When Jeff Zucker first arrived at CNN in 2013, he had lunch with Anderson Cooper. The star journalist anchored a primetime hour of news at 8 p.m., which typically re-aired at 10 p.m. “I don’t think CNN should be doing repeats at 10 o’clock on a weekday night,” Zucker, the new president of CNN, told him. Cooper agreed. And by adding an hour of news with Don Lemon to the nightly programming block, CNN’s lineup has been more focused on covering big breaking news stories, which has resulted in a ratings jump chronicled in this week’s Variety cover story.
Like his network, Cooper has also had a big year. He’s been the face of CNN’s presidential debates and town halls and his coverage of the Orlando nightclub massacre became a critical voice in the national tragedy that left 49 victims dead. Cooper spoke to Variety about working for Zucker and CNN’s new momentum.
How did CNN change with Jeff Zucker’s arrival?
To me, since Jeff has gotten here, it feels like we’re firing on all cylinders. We’re producing more unique programming. This is an organization that’s huge. It’s hard to comprehend—there’s CNN International, there’s CNN Espanol. There’s a lot of moving parts. He’s been able to manage them. I don’t know that he sleeps. I’ve spent five days with him at a time. He’s on his phone a lot. He’s just very good at what he does, frankly.
How does Jeff sharpen CNN’s coverage?
He’s a great television producer. On big events, he’s in the control room. Even on regular nights, he calls into the control room. He watches content, it seems, all the time. It’s incredible to me the detail that he notices. He’s revolutionized the way we prepare for presidential debates in a way that’s so smart. The debates that have been on CNN have been really well done.
Your comment to Donald Trump—“that’s the argument of a 5-year-old”—in one of the town halls went viral. How did you prepare for interviewing Trump?
I like to read everything somebody has said within the last six weeks or longer. If you read everything, you kind of know what they are going to say. Donald Trump is unique in that way. To his credit, you can ask him a question he hasn’t answered before, and he’ll answer it off the top of his head. It’s one of the things a lot people like about him. They get a sense he’s saying what’s on his mind. I knew he might say that [“I didn’t start it,” Trump responded when asked about a Twitter feud with Ted Cruz over their wives]. I hadn’t thought what I might say in response. It’s like a future game of three-dimensional chess. There are only a certain combinations of how things might happen. You try to think through them.
Your coverage of Orlando defined the story for so many people.
CNN has for as long as I’ve been here done a great job of sending people to the story. But Jeff has really doubled down on that and devoted resources to certain stories. Certainly, Orlando is one [example] of that. I was in London when it happened on an early Sunday morning. I remember seeing tweets about it—shots had been fired. And I started monitoring it. I was supposed to be on vacation that week. I obviously called in: “I don’t care about my vacation. I’m happy to come back. I’d like to come back.” I flew directly there. You can’t underestimate the importance of being there.
There was a sense a few years ago that CNN couldn’t beat MSNBC. And now you are. Has a lack of political ideology helped CNN cover this year’s election?
I don’t believe in there being a liberal newscast or a conservative newscast. Or a Republican reporter or a Democratic reporter. I think you should be fair and talk about what you know and acknowledge what you don’t know. It’s not an accident that we’ve been able to sponsor debates for Republicans as well as Democrats. I think that says something about CNN. Look, there’s going to be plenty of viewers that have strong political leanings one way or another who disagree at any given time: there’s too much coverage on one candidate, or the tone of the coverage. I get emails or tweets every day from people saying we are covering Trump too much. Or we’re too much in Trump’s camp. Or we’re too anti-Hillary. Or we’re covering Hillary too much. If you get equal amounts of those tweets that day, that’s about the best you can hope for.
If ABC wants you to co-host “Live with Kelly Ripa,” have you asked Jeff if CNN would let you do that?
It’s such a hypothetical. To me, it’s such a long shot. I have no idea what the timetable on that would be even be. If it happens, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Right now, I work for CNN and I do pieces for “60 Minutes.” I don’t want to waste Jeff’s time with things that aren’t completely real.
Your contract is up next year. Will you stay at CNN?
I think I have a a year-and-a-half on my contract. I would love to stay. I love CNN. I’ve been here 15 years. When Charlie Hebdo happened, or the attack at the Bataclan, I was on airplane as quickly as possible to get over there. When Katrina happened, I was there for a month. When the earthquake in Haiti happened, I was there for more than a month. There are few places these days that allow you to do that. CNN certainly under Jeff encourages that and wants you there.