My newest for CJR: why give CNN credit?
Last week, we witnessed the best and the worst of CNN. One of the best segments was Kyung Lah's heartfelt piece on the rise of evictions amid a pandemic and failing economy. Click to read more about it and why they deserve credit for it. (And you'll also start to understand why such pieces are so rare.)
The worst was when we learned how Jeff Zucker offered Trump help in 2016, a serious lapse of journalistic ethics. Why would CNN offer the then-candidate help in the debate about to be held on his network that night? Why would Zucker try to curry favor with Trump by offering him his own TV show? As the leader of a business, Zucker was likely hedging: win or lose the election, Trump is good for ratings. But as a journalist, he was breaking (what should be*) a hard-and-fast code of ethics.
I'm happy to have taken on a new role as public editor for Columbia Journalism Review with a focus on CNN. But I will repeat this: I'm hesitant to criticize individuals, even the president of the network. It's a difficult job being a news producer. You have to be fast and accurate. And you are dedicated -- the role requires your time and attention around the clock.
That's part of the reason I think it's important to give credit when time and resources are dedicated for, arguably, the right reasons. The other reason to give them credit: those producers are resisting pressure even Zucker is beholden to.
I'm trying to tread a fine line. I'm sure Jeff Zucker is happy to be paid millions to live a comfortable (i.e., lavish) lifestyle. In return, there are times he is conflicted as a journalist. Based on what we learned this week from the phone call released between Zucker and Michael Cohen, who was Donald Trump's personal attorney at the time, Zucker could be indicted on several counts for violating journalistic ethics. But this is the bottom line due to the financial structure of the industry: if it's not him, it would be someone else. CNN would find someone else to do what he's been doing. It's the fault of the financial structure of the industry, not necessarily the people themselves.
The pressure CNN producers feel to dumb down content comes from that structure, not even Jeff Zucker himself, the president of the network. He gets judged (and paid) based on the success of the ratings of the network. So, Zucker doesn't cause that pressure; he's actually a cog in the machine, too, just like the producers beneath him.
It's a point that bears repeating.
My latest on CNN: a tale of two stories
*The industry does not have an adopted set of ethics.