On the Culture Problem at CNN
What's most troubling is the reactions to Zucker's ouster from the newsroom
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The convulsion in recent days at CNN over the dismissal of longtime president Jeff Zucker has seemed to me revealing, but not in the way some of the coverage would indicate. Much more interesting, and troubling, has been not Zucker’s forced resignation for a clear and flagrant violation of an important company rule, but instead the reaction of much of the newsroom.
Virtually every big company in America now has a rule against personal relationships between bosses and people who report up to them. There are important reasons for this, ranging from the possibility of lack of genuine consent in such relationships to the most blatant sorts of conflicts of interest to the impact on other staffers who must navigate these situations. I have not heard anyone at CNN or elsewhere seriously propose that these rules should be repealed.
And Zucker’s case, notwithstanding the apparently entirely consensual nature of the relationship, may have been an extreme one: numerous reports on the timeline indicate that he hired his partner into a plum job, set her salary, promoted her, presumably evaluated her performance, and perhaps lied about the relationship to his own bosses, colleagues and outside journalists. That’s more than enough to get anyone fired.
It's also, unfortunately, not all that remarkable, even almost five years after #MeToo.
What has stood out, instead, has been what you’ve heard from the newsroom Zucker built around him. Let’s look at three apparently common complaints:
“The punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”
Really? What other punishment was possible? I’ve not heard anyone say that Zucker’s partner should have been fired or reassigned, nor would that be right. He was the responsible officer, not her. So it came down to this: the boss broke a clear rule (or maybe many more than one—see above). If he had been censured or suspended or had his bonus docked, he would then have gone back to effectively breaking the rule.
While his own boss had, some months ago, removed Zucker’s direct oversight of his partner, he had done so over Zucker’s violent objection (and apparent threat to quit). Moreover, his partner’s influence remained (Zucker’s resignation note last week referred to her as his “closest colleague” in the present tense). Are Zucker’s employee fans now suggesting that he should have been permitted refuge in the formality to which he so recently objected? That is the sort of subterfuge journalists are supposed to see right through.
“The bad guys win”
It does appear that Chris Cuomo, appropriately (belatedly? hypocritically?) fired by Zucker, has had a measure of revenge here by forcing CNN to confront Zucker’s own rule breaking. But what does it matter if the source had a selfish or ignoble motive? Again, journalists are supposed to know that what ultimately matters is whether sources are telling the truth, not why they are doing so (although that should also be disclosed when relevant and possible, as it has been here).
Even more troubling in this framing, however, is the division of the world into teams—the "good guys” and the “bad guys”—with the object of the “game” being for one “team” to prevail, notwithstanding truth or facts. The adoption of this view by some otherwise thoughtful people at CNN suggests to me that the partisanship about which they report has seeped deeply into their own view of the way the world should work. It may be time for people in the newsroom to reflect on whether they “have met the enemy and [they are] us.”
“A blow to democracy”
Most disturbing of all were statements that one man’s dismissal for rule-breaking was somehow a blow to democracy itself. This was worrisome on three levels: first, a repeat of the “team” notion that, because CNN is in a battle with anti-democratic forces (which, unfortunately, and perhaps excessively, but probably of necessity, it is) it should be free from scrutiny; second, in the cult of personality that the only thing separating CNN from becoming another Trumpist mouthpiece was the same man who made it a Trumpist vehicle in 2016; third, in the newsroom’s apparently rampant fear that its about-to-be owners at Discovery will behave radically differently from its about-to-go owners at AT&T.
Cults of personality in newsrooms are invariably unhealthy. And the new corporate boss is always likeliest to be fundamentally just like the old corporate boss.
Finally, the silence
Last is what you did not hear from the CNN newsroom: apparently much of anyone ever having complained that the boss was flagrantly violating an important company rule, even as, during Zucker’s tenure, CNN reported on similar problems at company after company. Here, in case, you’ve forgotten, is a partial list: American Airlines, Boeing, Intel, Lockheed and McDonald’s. That doesn’t include the related, although admittedly distinct issue of sexual harassment, which has, during the same time period, convulsed news organizations from ABC to CBS to Fox to NBC to NPR.
This may be the most enduring problem, because it contributes to the lack of trust in journalism. How many of the CNN journalists who, for instance, covered the 2019 upheaval at McDonald’s over the CEO’s firing for a consensual relationship with an employee knew that the same thing was happening—again, in clear violation of company policy—in their own workplace? How many looked into the camera and didn’t tell viewers what they knew?
For now, the rest of us are left to wonder. It’s time for people at CNN to stop complaining, and do some wondering themselves.
PS With that, this column is a year old. If you’re new to it, you can see what you missed here. No matter how long you’ve been reading Second Rough Draft, thanks so much for doing so. The number of subscribers has grown about four-fold since we began, and average weekly readership has more than tripled, which is really gratifying. Onward!
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Where have I been the last year? Look forward to catching up on what I have miss, Dick!
Congrats, Dick, on a year of thoughtful and timely columns. Can’t think of one with which I disagreed.