CNN will not give $5 million to charity to ensure Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump appears on the Republican debate set to air on the Time Warner-owned cable-news outlet on December 15, the network’s top executive said Thursday.
“No,” said CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker, responding to a question about a demand from Trump that CNN donate $5 million to charity or face the chance the candidate might boycott the event. “We do not pay candidates to appear” on the network. Zucker made his comments at an event held by the Paley Center for Media, as part of a wide-ranging interview with Ben Smith, editor in chief of digital outlet BuzzFeed.
CNN had previously declined to respond to the candidate’s demand that CNN give $5 million to charities associated with U.S. military veterans.
That doesn’t mean the network won’t continue to cover Trump’s various activities. BuzzFeed’s Smith chided Zucker over the amount of time the network has devoted to the real-estate mogul, asking if Zucker felt responsible for the candidate’s popularity. He also asked if Zucker felt CNN should call Trump out for remarks he has made about different races and classes of people. ” I don’t think it’s our role to take a point of view,” Zucker said. “It’s our role to report what he says, what he does, to fact check what he says and what he does. It’s not our role to build up a campaign or take down a campaign.”
Zucker also said he has begun to crack down on over-use of on-air graphics trumpeting “Breaking News” on the network, part of a belief that CNN needs to confirm details about news stories rather than just repeat details viewers are gleaning from social media. “I want to make sure we know what we are doing, and not just calling ‘breaking news,” on air, Zucker said.
As an example, the news chief disclosed that CNN had learned the identity of one of the suspected shooters in yesterday’s mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, by early primetime Wednesday night but actually waited until 11:45 p.m. to put it on air. The network had “five sources,” Zucker confided to the audience, but “we wanted to flesh it out to make sure we had everything about it.” Viewers hear many details from Twitter or Facebook or friends, he said, “but they came to us because they know when we reported it, it would be right.”
Viewers can also expect a few changes on HLN, a sister network to CNN that Zucker also oversees. That outlet recently parted ways with its top programmer, Albie Hecht, as Zucker has articulated a new strategy that will have HLN rely more heavily on the library of original non-fiction series CNN has built in recent years. Zucker praised HLN’s “Morning Express” morning program and its primetime lineup, so the new focus is likely to be seen more strongly during the network’s daytime and overnight hours.
HLN was once known as “CNN Headline News,” but “anybody can give out the headlines, so that’s not really a strategy,” said Zucker. “We are trying to figure it out. We don’t think there’s room for four cable-news networks in the U.S. I don’t think there’s enough room for three.” The network recently tried to feature programming focused on topics trending in social media, but will now back away from such fare.
Zucker took some time to tout CNN’s resurgence in the ratings since he joined the organization three years ago. CNN he said, now ranks second among U.S. cable-news networks in the ratings, but he hoped to make more progress. Though the company factors in international performance and digital activity in sussing out its operational health, Zucker said he would one day like to unseat 21st Century Fox’s Fox News Channel in TV ratings.
“I believe we can get there,” said Zucker. “I don’t know when.”