While CNN withers amid the biggest journalistic scandal in the network’s history, network president Jeff Zucker has turned to the New York Times for help.
“I don’t sleep that much anyway,” Zucker told the Times’ Michael Grynbaum in a rare interview in his office on the fifth floor of CNN’s Midtown Manhattan, New York City newsroom. Grynbaum noted he is not “getting a lot of sleep lately,” either —something that comes as the network faces what amounts to perhaps the biggest scandal in journalism history—but definitely the biggest in CNN history.
Three senior editorial staffers at CNN—a Pulitzer Prize winning editor, a Pulitzer Prize nominated reporter, and the head of the network’s investigative reporting unit—resigned over a week ago as a result of an embarrassing retraction of a very fake news hit piece on President Donald Trump and his associates.
CNN was forced to retract the faulty hit piece after a Breitbart News investigation discovered the entire piece was untrue. It falsely alleged that associates of President Trump—particularly SkyBridge Capital founder Anthony Scaramucci and Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman—were under Treasury Department and Senate Intelligence Committee investigation for supposed ties to a Russian fund.
It turns out that not only did the “meetings” that CNN alleged to have occurred never actually happen, but the Senate Intelligence Committee is not investigating it—and the Treasury Department already looked into the matter but found it to be entirely “without merit,” per a senior administration official’s comment to Breitbart News.
CNN retracted the piece after Breitbart News’s investigation—and under pressure from the threat of hefty a lawsuit from Scaramucci—and apologized to Scaramucci. CNN has not apologized to President Trump or to Stephen Schwarzman for maligning them, nor has the network apologized to anyone else falsely smeared in the now-retracted hit piece.
A few days after the embarrassing retraction—reportedly the first of Zucker’s tenure at the top of the network—the reporter on the byline, Thomas Frank, resigned, as did the story’s editor Eric Lichtblau. Investigative unit chief Lex Haris also resigned.
From there, the network has spiraled into chaos that has lasted nearly two weeks. The chaos is fueled by further mistakes: a lack of transparency from the network’s public relations team and from Zucker, a refusal to course correct away from deep problems with journalistic integrity inside CNN, and by more damning revelations about CNN including from undercover videos of CNN producers and talent published by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.
On Wednesday, CNN found itself facing another backlash — and additional online threats — after it posted a story about a man who created a version of the wrestling video that was later tweeted by Mr. Trump; it did not identify him but said it reserved the right to do so if he resumed his activities. Some users on Reddit took that caveat as a threat, and it prompted a hashtag, #CNNBlackmail. CNN said it had only meant to make it clear that it had cut no deal with the subject of the article, though some media critics called it an unusual choice. For CNN, it was yet another dust-up felt by its 3,500 employees as they pursue day-to-day responsibilities and worry about the usual industry concerns, like ratings. CNN has recently placed third in weekday prime time, behind the more ideologically driven coverage of Fox News and MSNBC.
Now, for the first time, Zucker is himself on the record in the scandals. CNN is still refusing to provide Zucker for an actual interview rather than a puff piece in the New York Times, as Breitbart News and many other outlets have been asking him for a sit-down interview. Zucker is also still refusing to appear in public for an on-camera press briefing about the scandal consuming CNN from the inside out, something President Trump’s son Donald Trump, Jr. is calling on Zucker to do since CNN thinks on-camera briefings are so important.
Zucker allies inside CNN touted the interview as some sort of accomplishment.
Jeff Zucker talking about Trump's attacks: "He's trying to bully us, and we're not going to let him intimidate us." https://t.co/25yQLCiDI7
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) July 6, 2017
But despite the gentle treatment the New York Times gave him, Zucker—and the Times scribe with whom he sat for this interview—admit publicly now that the network is under siege.
Grynbaum wrote that there is a “foxhole-like mentality inside CNN’s offices, where security measures have been tightened and some hosts have considered abandoning their social media accounts because of abuse.”
CNN’s New Day anchor Chris Cuomo—whose producer Jimmy Carr has been exposed in O’Keefe’s Project Veritas videos—even compared CNN to “the Thunderdome.” And the day after the three senior editorial staff resigned, Grynbaum notes, Zucker “phoned in from London to a companywide conference call, telling employees that the heightened scrutiny meant there could be no room for error.”
But besides all that, even the appearance of Zucker in the media on this front—it is extraordinarily rare for a chief executive of a television news network to appear in the media during a crisis—has to be worrisome for network investors and corporate leadership. In other words, it is less about what Zucker is actually saying and more about the fact he is even sitting for an interview at all that is mere proof that CNN is burning.
Despite the now public admission the network is in serious crisis, and cannot afford more mistakes than it has already made, Zucker is trying to brush off the dire situation in which he and his team find themselves.
“My job is to remind everyone that they need to stay focused doing their job,” Zucker, nonetheless, told Grynbaum, adding of President Trump: “He’s trying to bully us, and we’re not going to let him intimidate us. You can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves.”
The piece also quotes Zucker being worried about CNN employees’ safety thanks to the war with Trump. Zucker told Grynbaum that Trump “has caused us to have to take steps that you wouldn’t think would be necessary because of the actions of the president of the United States.”
Another buried revelation in Grynbaum’s piece is that administration officials are considering using the looming merger between CNN parent Time Warner and telecommunications giant AT&T as a leverage point in the war with CNN. Grynbaum wrote:
White House advisers have discussed a potential point of leverage over their adversary, a senior administration official said: a pending merger between CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, and AT&T. Mr. Trump’s Justice Department will decide whether to approve the merger, and while analysts say there is little to stop the deal from moving forward, the president’s animus toward CNN remains a wild card.
When he asked Zucker about the merger, Zucker brushed it off.
“It’s not something I think about,” Zucker told Grynbaum.
Grynbaum was not buying it, because Zucker lost his last job at NBC thanks to that company’s merger with Comcast. “Mr. Zucker, who was ousted as chief executive of NBCUniversal after that company merged with Comcast, declined to comment on the pending deal, except to say that the merger had not affected his journalistic or management choices,” Grynbaum wrote.
Perhaps the most important revelations in the Zucker interview with the New York Times published late Wednesday, however, are what is not said and not asked. There are dozens upon dozens of questions CNN’s public relations team and Zucker are refusing to answer about this network-wide scandal.
More from Breitbart News’s investigations into CNN is forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead.