The exec made the comments in a conversation with CNN media reporter and host Brian Stelter at Citizen, a day-long event hosted in New York by the news organization. The session touched on hot topics like relations with Donald Trump, the practice of paying pro-Trump pundits and Zucker’s future at WarnerMedia or in the realm of elected office.
Smith stunned many observers — though not Zucker, by his account — when he abruptly ended his long run at Fox earlier this month. Zucker called him “incredibly talented. I would be very open to talking to him.” Smith may have a non-compete clause, Zucker pointed out, meaning a potential deal would not come “in the foreseeable future,” but he registered strong interest.
“He’s somebody who is incredibly talented and I would be very open to talking to him,” Zucker said. While Stelter said he was “shocked” at Smith’s exit, Zucker said the situation for a generally non-partisan anchor like Smith had become “untenable” at Fox, which has “morphed into Conspiracy TV.” The conversation then became more spirited. Zucker said it’s “one of the mistakes you make in your journalism” when Stelter reports that prime-time opinion hosts are distinct from the rest of the day and the news chops across the board at the network.
Zucker also addressed reports he is in line to become CEO of WarnerMedia given John Stankey’s recent elevation to the No. 2 role at parent AT&T. “There were a lot of stories that I was going to get fired, too,” Zucker cracked. “I didn’t believe those and I don’t believe these.”
Asked about whether he will pursue political office, something he has talked publicly about over the years, Zucker said, “What do you want me to say? Politics interests me.” Would he run for New York City mayor? “That’s a good job. … But I’m not working on it right now.”
Asked about overall relations between CNN and the Trump White House, Zucker sarcastically quipped, “Oh, it’s fantastic.” He then turned more serious and asserted, “We have a dialogue with them, we have a relationship with them.”
Stelter and Zucker both said they get a lot of email questions/complaints about the network’s coverage of Trump’s impromptu, sound-challenged press availabilities next to Marine One or other Trump movements. CNN coverage of Trump rallies in 2016 has been cited as giving his campaign oxygen.
While Zucker said he feels conflicted about it, “You never know where he’s going to go” when he is in front of a live microphone. “He is president of the United States and his words matter.”
Several pro-Trump pundits on CNN have prompted criticism of the network for paying the president’s supporters for comments that are often factually unsupportable. “If we don’t hear from people who support the president,” Zucker shrugged, “then I think what happens is, we wake up the day after the election and half the country is surprised that Donald Trump is still the president.”