Discovery CEO: Hey, I had nothing to do with Zucker's termination from CNN

Photo by Jason Mendez/Invision/AP, File

Discovery CEO David Zaslav is doing some explaining of the latest news reports coming out of CNN’s Jeff Zucker’s exit. Zaslav says he had nothing to do with it, contrary to reports. Also, when he called CNN ‘the leader of news to the left’, he meant “the ‘left’ side of the company portfolio, with sports being on the ‘right’.”

Got it. Zaslav sees the news on the left and sports on the right. Sadly, we know that even sports can’t be characterized as more conservative than news, in general, these days with political activism so regularly easing into sports reporting. We can understand his distinction, though, even if it seems a little wishful in logic.

Why does it matter what Zaslav says about CNN as a news organization? Discovery is CNN’s new owner so Zaslav will be at the helm of the operation. Its merger with CNN’s owner WarnerMedia is set for this spring. Zaslav spoke with CNBC host Joe Kernan on Squawk Box today. There was some confusion in the reporting of Zaslav’s opinion of CNN’s place in the news reporting industry. He was saying that CNN is the leader in “news to the left” which sounded to Kernan like Zaslav was admitting the leftward tilt in CNN’s reporting. Kernan agreed with Zaslav before taking his agreement back.

“We have this great entertainment menu, which should keep people in the home, from the kids to the grandparents. Why would they go anywhere else? And then we’re the leader in news to the left,” Zaslav told CNBC on Friday.

Zaslav’s remark drew a surprised response from CNBC host Joe Kernan.

“Definitely to the left. Did you say to the left?” Kernan said, before taking back the question, saying he “probably shouldn’t have said that.”

That is why Zaslav clarified his opinion on the news reporting spectrum from left to right. Viewers hoping for more fair and balanced news coverage from CNN will be disappointed to learn that there may be no changes coming.

When asked about the termination of Zucker, Zaslav didn’t want to talk about it. Specifically, he didn’t want to talk about the role of John Malone, CEO of Liberty Media, Discovery’s largest shareholder, if there is one to talk about. Malone is a billionaire Trump donor and last year he expressed an eagerness to restore CNN back to more impartial reporting. He is Discovery’s largest shareholder, retaining a 25 percent voting share in Discovery. Kernan asked if Malone is the man behind the curtain calling the shots.

“Was there any conjecture that John Malone is behind the curtain? John Malone said it would be good if CNN had some journalists, that would be where I’d start,” CNBC anchor Joe Kernen said, paraphrasing Malone’s 2021 remarks.

“So you’ve got a guy who’s run it for nine years,” Kernen said, referring to Zucker. “I think of CNN in a totally different way than I thought about it years ago. I do. And John Malone, when you hear him, he’s still a big part of your life, a big part of Discovery, if he said we need CNN to go back to reporting news…”

Zaslav interrupted, “John is going to be a board member of this company, and I am the operating–,” before Kernen spoke over him asking if he had anything to do with Zucker’s exit.

“None of us had anything to do with it. We’re running our business,” Zaslav said. “I, and we as a company, we are a fighter for news.”

Zaslav’s comments contradict a Deadline report that Malone “made it known that corporate procedures had to be followed to the letter in regards to Zucker,” therefore, “being that WarnerMedia’s standards of business conduct require disclosure of relationships that develop with a boss and subordinate, Zucker’s goose was officially cooked.”

Malone sits on the Discovery Communications Inc., board of directors and is not bashful in saying he wants CNN to return to nonpartisan journalism. Some of us are old enough to remember when CNN was the only cable news network and they did strive to be nonpartisan. Sure, there was an underlying liberalism from reporters but generally speaking, they kept their reporting pretty even-keeled. As time went on, though, they lurched to the left and stayed there. They still have the best international coverage when something happens overseas, which I think is the network’s strong suit. For everyday reporting and programming, though, it is pretty much unwatchable for conservative viewers. The bad news for CNN is that their viewership has completely cratered in post-Trump America and FNC is celebrating a milestone – it is the top viewed cable news network and has been now for 20 years. Democrats make up a large part of FNC’s viewership.

While reading through the monthly breakdown of viewers released by Fox, CNN and MSNBC it’s impossible to ignore the enormous share of total viewers that Fox has. Fox makes up 56% of the total prime time audience in cable news and 55% during the day.

So, while it’s safe to assume that right-leaning Fox is attracting more than just Republicans, the amount of Democrats and Independents tuning in and who they are tuning in to watch is surprising.

According to the party-line data, gathered in the month of October, Tucker Carlson is the number-one watched host among Democrats in the key 25-54 age demographic – across all networks. For that month, Carlson pulled in an average of 101,000 Democrats in the demo. The Rachel Maddow Show and The Five tied for second – each pulling in 88,000 demo viewers that identify as Democrats.

More stunning still is the fact that Sean Hannity and Greg Gutfeld round out the top five with 81,000 and 73,000 Democrats in the demo, respectively.

In terms of total viewers, Fox has three of the top five shows watched by Democrats, while MSNBC has the other two.

CNN would do well to get back to a more fair and balanced approach to reporting but I’ll not hold my breath. We’ll see what happens when Discovery takes control this spring. Perhaps Mr. Malone can convince the decisionmakers at Discovery to clean house and go with some new personnel who can bring back some of its market share in the ratings. Or not.