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The paradox of Jeff Zucker

In my last column for Columbia Journalism Review, I wrote about how CNN's President was caught on tape helping Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Since that post, I have talked to people who know Jeff Zucker and they described the good and the bad. One industry veteran thinks Zucker is the best person for the job and trusts him thoroughly, while acknowledging the destructive nature of commercial broadcast news. Another former CNN employee described Zucker's obsession with the ratings. In this piece, I try to square the various opinions. I conclude he's paradoxical, like many producers I know from my time in cable news.

This week's debate was a reference point when I talked to people this week. A former colleague of Zucker's defended CNN's analysis, citing the Fact Checker segments with Daniel Dale. Now a CNN reporter, Dale is invaluable to correct the record in real time. But I think the bar has been lowered so far, that even self-aware producers give too much credit to the state of TV news. I thought CNN's coverage was standard outrage TV, ultimately motivated by the need to profit. Seasoned political journalists clutched their pearls at the sight of an outrageous politician doing outrageous things.

Now, I understand the challenge. But the network continually fails to recognize that there are two candidates in this election. CNN let Donald Trump dominate the narrative. No, journalists can't ignore his behavior altogether, but they shouldn't ignore Joe Biden, either, whether it's to praise or criticize him. In the end, that is a disservice to voters and this election. We ought to call on CNN (and all of the commercial networks) to focus on covering these candidates and their policies appropriately and thoroughly, rather than treating the election as a way to increase their bank accounts.

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