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Well, it’s pretty clear that Jeff Zucker, the man hired to make CNN something that it currently isn’t, has finished his building tour, found the cafeteria, met the secretaries, seen all of the secret Ted Turner files, memorized a bunch of names and finished reading his employee handbook.
Now it’s boot-to-ass time — or, if your sensibilities are too delicate for that housecleaning metaphor, maybe Zucker has stolen the punchline from comic Michael Meehan and simply started telling people, “Don’t use that door; that’s for employees only.”
Although Zucker was hired in November, he just started last week. Nothing like a man with a running start to knock people through the upper-floor windows.
It’s too early to tell exactly what Zucker is doing to CNN or what it might look like in two years or even two weeks (and yet, we’ll try later on in this column). But we do know that people are landing in the street in piles, either by their own decision or his (likely his).
Managing editor and executive vp Mark Whitaker is leaving, saying in a memo: “We have a new leader with his own forceful ideas about where to take CNN’s reporting, programming and brand. For him to succeed, I believe he deserves his own team and management structure and the freedom to communicate one clear vision to the staff.”
Only a cynic would say that once Whitaker wrote those words, he looked up and said, “Did you say ‘the’ staff or ‘his’ staff, Jeff?”
In either case, what’s to be taken from that particular paragraph are the words “own forceful ideas” and “one clear vision.” That could be Whitaker’s way of saying, “The oligarchy is out; King Z is in,” or maybe just, “It’s his toy now, and he doesn’t play well with others.” Either way we can assume the checks-and-balances thing is out the door. That leaves Zucker with all the glory if CNN is revitalized under his leadership and — not to get ahead of ourselves here, but it’s worth noting for historical purposes — all the blame if the news channel pulls an NBC.
Other changes from Zucker include the ousting of James Carville and Mary Matalin, the aisle-crossing Punch and Punch-Back Judy husband-and-wife team who are in some ways the poster couple for CNN’s past.
CNN brought in ABC’s John Berman to host Early Start, the 5 to 7 a.m. morning show, and Berman’s jocular style has met Zucker’s stamp of approval. He just brought in Chris Cuomo, former Good Morning America news anchor at ABC, to jump-start the slot after Early Start, which formerly belonged to Soledad O’Brien‘s Starting Point show, which — yes, this is too easy — never got started and thus earned her no points. CNN reportedly has said that it is discussing its options for O’Brien. Of course, if you’ve ever been in a situation where new management dumps you and is discussing your options, you understand that no good can come from that.
Another Zucker grab was Jake Tapper, also from ABC (if you’re sensing a trend here, Zucker allegedly was advising ABC News on how to beat the snot out of his former baby, NBC’s Today show — and perhaps the biggest advice Zucker leaves behind is don’t show him your cards or he’ll steal them from you). Tapper, the White House correspondent, now will be an anchor.
If you’re not an ESPN viewer, you might also have missed the fact that Zucker grabbed its reporter Rachel Nichols and is said to be giving her a weekend sports anchor job.
Fishbowl D.C. reported that CNN contributors Bill Bennett and Maria Cardona also are out, as is Erick Erickson, CNN’s conservative blogger and pundit — who reportedly now will head to Fox News.
Is that it? Well, sure, that’ll do nicely for a Tuesday.
Reading the tea leaves on these moves indicates a couple of fairly obvious points: Zucker did his advance scouting on talent he’d like to poach and wasted little time in securing their services to shore up some of CNN’s numerous weak spots. Tapper and Cuomo were excellent picks and sticking with Berman was smart. Nichols has a long sports background and could be indicative of Zucker’s desire to make CNN something other than a pure news destination. What he wants are strong personalities behind the headlines, which is the textbook way you sell news to viewers. He’s probably got plenty of other names and faces he’d like to sign up and a continuing transformation of the hard-news CNN into the likable-newspeople CNN seems inevitable.
But there also are some hints in the addition by subtraction that Zucker has quickly implemented. O’Brien might have a role at CNN if she decides to stay there, but the numbers for her morning show were weak and Zucker doesn’t like morning show weakness. In many ways, he’s a believer in the same philosophy that guides radio stations around the country: You set the tone for the rest of the day by having a dominant morning show. If you’re dead in the a.m., you’re dead in the p.m.
Ousting Carville and Matalin is like taking off a rusty bumper. The political pundits and partners were indicative of the old-school CNN approach. Carville was a Democratic consultant and Matalin a Republican consultant. As CNN tried to play the fair-and-balanced card someone one else lies about, it just came across as indecisive. In a world of news channels identifying themselves by political partisanship — which taps into the country’s unmendable divide — CNN seemed less objective than unsure of itself. You might have guessed from recent events that Zucker is anything but unsure of himself.
It could be, however, that Matalin was more the target than Carville. Because dumping Bennett, whose super-conservative views always seemed a better fit for Fox News, and Matalin (as a starting point) plus Erickson could be a hint that CNN wants to put MSNBC out of business first, which would make sense on a number of fronts that involve Zucker. Let’s see how many other Republican-leaning pundits are shown the door.
Although Cardona’s politics seem soundly Democratic, it could simply be that Zucker doesn’t think she’s a draw with viewers (see: O’Brien, Soledad). Framing everything through the lens of politics is dangerous and probably isn’t what Zucker is ultimately after. He indeed might want CNN to grasp the wide-open opportunity to be the anti-Fox News (so shakily held by MSNBC), but that doesn’t negate his right to dump anyone not popping off the screen and coming into the living rooms of CNN viewers.
But we’ll have plenty of time to evaluate where Zucker’s taking CNN. Right now, we need all the time we’ve got to keep counting bodies. It’s only Tuesday, after all.
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