Jeff Zucker junks his network's previous mandate: 'CNN is greater than politics'

By Sara Morrison

LOS ANGELES ( - One of Jeff Zucker's first acts as CNN president was to toss out the previous regime's Big Idea - and he's not afraid who knows it.

"When I came in, one of the slogans at CNN was that 'CNN equals politics,'" Zucker told Fortune's Andy Serwer at Brainstorm Tech's 2013 conference on Tuesday. "And I said - I put a line through that and said that CNN does not equal politics. Obviously, politics is a huge part of what we do and will continue to be. But really, that has to be that CNN is greater than politics."

In just under half an hour, Zucker, currently recovering from Bell's Palsy, discussed how he plans to turn CNN - American's third-ranked cable news channel - into essential viewing by broadening its coverage.

"You know, we have two domestic cable network competitors (Fox and MSNBC) who are basically about politics all the time. What I want CNN to be about is all of the news. And all of the news is not just what's happening in Washington or in the Middle East, but it's also about entertainment and business and sports and culture."

CNN's renewed focus on "other" news has drawn some criticism: its 24/7 "Poop Cruise" coverage of a stranded Carnival Cruise ship and its passengers, for example, was widely seen as a waste of resources while big stories such as the Oscar Pistorius arrest and Congressional filibuster were largely bypassed.

"Most of (the flak) came from our competitors who were jealous that we had the foresight to figure out how to be out in the Gulf of Mexico to cover that. I have said many times that if 3,000 people were trapped in an office building in Chicago without any electricity, running water or food and couldn't get out, every television station and network and magazine and newspaper would be covering that story nonstop."

Zucker's response to criticism about his network's George Zimmerman trial coverage was similar: "I think that we did recognize early on that this was much more than just a local murder trial, that there were issues of race and class and the Second Amendment and self-defense."

He also spoke briefly about the "Today Show." Zucker was its executive producer from 1992 until his 2000 appointment to president of NBC Entertainment, and said the "key" to fizing its bad publicity and flagging ratings lies in "the chemistry between the people who are on the show."

"I think that that's what makes or breaks those shows," he said. "I think the 'Today Show,' obviously, has had a difficult year and a half, brought on a lot of it itself. And those are the worst kinds of mistakes."

One thing Zucker did not address - and wasn't asked about - was some of CNN's factual lapses. Its coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt was widely criticized for spreading misinformation and chaos rather than news.

To this, Zucker only said "You know, if you go back to the Boston bombings, more people learned about what happened in Boston from CNN than any other source in the world."