Excuse me, Don Lemon, But Jeff Zucker was not great for Black people

OPINION: Not only was the former CNN president responsible for the rise of Donald Trump, his track record of hiring Black people for key roles was also terrible.

Don Lemon Jeff Zucker theGrio
CNN President Jeff Zucker, right, and Don Lemon attend the 10th Annual CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute at the American Museum of Natural History on December 11, 2016 in New York City. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Can I please interrupt the hosannas and paeans pouring out of the CNN building in praise of its former president, Jeff Zucker, for a moment of clarity? Don Lemon said of his former boss who resigned last week, “Thank you, Jeff Zucker, for everything you did for everyone at this network and for what you did for the entire country.”

What did Zucker do for the entire country? He was critical to the rise of Donald Trump. Do I believe that Zucker shared some or any of Trump’s beliefs? Probably not, but I also think that Zucker didn’t care what Trump believed, which is perhaps a worse sin. When it came to Trump, Zucker cared only about ratings. That was OK when Zucker was running NBC and overseeing The Apprentice, the show that transformed Trump from a local New York City blowhard buffoon into a national figure, which the country saw as a powerful, decisive, sharp business mind. 

NBC’s goal was to entertain and that show did its job. CNN has a higher mission and a higher responsibility than simply entertaining. But when Trump began to run for president, Zucker saw an old friend and a potential ratings bonanza, and he bent CNN’s political coverage to Trump’s needs. Early in the race, when Trump was trailing in the polls, and later when he was leading but had nothing newsworthy to say, CNN covered his speeches live and in full, a brand of coverage that no other candidate had ever received. Sometimes they showed an empty podium in anticipation of Trump speaking. 

CNN gave Trump way more attention than any other candidate and that was crucial to propelling him upwards in the polls. CNN was the helium that helped his presidential balloon ascend. The fact that his speeches were filled with disinformation, gaslighting, outright lies and racism went unremarked upon for far too long, helping Trump float to the top of the race. Zucker did not care that Trump was overtly racist or that he was making it harder to be Black in America; Zucker only cared that the network’s ratings were sky-high because of Trump. He aimed his cameras at political chaos and beamed that out to America without wrestling with what mainstreaming Trump—what aiding and abetting him without criticism or contextualization—was doing to America. 

Perhaps Zucker wasn’t hearing about how bad Trump was for Black and brown people because there were almost none of them around him—Zucker’s track record of hiring Black people was, well, terrible. Under his reign, CNN was put on a special media monitoring list by the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) for its lack of diversity. Over several years, CNN repeatedly refused to meet with NABJ leaders to discuss the issue—the rift was so bad that I personally witnessed a legendary older Black media figure receive an award at an NABJ convention, and when this man spent half of his speech castigating CNN for not having Black people on its team, the CNN group got up and walked out, too embarrassed to stay.

I’m not saying Zucker is racist; I’m saying that he was known as a micromanager, and the team he built was blindingly white. Sure, he elevated one Black person, Don Lemon, to an important on-air position—Lemon is the only Black person hosting a primetime show on cable news—but the rest of the weekday, from morning to night, was almost always white with the exception of Victor Blackwell. The rare times we got Black hosts were on weekends, where viewership tends to be lower. CNN was once the home of Soledad O’Brien, Bernard Shaw and Fred Hickman, but nowadays, it does not look like America, and it does not embrace Black contributions as much as it should. 

The network clearly values Black voices on election nights when there’s excellent and thoughtful commentary from Abby Phillip, Van Jones and Nia-Malika Henderson. But there’s something important about being a host, driving the train and being the leader, about being a part of deciding what stories get covered and how they’re discussed. Zucker’s term has been extremely stingy about putting Black people into the hosting chair. He also developed a reporting corps that’s extremely white, and most of the Black people on it were there before him. 

Also, CNN is a 24-hour cable news operation with only two Black executive producers—these are critical leaders who help shape a show and choose its stories and define its tone. This matters in so many ways—during my years at MSNBC, I was the only Black person working on my show, The Cycle, and sometimes that meant I was the only person in the room arguing for us to cover a certain story or to include a certain perspective. Imagine a place with many shows and almost no Black people in prominent positions. Many important stories and perspectives would be missed. 

CNN has, at times, been very intentional with its hiring—in 2016 after Trump became president, there was a rush to hire people who agreed with or who understood Trumpism so that Trumpers would feel comfortable watching. There was a rush to have diversity—ideological diversity. But Zucker’s CNN did not feel a need to maintain racial diversity after popular folks like Angela Rye, Marc Lamont Hill, Charles Blow and Roland Martin were off the air. The 2016 election caused CNN to adjust to the desires of a certain type of voter but, strangely, the 2020 election, which was decided by the power of Black women, did not cause CNN to adjust again.

It’s not the news media’s responsibility to be a mere window showing the news. Media must put the news into context so viewers can understand what they’re seeing. It’s not the media’s responsibility to draw in as many eyeballs as possible by any means necessary; there must a higher calling when you’re doing news because having an informed public is critical to democracy. If you feed people lies and don’t tell them that they’re lies, then you are participating in the corruption of democracy. Only an uninformed and undereducated public could possibly think that Trump was a responsible choice for president—and isn’t it amazing how Zucker helped Trump only to have Trump turn around and make CNN one of his central enemies? Now, millions of people assume you can’t trust anything said on CNN because Trump told them that it’s fake news. So when CNN says you should get vaccinated to protect against a new virus, many people refused to believe it and felt comfortable rejecting CNN’s advice without evidence.

It is absolutely CNN’s responsibility, as a cable news leader, as America’s wallpaper that plays in public spaces from airports to bars to diners, to present a team that looks like America. Zucker did not care enough about putting Black people on his team. I can understand why Don Lemon is crying as he said goodbye to the best boss he’s ever had—Zucker changed Lemon’s life—but I can’t help but notice he’s the only Black person doing so.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

TheGrio is now on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, and Android TV. Please download theGrio mobile apps today!