CNN's Jeff Zucker: Suing the White House Was Worth It

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Jeff Zucker

"Quite literally, they put our lives at risk with their words and actions," Zucker said of the Trump White House at a press freedom dinner in Washington.

In a room full of well-dressed journalists and executives on Wednesday night, CNN's Jeff Zucker accepted the First Amendment Award on behalf of his network and argued that suing the White House to return reporter Jim Acosta's press badge in November was the right decision.

"Last November, we made the most uncomfortable and easiest decision of my career," said the exec. "We didn't pick that fight. We didn't want that fight. But, the decision to fight for our right was easy."

Continued Zucker: "Some things are bigger than us, and sometimes the right thing to do is extremely clear. As you know, we won that case. A judge appointed by Donald Trump restored Jim's White House credential almost immediately. ... We sued the President of the United States because on that day it was CNN, but on any other day, it could have been any one of you. This administration has made it abundantly clear that they do not have respect for or tolerance of a free and independent press."

Of the Trump White House, Zucker said, "Quite literally, they put our lives at risk with their words and their actions." Later, he added, "Suing the White House is not something that should be taken lightly, either. I am proud to be part of an organization that was willing to take the bold step that we did."

In a rare gesture of goodwill between rival cable networks, Zucker applauded Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, who received the Radio Television Digital News Foundation's Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award at the dinner. "I especially want to congratulate Shep, whom I admire greatly," he said.

James Goldston, president of ABC News, received the First Amendment Service Award. "It's painful for me to hear journalism, our most important democratic freedom, called out as 'fake news' and to witness the pervasive and what sometimes feels like the deliberate destruction of our national disclosure," he said.

Goldston, who was introduced by his chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz, told the crowd, "Make no mistake: We are not the problem here. But the threat we face as journalists in this moment is very, very real," citing attacks on journalists and the broader erosion of the public's trust in media. He added, "We're under sustained attack, and you feel it every day."

Goldston also issued a call to arms: "At this moment, it feels like it calls for us to be better at what we do than ever before. We have to be straightforward in doing that. We've got to dig deep, get it right, don't take sides, own our mistakes when we make them."

Smith's boss and former producer, Jay Wallace, was on hand at the event, held at Washington's Marriott Marquis, to see Smith receive the award, along with Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace. (Smith's brother, Benton, and his partner, Gio, were also in attendance.)

"Being accurate and honest and thorough and fair is our primary mission," Smith said. "It's our professional calling and everyone on my team takes it extremely seriously. ... The times ahead will test all of us as finders and disseminators of accurate information."

He added, "The First Amendment that this award honors gives us the protection to do what's right, to do what's right no matter what." Concluding his speech, Smith told the crowd, "Good night, and get it right."

CNN political analyst Carl Bernstein introduced Zucker and teed up his address. "It's the press and the First Amendment that right now is protecting this country in a way that no institution or individual in our culture is," he said. "We're here tonight at a deadly serious moment even as we celebrate."

Bernstein was effusive in his praise for Zucker, saying his decision-making in determining "what is news" for the network "has been essential to framing the national debate. ... Under Jeff Zucker and his leadership, I think CNN has grasped something from the beginning about this presidency and about this moment."

Newly anointed CBS News president Susan Zirinsky provided a moment of levity when presenting an award to correspondent David Begnaud. "I'm here tonight to celebrate someone very special at CBS — R. Kelly," she said. "No, I'm just kidding." (The network achieved big ratings from Gayle King's interview with the R&B singer, who has been charged with criminal sexual abuse.)