this is true, Cuomo put CNN in even deeper trouble by dragging in his staff. No wonder CNN suddenly moved to suspend Cuomo. One has to wonder how bad it is and what Chris may have been having the staff or others at CNN do in regard to the accusers or in defense of his brother.

This is a direct result of the atmosphere established by Zucker at CNN. His attitude regarding building up the audience rather than focusing on increasing the quality of the journalism made an anchor feel so untouchable that he could abuse his position to help his politician brother cover up a sexual harassment scandal and even go after the accusers. And he could get his show’s staff in on the dirty work.

To be fair, Cuomo is the son of a powerful former governor of New York and the brother of a powerful governor of New York (until recently, anyway). There was already a sense of entitlement that allowed him to believe he could get away with a lot on and off the air. But Zucker’s lack of journalistic standards in his management allowed for Cuomo to routinely display his worst traits. He was constantly wrong, combative to the point of it being personal, and he was not held accountable for the clear breach of ethics that was having his brother on for a softball interview.

Had Zucker been remotely interested in the quality of the journalism rather than the number of viewers or the shares of a story on social media, he would have perhaps put a stop to it. But his focus has always been on production and entertainment. Note that Zucker has never been held accountable for the Matt Lauer situation, despite not only being there but joking about it at a roast of Lauer later. Everyone knew about Lauer, and as someone who was at NBC for decades, Zucker knew and did nothing.

That’s part of the reason I suspect that Cuomo is out for good and the “indefinite suspension” is really just time to allow the two parties to negotiate the terms. Matt Lauer was a major, major problem at NBC over the years, and Zucker can’t have not known. To get away unscathed from that was absolute luck, but it’s impossible in a post-#MeToo era to expect to get away with something like that again. Heads have to roll, and Cuomo won’t be the only one.

The other reason I suspect Cuomo is ultimately fired is that his actions present a threat to Zucker’s reputation and his vision of how things should be run. Zucker put Cuomo in charge of that prime time slot. He gave Cuomo a ton of freedom and no accountability. He fostered the atmosphere that allowed it to happen. If Zucker wants to go out on top when he finally steps down, he’ll need to make sure that his legacy at the network isn’t too stained with stuff like this. Examples will have to be made.

Freedom and democracy cannot survive without a free and open press, and Zucker’s vision isn’t about a free and open press. It’s about entertainment and making money. Yes, journalism does need money to operate, but when the focus isn’t on the journalism side of that business, journalism just isn’t happening. Instead, you get constant scandals like this.