CNN President Jeff Zucker went on the defensive Wednesday night, when a room full of campaign surrogates called him out for his network’s lopsided campaign coverage. However, as a surrogate for a former GOP candidate pointed out, the MRC has proven that CNN's track record this campaign season has been anything but defensible.
As journalists try to explain away how they could have been so wrong about the 2016 election, campaign advisors and surrogates from both parties met with representatives from the media at the Harvard Campaign Managers Conference to discuss what happened the past year.
Zucker defended CNN’s primary coverage (which overwhelmingly focused on Donald Trump), insisting that that the network had “continuously asked the other candidates to come on and do interviews. And, almost to a person, they declined.” He added that “all of the Republican candidates were invited to come on, live or to call into the morning show, which is what he did.” When surrogates from the room objected, Zucker dismissed them, saying "I have to respectfully push back on the campaign managers who spoke here today, because frankly, respectfully, I think that’s bullshit.”
“My point is this,” Zucker continued. “Cable news in general and CNN in particular should not be held responsible for the fact that Donald Trump said yes to those interviews, and the others –” at this point he was cut off by several people in the room calling him out for this statement.
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According to Politico, Sarah Huckabee Sanders (daughter of Mike Huckabee, and surrogate for both her father and Trump) cited a study to point out CNN’s unbalanced coverage during the GOP primary.
“‘Wrong!’ shouted Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who had worked as campaign manager for her father [after Zucker had said that all candidates were invited on CNN]. Later, Sanders rattled off one statistic from August 2015 that in a 10-day period Trump had been on CNN during prime time for 256 minutes, and Mike Huckabee had been on for 17 seconds.”
While she didn’t mention her source, there was only one study comparing CNN airtime for GOP candidates during that month, and it was produced by the MRC. We showed how, over a two-week period, Trump’s campaign took up nearly 78 percent of all of CNN’s prime time GOP campaign coverage – 580 minutes out of a total of 747. All 16 non-Trump candidates got a combined total of just 167 minutes, much of which was spent comparing them to Trump.
An earlier MRC study proved that the primary coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening news shows followed the same trend.
Zucker also claimed that his network’s coverage was based on CNN’s recognition that Trump had hit a nerve with many in the country. “You know, look, I think that, I mean, I think to our credit we recognized pretty early on that there was something about Trump that was resonating.” Citing his past work with Trump on The Apprentice, Zucker claimed “And I think that we had a pretty good understanding of who he was and how he resonated. So I think, perhaps, maybe earlier than most, we knew that there was something that was going on with him early on.” He conceded that “With the early rallies, in those, you know, first few months, I spoke at the Kennedy School about two months ago, and I said that, if we could do it over, we probably wouldn’t put as many of those early Trump rallies on unedited as we did,” but then he quickly defended that decision as something “I think cable news as a whole did,” adding, “OK, that’s not why he was the Republican nominee, and that’s not why he’s the President of the United States.”
Zucker also warned against the implications of Trump bashing the media. “I think one of the issues that is going on is, many of our institutions in this country are being denigrated, and I think that’s a real problem. And I think that’s why it’s a problem when the President-elect stands at a rally and says the things he says about the media, or that he says about CNN, and that’s a problem. And that hurts all of us. Not just CNN or The Washington Post or – but it hurts, it hurts everyone. And that is a problem for all age groups, obviously younger as well.”
Later in the same panel discussion, faced with a question of how journalists failed to see what was going on in much of the country before the election, Executive Editor of the Associated Press Kathleen Carroll denied any such disconnect, defending not just her own outlet but her entire industry. “I know that there are some organizations or some journalists or some – some observers who feel like the media ought to put on a hair shirt, and I think that’s crap. I don’t think we should.”
The New York Times described the backlash against Zucker at the conference as an “A-list revolt.”
This quote, as recorded by The New York Times, sums up the feeling towards CNN from many in the room:
“When Sasha Issenberg, the moderator, suggested that the panel move from CNN “to a less contentious subject, fake news,” Jeff Roe, Mr. Cruz’s campaign manager, piped up.
“‘You just covered that!’ he said.”
You can listen to full sessions from the conference here: http://iop.harvard.edu/get-inspired/campaign-managers-conference/campaign-president-m-look-2016