Zucker spoke at the Financial Times-hosted Future of News conference in New York. In discussing the general state of the cable TV marketplace, Zucker said he feels Fox News has taken a bad turn during the past two years with unquestioning coverage of the Trump administration. Even in the sharp elbows world of cable TV news, Zucker’s comments were surprisingly harsh as a blanket statement about a competitor.
“What has happened there in the last two years is somewhat shocking frankly. It really is state-run TV,” Zucker said in a Q&A with the Financial Times’ Matthew Garrahan. “It is a pure propaganda machine and I think it does an incredible disservice to this country.”
Zucker’s comments echoed the sentiment of former Fox News contributor Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who resigned from his role at the network citing concerns about the quality of the journalism at Fox News.
“He said out loud what many have been saying about what Fox News has become,” Zucker said. “What has happened to that network in the last 18 months, especially in the last year, it has just turned itself over to state-run TV. Tass has nothing on them.”
Zucker allowed that Fox News has “a handful of really good journalists there but they are lost in what is a complete propaganda machine.”
Zucker declined to elaborate on his remarks when asked by Variety after the Q&A. Before he left the stage, however, he apologized to CNN PR chief Allison Gollust, who was in the audience.
The session wasn’t all about bashing Fox News. Zucker spoke of how CNN balances its breaking news coverage largely on digital platforms while the linear channel focuses on deep dives into a handful of top stories at any given time.
“We’re covering more news than we ever covered before and most of that is on our digital platforms,” he said. “Everybody here is going to find out what’s going on from their phone. And so we provide all that news and information (online). People are not going to come to TV to find a wheel of (stories about) what’s going on in the world. They’re going to find that on their phone. On television we go much deeper on the one, two, or three stories driving the news that day.”
Zucker emphasized that digital has expanded CNN’s reach to unprecedented levels. “We’ve had three of the most-watched years in the history of CNN. In digital, nobody touches in terms of audience levels.”
Zucker was also asked about his complicated relationship with President Trump. Zucker was running CNN at the time that “The Apprentice” turned Donald Trump into a household name. Zucker said he was concerned that Trump’s incessant hammering of mainstream news organizations is dangerous to journalists.
“He has whipped up anti-media sentient that is dangerous and frankly harmful and potentially incredibly dangerous,” Zucker said. “I think he doesn’t even understand the danger he’s causing the journalists and the danger he’s doing to media organizations. None of that changes our daily responsibility which is to get the facts right and tell the truth. Our job is to hold those in power accountable. That’s our only job.”
Zucker’s comments came on the same day as opening statements in the anti-trust trial in Washington, D.C. that will determine the fate of AT&T’s $85.4 billion merger with CNN parent Time Warner. Trump’s animus toward CNN is widely viewed as one reason why the Justice Department is fighting the merger. Zucker said he has “absolutely no idea” if those assumptions are true. “The case is happening now, we’ll let that play out,” he said.