MIAMI — Jeff Zucker didn’t mince words.
“Nothing is as important than what I’m doing now,” the CNN Worldwide chief said of his long career in media as he was feted Wednesday night as one of five Brandon Tartikoff Award honorees.
Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide and chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, sounded the alarm for press freedom at a time when President Donald Trump has relentlessly attacked the credibility of the mainstream news media. Zucker’s remarks came on the same day that the impeachment trial of Trump began in the U.S. Senate.
“Journalists in this country are under assault and that is very dangerous,” Zucker said. “If journalists don’t hold those in power accountable, our democracy is done.”
Zucker was joined in the honorees circle by actor Christine Baranski, ABC Entertainment president Karey Burke, “Power” creator/executive producer Courtney Kemp and Telemundo Global Studios president Marcos Santana.
Zucker and Burke shared memories of working with the award’s namesake and the impact he had on their lives. Zucker recalled Tartikoff’s “pure kindness” after the former was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 31. Tartikoff had been through a similar experience and was quick to reach out to Zucker with support and counsel. Tartikoff died of cancer not long afterward, in 1997, at the age of 48.
“If you grew up at NBC like I did for 25 years like I did, you know what it means to be mentioned in the same breath as Brandon Tartikoff,” Zucker said.
Burke, who spent 15 years at NBC, remembered her days as a member of NBC’s “secretarial pool” before she was encouraged by then-NBC executive Warren Littlefield (who was on hand to present Burke’s award) to skip law school and try for a programming job at the Peacock. Tartikoff impressed the junior executive with his eagerness to hear opinions and ideas from anyone in the room, not just the top brass.
“I thought of Brandon as the Pied Piper and P.T. Barnum all rolled in to one,” Burke recalled.
Michelle King, co-creator and executive producer of “The Good Wife” and “The Good Fight,” described working with Baranski, an Emmy and Tony winner, as “one of life’s greatest pleasures.” Baranski’s long run as lawyer Diane Lockhart on “Good Wife” and “Good Fight” has “taught a generation of women how to be a smart, confident, powerful lawyer who looks fabulous in heels,” King said.
Baranski spoke of her initial reluctance to work in television after two decades on stage. She credited Chuck Lorre’s decision to cast her in the CBS sitcom “Cybill” with pushing her profile as an actor to new heights. She also heaped credit on King and “Good Wife”/“Good Fight” co-creator Robert King for giving her a role that has lasted more than 10 years and counting.
Lockhart is the rare example of “a truly mature female character who is smart, articulate and authoritative,” Baranski said. “She’s powerful without being a bitch, feminine without being a victim, comfortable in a crowded conference room or alone in bed with her Republican husband…Who knew I was playing Nancy Pelosi?”
Santana was praised by former Telemundo and Universal TV executive Jim McNamara for his work to bring innovations to Spanish-language TV in the U.S.
Santana said his life’s work has been to “elevate the quality fo Spanish-language television” and “to give Latinos (TV) produced by Hispanics for Hispanics.” He marveled at how hits like Telemundo’s “La Reina del Sur,” have taken the Spanish-language TV market from “a niche telenovela market to the television mainstream.”
Kemp, creator/executive producer and showrunner of Starz’s “Power,” used her time at the podium to call on the crowd to work for greater diversity in all levels of the entertainment industry.
Kemp, who was introduced by Lionsgate chief Jon Feltheimer as “funny, smart, demanding and a perfectionist,” said that her early experience in seeking writing jobs taught her that she came from the “two-fer generation — hiring me you got a woman and a person of color in one shot.”
The landscape is changing, she noted, but not without intention on the part of those in power.
“What a privilege it is to be a black woman in America to have the privilege to write what I know and what I love,” she said.
Now that Kemp is in a leadership position as a prolific showrunner with franchise ambition for the crime drama “Power,” she tries to keep laser-focused on looking for opportunities to open doors for others. She feels a daily obligation “to encourage, to groom, to educate and to grow.”