A question consumed CNN employees recently: Was the company’s president, Jeff Zucker, going to leave after the presidential inauguration?
Zucker came quite close to exiting, according to associates, but decided to stay on. He told employees on Thursday morning that he will remain with CNN’s parent, WarnerMedia, through the end of the year.
“The truth is, back in November and December I had basically decided that it was time to move on now,” Zucker said on the company’s daily editorial call. “But since then I’ve had a change of heart. And I want to stay. Not forever, but for another year. And I feel really good about this decision.”
Zucker oversees both CNN and the parent company’s sports assets as the chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports.
Zucker’s timeline provides some short-term stability at CNN, where he is widely seen as a driving force.
And his decision has consequences far beyond internal politics because CNN is one of the biggest news providers in the world.
Zucker, a veteran of NBC, took over CNN in 2013. At the time, industry publications were filled with stories about CNN’s “identity crisis,” lost between Fox’s more popular programming on the right and MSNBC’s programming on the left.
Zucker brought a producer’s brain, a nose for news and an eye for talent. Numerous stories described his hands-on management and his support for confrontational interviews.
In the Trump years, CNN adopted the slogan “Facts First” and called out the administration’s mendacity, gaining the trust of many viewers while alienating some Trump fans. Zucker became a boogeyman of sorts for Trump and on Fox’s prime time shows — yet more evidence of his larger-than-life status in the news business.
After AT&T acquired CNN and the rest of WarnerMedia in 2018, Zucker’s counterparts at other divisions of the media company either were replaced or opted to leave. Sources described occasional strains between Zucker and AT&T leadership. But the wireless giant also protected CNN’s autonomy and staunchly defended the news brand amid Trump’s attacks.
Further changes were implemented when AT&T appointed Jason Kilar to lead WarnerMedia last year. In October The Information and The Wall Street Journal reported that Zucker could leave after the election, even though his contract continued through 2021.
“Zucker could be drawn to pursue his other passions, which include politics and sports, people who know him say,” The Journal reported in a front-page story.
The stories sparked speculation and no small amount of concern within CNN.
“In seven years, Zucker has become as critical an element of CNN’s DNA as Ted Turner, the guy who built the thing in the first place,” Variety reporter Brian Steinberg wrote.
The institution, of course, is far bigger than any individual — CNN has about 4,000 employees and one of the most robust newsgathering operations on the planet. And Zucker isn’t immune to internal criticism. But by and large the sprawling organization has been at its best when a strong leader has set the direction.
Kilar seemed to acknowledge this when he praised Zucker in interviews in December. “The two best things that ever happened to CNN were Ted Turner and Jeff Zucker,” Kilar said.
Back in October and November, Zucker “was pretty well set on leaving right after the inauguration,” an associate said.
“The industry is changing, our company is changing, so I have a lot to think about,” he told staffers in late October.
News executive transitions are commonplace at the end of presidential election cycles. And it may have been tempting for Zucker to go out on top, so to speak, since CNN has been No. 1 in the cable news ratings race, a rare dethroning of Fox.
Ultimately “he chose to stay because he loves his work,” the associate said.
“CNN has never been stronger, and that is something I am incredibly proud of,” Zucker said.
The Los Angeles Times, which broke the news of his decision, said “Zucker currently has no plans beyond 2021. Opportunities are likely to become clearer when the pandemic subsides and business returns to normal.”