From a strictly business perspective, CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s sudden departure Wednesday could not have come at a more inopportune time. The cable-news pioneer is just weeks away from both the launch of a new subscription streaming platform (CNN+) and a move into the corporate clutches of Discovery Inc. (which is awaiting government approval of a deal for it to acquire CNN parent company WarnerMedia from AT&T). Now with Zucker gone, CNN has lost both the driving force behind its move to streaming and a powerful leader whose close ties to Discovery CEO David Zaslav were expected to smooth out the choppy waters that come with any corporate merger.
Here’s another point of view: In the long run, CNN will be much better off without Zucker at the helm.
I say this despite knowing Zucker has many fans within the company, particularly among the anchor talent whose careers he helped build. His resignation could lead to some unhappy staffers in the months ahead. (Puck’s Dylan Byers got a recording of an internal CNN staff meeting, and it is extraordinary to hear so many of the network’s stars attempt to one-up each other in defending their beloved leader.) It also increases the odds of clashes between what is left of CNN management and the new bosses at Discovery. Zucker’s connection to Zaslav probably would have given CNN a small layer of protection from the worst aftershocks of consolidation.
But outside CNN, Zucker had a vast army of detractors arrayed against him. Among news purists and many progressives, Zucker’s relentless focus on ratings and buzz — even if it meant covering poop cruises and empty podiums — managed to erase whatever was left of CNN founder Ted Turner’s legacy and turned CNN into a cable-news dystopia dominated by shouting heads and tabloid-style coverage of politics. Folks on the right, meanwhile, saw Zucker as a partisan hack devoted to the destruction of the GOP and Donald Trump (ironic given that Zucker’s coverage decisions at CNN played a key role in building up the reputation of candidate Trump, Zucker’s star employee during the era of The Apprentice.)
While it is normally a good thing for people in journalism to piss off both sides of the aisle, in Zucker’s case, the ire was not earned through becoming some sort of nonpartisan ideal of a reporter. Rather, it came mostly from a series of decisions motivated by a desire for higher ratings, bigger profits, and, in some cases (such as the coddling of Chris Cuomo), protecting his pals. You don’t have to think the progressive and conservative critiques of Zucker are equivalent — they’re not — to believe there’s an upside to being rid of someone who’s so widely disliked for all the wrong reasons.
Zucker’s broader unpopularity is not the only way his exit could be a win for CNN. Before the Discovery merger was announced, Zucker had been signaling he planned to leave when his current deal was up. Perhaps he was simply trying to negotiate a better contract by hinting he was ready to leave, but I suspect he really was ready to move on. And that would have been best because right now, as CNN desperately needs to be reinventing itself for the streaming age, Zucker simply was not the best choice to lead the network into that future. I don’t want to render any sort of actual judgment on the about-to-launch CNN+ based on the limited information released about the platform to date. But at a time when cable-news ratings are collapsing, creating a new pay platform focused on rehashed versions of existing CNN shows and staffed with existing high-profile talents feels … half baked? CNN should be focused on how it can become a content factory for HBO Max or a bigger player in the ad-supported streaming marketplace. Instead, with CNN+, Zucker seemed to be chasing what feels like an early-aughts dream of a CNN2 for Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper superfans.
The other upside of Zucker exiting CNN now, just before the merger with Discovery, is it could allow a new generation of leaders to take his place and demonstrate their value. Zucker molded CNN after his own image for the better part of a decade, and he is an insanely hands-on exec despite how far up the corporate ladder he had climbed at WarnerMedia. I don’t pretend to know the particulars of who at CNN might step up to take his place, but there are plenty of incredibly talented execs who surely have a vision for the CNN brand different from Zucker’s. Having a leader without his baggage calling the shots at CNN could give the venerable institution a chance for a much-needed reinvention.