Jeff Zucker’s sudden and unexpected resignation last week as president of CNN is the biggest media story to come along in quite a while. Credit to CNN for not shying away from it.
Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” — the network’s show about media — spent the first 22 minutes (without commercials) delving into the story. To spend nearly half the show on one topic, commercial-free no less, is not common.
Host Brian Stelter hit many of the questions surrounding the story that continues to evolve. It started Wednesday when Zucker announced he was stepping down after failing to disclose a romantic relationship with a senior CNN executive.
But is there way more to it than just breaking a company rule about inter-office relationships?
Stelter said the dominant question inside of CNN is “Why?” Why did this all happen the way it did? Stelter added, “This is the ugliest shakeup at CNN since the days Ted Turner was still walking the halls.”
CNN staffers, most of whom liked and respected Zucker, continue to ask if the punishment fit the crime. After all, it appears that Zucker’s relationship with Allison Gollust, CNN’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, was an open secret.
Which, when you think about it, makes the story even more baffling.
Appearing on “Reliable Sources,” former USA Today editor-in-chief Joanne Lipman said, “This was an unforced error. … Why not just disclose it? Jeff Zucker is considered to be one of the most savvy media executives around. He’s a political animal. He would have been able to acknowledge it and to be able to move on in some way, maybe making some adjustments in terms of responsibilities and reporting lines.”
And, as Lipman pointed out, there are “plenty” of examples of media couples having relationships with one another who have “managed to navigate this very, very successfully.”
I still believe that Zucker absolutely had to acknowledge that he was in a relationship with someone who worked for him, but, yes, there is more to Zucker being forced out.
First, there is the Chris Cuomo angle. The Zucker-Gollust relationship became the topic last week when it’s believed representatives of Cuomo asked about it. (Cuomo is suing CNN for the rest of his money after being fired for helping his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, battle multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.)
And then there’s this big piece: CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, is about to merge with Discovery and this Zucker-Gollust relationship might have been just messy enough to make Discovery and AT&T (which owns WarnerMedia) nervous.
Stelter said that, in the minds of many, what Zucker did was a 15-yard penalty, but “AT&T threw him out of the game altogether for it.” Stelter also said Zucker wanted to stay on for a transition period until a new president took over, but was told no, that he had to resign.
“AT&T wants and needs that deal to go through,” Stelter said. “Doesn’t want any mess, any complication.”
If any of this comes back to the Cuomos then that is a mess and complication.
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For now, Michael Bass, Amy Entelis and Ken Jautz are running CNN. After the deal is completed and approved, probably in the next two to three months, a new president will be named.
What’s interesting is Discovery board member John Malone, a powerful voice inside Discovery, has been rather critical of CNN’s programming, believing it allows too much commentary. Malone especially angered CNN staffers during an appearance last November on CNBC when he applauded Fox News for putting more news into its programming and then saying, “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.”
Clearly, you could understand why those at CNN would be upset over that ridiculous statement. Might Malone actually have influence once the merger is complete? Malone is just one board member, and he likely won’t have too much say.
The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta told Stelter, “What Malone said was comical. It’s just a joke. It’s not real.” He also added that Discovery CEO David Zaslav disagrees with Malone. But …
“If I was at CNN,” Auletta said, “and I was an employee and I loved working under Jeff Zucker for understandable reasons, I would be concerned. There’s no question that David Zaslav believes there is too much commentary on CNN. … So I would be a little nervous if I was at CNN.”
NBC tackles Olympic controversies
NBC is getting plenty of pats on the back for covering the various issues with China hosting this year’s Winter Olympics. Just moments into Friday night’s coverage of the opening ceremonies, hosts Mike Tirico and Savannah Guthrie talked about China’s human rights record. The two were joined by Bloomberg’s Andy Browne and Yale professor Jing Tsu to further discuss alleged abuses and genocide on the Uyghur Muslim population in the Western Xinjiang region of the country.
Browne said on air, “They allege a host of human rights abuses, forced labor, coercive birth control practices, indoctrination, and that this all adds up to a form of cultural genocide.”
China has denied these allegations. One of the athletes chosen to light the Olympic cauldron was Dinigeer Yilamujiang, a cross country skier, whom China says has Uyghur heritage.
Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel wrote, “That choice, a female Uyghur, was a direct shot at outside groups and governments who have condemned China for its treatment against Muslim ethnic minorities who mostly reside in the far northwest part of the country.”
Guthrie called it an “in-your-face response.”
During the opening ceremony broadcast, NBC aired a detailed, prerecorded clip about various human rights issues involving China. It also mentioned the case of Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai, who accused a government official of sexual assault via social media, and then disappeared from public sight and later denied that assault.
Writing for Vulture, Jen Chaney wrote, “There was simply no way to ignore the divisive politics hovering over these games, and NBC, to its credit, made sure its live coverage did not.”
But NBC is celebrating the Olympics, too.
The network has spent billions for broadcast rights of the Olympics, and obviously wants viewers to tune in to watch the next two weeks from Beijing. At the same time, it cannot ignore what’s going on in China, and expect to be taken seriously as a news organization. It would appear NBC’s plan was to hit the controversies hard at the beginning, but then turn attention to the actual events.
Viewers, too, are left wondering what we should do. Should we boycott the Games because of the International Olympic Committee’s decision to give another Olympics to China? Or can we enjoy the competition and the athletes who have nothing to do with the politics and the controversies?
I did find this to be an interesting point made by J.A. Adande on ESPN’s “Around The Horn.” Adande said, “I think it’s standard in sports right now. You have to have a cognitive dissonance. You need to compartmentalize.”
Adande accurately pointed out that millions upon millions of Americans have enjoyed one of the best and most entertaining NFL postseasons ever — and will watch next Sunday’s Super Bowl — and yet have done so despite disturbing allegations about how women are treated with the Washington football team, a lawsuit that further points out the inexcusable lack of minority head coaches and a concussion problem that has been around for decades.
Then Adande said, “Who are we to criticize China’s human rights record when we have ongoing attacks by the agents of the state against unarmed citizens? We’ve got assaults on the voting rights of people of color in various states in this country. Sports — I think it is possible and it is necessary more than ever to just shut everything (else) out if you are to enjoy the actual games themselves.”
Adande made a thought-provoking point when it came to the IOC giving the Olympics to Chinna when he asked, “It’s very hard to find a country that isn’t problematic when it comes to human rights, including here.”
Predictions going into these Olympics were that the TV numbers would be way down. NBC’s coverage of the opening ceremony averaged 14 million viewers. That’s about half of the 27.9 million that watched the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games in South Korea.
Aside from the political controversies, this year’s Olympics also have other strikes against it, including no fans because of COVID-19 concerns. And while NBC is doing a superb job covering the events, having commentators calling the events from a studio in Connecticut instead of actually being on-site might have an impact, too.
Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel wrote, “It all adds up. And right now it subtracts into fewer and fewer viewers, who so far have too many other options than to tune into a passionless, fanless, overly political event from a country trying to use the Olympics to brush aside the horrors occurring inside its border. To the IOC, this is great. Thus far, the American viewer is less accepting.”
Final thought about NBC and the Olympics
It’s quite a sports week at NBC. Aside from the Winter Olympics, it also is carrying Sunday’s Super Bowl. And with so many watching the Super Bowl, this year’s Olympics might get a much-needed boost midway through the Games.
Gold medal pieces
As far as the Games themselves, check out these must-see pieces:
- Stunning work by The New York Times in “The Jumps That Gave Zoi Sadowski-Synnott Gold in Slopestyle.”
- Also from The New York Times, Keith Bradsher and Alan Blinder with “Two Sports Injuries, Two Different Outcomes at Olympic Venues.”
- The Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga with “Everyone knows Mikaela Shiffrin. Her lack of company is U.S. skiing’s concern.”
- USA Today’s Tom Schad with “Ocala at Winter Olympics: The unlikely pipeline at the heart of the U.S. speedskating team.”
More Joe Rogan controversies
Joe Rogan, already in the middle of a controversy over things said about COVID-19 on his very popular Spotify podcast, finds himself in another controversy. Singer-songwriter India.Arie announced she was pulling her music from Spotify while posting a video on Instagram stories that showed Rogan using the N-word more than 20 times on his podcast over a dozen years.
She said, “He shouldn’t even be uttering the word. Don’t even say it, under any context. Don’t say it. That’s where I stand. I have always stood there.”
This all comes as Spotify pulled more than 100 episodes of “The Joe Rogan Experience” from its platform. Forbes’ Lisa Kim wrote, “All except one of the episodes were recorded before the coronavirus pandemic took off in the United States, which makes it unlikely their removal was linked to Rogan’s dubious claims about COVID-19.”
Rogan put up an Instagram post saying that the clips were “taken out of context.” But he also called it “the most regretful and shameful thing” he has ever had to address.
Rogan went on to say, “I know that to most people, there’s no context where a white person is ever allowed to say that, never mind publicly on a podcast, and I agree with that now. I haven’t said it in years.”
Rogan said he thought it was OK to use it (instead of saying “the N-word”) in certain situations. He said he thought that if it was “in context, people would understand what I was doing.”
Rogan also said, “It’s not my word to use. … I never used it to be racist, because I’m not racist, but whenever you’re in a situation where you have to say ‘I’m not racist,’ you’ve (messed) up, and I clearly have (messed) up.”
Meanwhile, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has a new piece out with the headline: “I’m disgusted by Joe Rogan’s weak apology. My former colleague’s death at 47 makes it worse.”
She ripped into Rogan and Spotify following Rogan’s video last week talking about the original controversy after rock legends Neil Young and Joni Mitchell asked their music be pulled because of misinformation about COVID-19 on Rogan’s podcast.
Sullivan wrote, “To my ears, Rogan sounded glib, narcissistic and clueless. And Spotify — the platform that enables him by insisting it would be wrong to restrain what he does on his podcast — is even worse. Its failure to take any meaningful responsibility, other than adding a few disclaimers, is all too reminiscent of the way Facebook, for years, has dodged accountability for spreading so many harmful lies.”
Sullivan mentioned a former colleague at The Buffalo News, Miguel Rodriguez, who died last week at the age of 47 from COVID-19. Sullivan said that Rodriguez was overweight and asthmatic, as well as unvaccinated. She also said she did not know if Rodriguez listened to Rogan’s podcast.
But, her point was that Rogan should be helping in the fight against COVID-19.
She wrote, “Imagine if Rogan were to use his incredibly powerful voice — he has some 11 million listeners per episode — to talk productively about all of this, to counter some of the destructive bilge instead of adding to it. Imagine if Spotify recognized that a platform is essentially a publisher, and that media organizations of all kinds constantly have to make decisions about what’s appropriate to put on the air, in their pages or on their websites.”
But make no mistake, Rogan isn’t going anywhere. Spotify CEO Daniel Ek sent a note to staff Sunday night saying, “There are no words I can say to adequately convey how deeply sorry I am for the way The Joe Rogan Experience continues to impact each of you.”
Ek mentioned Rogan’s apology and the removal of some episodes and acknowledged that some would want more than that. But, Ek wrote, “I do not believe that silencing Joe is the answer. We should have clear lines around content and take action when they are crossed, but canceling voices is a slippery slope. Looking at the issue more broadly, it’s critical thinking and open debate that powers real and necessary progress.”
Palin v. The New York Times
Sarah Palin’s defamation trial against The New York Times continues this week. It had been delayed because Palin tested positive for COVID-19. The trial finally started late last week.
Palin is suing over a 2017 editorial that erroneously claimed her political rhetoric led to a mass shooting in 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, that led to six deaths and wounded Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The Times quickly published a correction. At the heart of this matter is the landmark 1964 case of The New York Times v. Sullivan. That decision ruled that not only must public officials prove defamation, but that the news outlet did it with “actual malice.”
- Jeremy W. Peters, who covers politics and the media for The New York Times, has a new book out this week called “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted.” Here’s an excerpt in the Times: “Where Fox News and Donald Trump Took Us.”
- For Politico Magazine, Joanna Weiss with “Political TV Shows Have Never Been Worse. Sitcoms Are the Exception.”
- The latest from Politico senior media writer Jack Shafer: “The New York Times Is Becoming Amazon. And That’s a Good Thing.”
- Rolling Stone’s Andy Kroll with “Wisconsin Is Ground Zero for the MAGA Effort to Steal the Next Election.”
- Love the alternative storytelling here (although, as a baseball fan, it’s a depressing story): Washington Post baseball writer Chelsea Janes explains, “How the baseball lockout could delay Opening Day.”
- Also in the Post, Lenny Bernstein, Marisa Iati, Paulina Firozi and Brittany Shammas with “A new attitude toward the pandemic seems to be taking shape. But we’ve been here before.”
Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at email@example.com.
Clarification: This article has been updated to accurately quote J.A. Adande when he said viewers must have “cognitive dissonance” to watch the Olympics. Another word was mistakenly typed in the original version. We apologize for the error.
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