Event: Jeff Zucker at Harvard Kennedy School

Note: I wrote this post a couple days after the actual event, but apparently neglected to actually print “publish,” which is why this is so out of date.

On Friday, Oct. 14, I attended an event at the Harvard Kennedy School called “A Conversation with Jeff Zucker.” Washington Post reporter Lois Romano moderated the event, and she and audience members had the opportunity to ask questions of Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN since 2013 and former president of NBC.

During the course of the conversation, Romano and audience members raised several ethical questions concerning the ethics of broadcast media coverage, reporting on the presidential race, and choosing what events are newsworthy.

Coverage of Donald Trump and the presidential race

A lot of the questions Jeff Zucker was asked concerned CNN’s coverage of Donald Trump and other candidates in the presidential race. Like other major news networks, CNN gave a ton of screen time to Trump’s rallies and controversies, leading many to blame them for Trump’s rise. Zucker refuted these claims.

“I absolutely reject the idea that [our coverage] is what got him the Republican nomination,” he said, pointing out that millions of people voted for Trump in the primaries.

He defended the Trump coverage: “In his defense and our defense, when we asked him to interview, he said yes” while others refused interviews, Zucker said.

I think that Zucker failed to realize that the almost 24-7 coverage of Trump probably legitimized him more to Americans. While news networks are in no way completely to blame for Trump’s rise, it doesn’t sound like Zucker or other CNN officials had many conversations about what the effects of their coverage would be. Realizing the possible effects of your reporting is a mainstay of journalism ethics, and something that I think Zucker should have talked about more in scheduling election coverage programming. CNN’s one mistake, Zucker said, might have been playing too many of Trump’s campaign rallies unedited. Although he didn’t get into it too much, it sounds like Zucker thinks that playing hours of straight campaign rallies without too much comment or fact-checking could have legitimized Trump more in the eyes of the public, and I agree.

Hiring pundits 

An interesting point that I think Zucker changed my mind on was in hiring pundits.

“To me,” he said, “they serve as a Greek chorus in espousing different points of view…I wanted to have folks to speak on behalf of the campaigns.”

It makes sense to me to have on-staff people to act as the mouthpiece for Trump, Hillary Clinton, or Bernie Sanders supporters. Although I believe that news networks often use these people in lieu of going out and doing actual reporting, they do a serve a purpose that I had never really thought about before. It wouldn’t be fair to Trump supporters, for example, to only have establishment voices to speak for the Republican party, because Trump was a pretty anti-establishment candidate.

All-in event coverage

During the event, Zucker framed 24/7 news coverage of a certain event as a positive thing, which I don’t agree with.

When Zucker started with  CNN, he said, “Our strategy became whatever the big story is,  we’re going to go all-in.” This meant re-reporting the same story over and over for people just tuning in, and ignoring or giving a lot less time to other stories of the day.

I disagree that this is a good thing. I think these sorts of “all-in” reporting efforts tend to sensationalize things that often should not be sensationalized and reinforce the idea that some stories are more important than others. This sort of attitude turns election coverage into “horse-race” reporting and obscures real issues and other stories. I don’t think it’s ethical to completely abandon some stories in favor of stories that could drive up ratings or neglect important, “boring’ stories in favor of reporting exactly what the audience wants to hear.



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