Embattled CNN boss Jeff Zucker’s liberal network is plagued by scandal, embarrassing headlines and struggles to attract an audience as critics wonder if the TV honcho is on thin ice.
Zucker was forced to fire star anchor Chris Cuomo, after months of protecting him at all costs, welcomed legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin back to CNN after he was terminated from his other job for masturbating on a Zoom call in front of colleagues, and enlisted anchor Alisyn Camerota to grill Toobin on the details upon his return. Former anchor Brooke Baldwin called on CNN to replace Cuomo with a woman after years of Zucker overseeing the only major cable news network without a female primetime host.
CNN host Don Lemon has also been accused of a sexually charged assault but denies all wrongdoing, and a top producer at the network was charged by a grand jury in Vermont Friday “with three counts of using a facility of interstate commerce to attempt to entice minors to engage in unlawful sexual activity.”
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CNN senior producer John Griffin was arrested by the FBI after being charged with shocking sex crimes with girls as young as seven years old and an unsealed document provides vulgar details of the alleged crimes. He faces a possible life sentence.
“Given the sheer number of public sexual misconduct allegations – from harassment and child sexual violence to abusing one’s journalistic credentials to try to silence women who have made allegations – it’s fair to ask whether these are indicative of a broader cultural rot at the network that’s being papered over as they focus on other priorities,” journalist Drew Holden told Fox News Digital.
The humiliating headlines continue to pour in as Zucker’s network has struggled to attract an audience during the Biden era, indicating his hosts and anchors have problems on and off the screen. The Spectator’s Washington editor Amber Athey, a former media reporter, feels current CNN brass simply “has no idea” how to run a news organization.
“Zucker has managed to simultaneously protect perverts and pedophiles as well as oversee a massive decline in ratings,” Athey told Fox News Digital.
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November was CNN’s lowest-rated month among primetime total viewers since 2015. The struggling network’s most popular show, “Anderson Cooper 360,” finished No. 24 overall among cable news, behind 15 Fox News and eight MSNBC programs during the news-heavy month.
DePauw university professor and media critic Jeffrey McCall thinks Zucker needs to own “ethical lapses” at CNN.
“CNN is surely suffering through a string of professional blunders. It would be difficult to necessarily connect all of these mistakes directly to Zucker, but he is still the head of CNN and at some point has to be held accountable for what’s going on there,” McCall told Fox News Digital.
“He is responsible for the culture in which underlings felt these misjudgments were OK. Aside from the string of professional missteps, it would seem Zucker should at least shoulder responsibility for the cratering ratings of this once-proud news organization,” McCall added. “The ratings struggles alone at this channel should cause concern in the upper hierarchy of CNN’s parent company.”
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Zucker has also failed to bring relevance to its long-suffering morning show “New Day,” where Griffin – who is due in court Wednesday following accusations he coerced parents to allow their minor daughters to engage in sexual activity in his home – was a longtime producer. “New Day” averaged a dismal 363,000 daily viewers during November, making it cable news’ 42nd most-popular program. Zucker, who rose to prominence overseeing NBC’s “Today” during the Matt Lauer era, launched “New Day” with the hopes of repeating his morning show magic at CNN.
When it launched in 2013, “New Day” was supposed to emerge as CNN’s flagship morning program, akin to NBC’s highly successful “Today” but with edginess that could only happen on cable. However, Zucker’s attempt to create a popular morning show at CNN has been a flop.
“New Day” has never averaged 700,000 viewers for a year and undergone multiple lineup changes, all while launching the CNN career of Cuomo who was eventually shifted to primetime before being terminated.
CNN fired Cuomo this month after a brief suspension, following reports that his involvement with his brother Andrew Cuomo’s political defense against sexual harassment allegations was far more extensive than previously known. Last week, Zucker addressed the stunning firing at a town hall with staffers.
“In hindsight he may have taken action sooner but [the] result he’s comfortable with,” an insider told Fox News Digital about Zucker’s words to CNN staff.
Zucker had previously chosen not to formally reprimand Cuomo when news first came to light that he’d helped his brother, the former New York governor, participating in strategy calls with top aides as he faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. CNN’s Cuomo had also been allowed to do friendly interviews with his brother at the outset of the pandemic, despite his clear conflict of interest. The on-air family banter, which once famously included prop comedy, was widely mocked by critics, and women who spoke out against the siblings have since said their on-air routine was the last straw.
The laundry list of scandals, debacles and public relations nightmares have come at the wrong time for Zucker, as it coincides with uncertainty over his future with the liberal news network. In February, the high-powered Zucker reportedly told CNN staffers he would continue to oversee the struggling network for the remainder of the year but expected to “move on” when his contract expires at the end of 2021.
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Many insiders dismissed the news that Zucker would walk away from CNN, where he is known to be hands-on and personally allowed it to drift from a just-the-facts news operation to a hyperpartisan opinion platform. “He ain’t leaving,” a CNN employee earlier told Fox News Digital.
Months later, WarnerMedia’s looming merger with Discovery was announced and Zucker’s longtime pal and golfing buddy, Discovery CEO David Zaslav, was chosen to run the combined venture. It has since been reported that Zucker would stick around at least through the completion of the merger with Discovery and maybe longer with Zaslav at the helm.
But hard-charging Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who sits on the Discovery Communications Inc. board of directors and is considered powerful in the industry, recently said he wants CNN to return to its pre-Zucker days of nonpartisan journalism.
“I would like to see CNN evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” Malone said on CNBC in November.
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Last week, a longtime media executive told Fox News Digital that business imperatives tied to the looming merger, along with Malone’s feedback, may seal Zucker’s fate.
“Malone wants CNN to return to its hard news roots and the Jeff Zucker show may be ending after all,” the longtime media industry executive said.
NewsBusters deputy managing editor Nicholas Fondacaro agrees, pointing to Discovery executives reportedly being around CNN headquarters when Cuomo was suspended.
“It’s reasonable to speculate Zucker is on thin ice,” Fondacaro told Fox News Digital, noting that Cuomo’s suspension turned into a firing after Zucker reportedly met with Discovery leadership.
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CNN’s in-house media pundit Brian Stelter, known to be a Zucker ally, suggested Cuomo could return to CNN after a weeks-long suspension, but a CNN spokesperson later dismissed the report as pure speculation.
“Stelter seemed to assume everything would be business as usual in Zuckerland and predicted Cuomo would be back in January. And given how the suspension happened, Zaslav might have been following the internal investigation closely and made the call to fire him,” Fondacaro said.
“He may have been flying under the radar to his fellow WarnerMedia executives with all sorts of excuses, ranging from outrage and criticism of the network was coming from the right-wing fringes,” Fondacaro continued. “But given recent comments from Discovery high-ups such as John Malone, they may not be buying it anymore and have Zucker under a microscope.”
Fox News’ David Rutz and Joseph A. Wulfsohn contributed to this report.