AUSTIN, Texas—After the Democratic National Committee said it would not be granting a Democratic primary debate to Fox News during the 2020 cycle, the network put out a statement that read in part, “We hope the D.N.C. will reconsider its decision to bar Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, all of whom embody the ultimate journalistic integrity and professionalism, from moderating a Democratic presidential debate.”
CNN president Jeff Zucker isn’t buying it.
During a Q&A with Vanity Fair media reporter Joe Pompeo at the South by Southwest festival on Saturday, Zucker said it’s not like networks have a “right” to host debates.
“I think the consternation about this is a little misplaced,” he said. “They don’t have to give one to CNN, they don’t have to give one to NBC. They have no obligation to give one to Fox.” Calling Fox a “propaganda” outlet, Zucker said, “I think the question should be, is Fox state-run TV or is the White House state-run government by Fox TV?”
As for Fox News’ response singling out its more legitimate news anchors, Zucker said, “They chose to work at Fox and they don’t get to hide behind the fact that they’re excellent journalists or anchors. The fact is they work at a place that has done tremendous damage to this country.”
Earlier in the talk, Zucker also said he has no doubt that the Trump administration interfered in the Justice Department’s actions over the merger between AT&T and Time Warner—CNN’s parent company—though said it’s now a “moot point” because the merger went through.
“Do I think there was political motivation in trying to block the deal? I do. And, do I believe it came from the highest parts of government? I do,” he said. Without mentioning Trump by name, he added, “There was absolutely no basis for the government doing what they were doing, so clearly there was a political agenda at work and I don’t think it takes being a genius to figure out where that comes from.”
Then there was the uproar over CNN’s recent announcement that it had hired former GOP operative and Jeff Sessions spokesperson Sarah Isgur as its new political editor, sparking concerns that she would be helping to drive the network’s 2020 election coverage. Now, one day after Isgur revealed that she will be joining as a “political analyst” instead, the CNN head attempted to explain.
“Over the last couple of weeks, some things changed in her own life,” Zucker said, noting that Isgur got married “unexpectedly.” With that, “she decided that it would make more sense at this time in her life to just go forward with the on-air commentator role.”
Noting the “long line” of people who have moved between politics and journalism, he said, “I didn’t really see any issue with having someone who was smart and understood the way that Washington works as part of our organization.” He stressed that she was never going to be overseeing the network’s 2020 campaign coverage, calling that an “assumption” that other reporters made “based on their own biases.”
Of course, long before the Isgur controversy, CNN received its fair share of criticism and even blame for supposedly helping boost Trump. Zucker was quick to defend his network from charges of sensationalism or bias.
“If you really watch CNN, there are not a lot of screamy, political, partisan fights,” Zucker said, a bit unconvincingly. “Do they happen from time to time? Yes, absolutely. Is that a predominant part of CNN? No, I think that’s an unfair criticism.”
Zucker did think it was a “fair criticism” to say that CNN has at times allowed too many conservative commentators to spread false information on its air.
“I do think that it’s important to hear from both sides, or all sides frankly, because if you don’t hear all sides then you wake up the morning after the election and you’re shocked that Donald Trump is president of the United States.” But at the same time, he admitted there have been times when they have had to let Trump-defending contributors go—like, for instance, Jeffrey Lord—because they crossed a line.
“I do not believe that CNN is the reason that Donald Trump got elected,” Zucker insisted. “I wish we had that much power—we don’t.”
But while Trump has not granted an interview to CNN since becoming president, he did get plenty of airtime on the network during his campaign. “I’m not going to apologize for interviewing Donald Trump when his competitors didn’t have the courage and foresight to actually take advantage of those opportunities,” Zucker said. “That’s on them. That’s not on CNN.”
At the same time, he admitted it was a “mistake” to air Trump’s rallies unedited. “So we won’t do that again,” he promised.