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‘Variety’ revises article on former CNN chief Jeff Zucker that was sharply criticized

None of its changes affected what was written about Zucker, however. He has called for the story to be retracted

Jeff Zucker
Jeff Zucker, Chairman, WarnerMedia News and Sports and President, CNN Worldwide listens in the spin room after the first of two Democratic presidential primary debates hosted by CNN on July 30, 2019, in the Fox Theatre in Detroit.Paul Sancya (AP)

The entertainment publication Variety, under fire this week for an article it published about former CNN chief Jeff Zucker’s interest in his old employer, revised the piece on Friday to reflect some of the complaints about it.

None of its changes affected what was written about Zucker, however. He has called for the story to be retracted.

The article by Tatiana Siegel, which initially ran online Tuesday, depicted Zucker as badmouthing his successor at CNN, Chris Licht, while simultaneously trying to buy the news organization that fired him in early 2021. Licht’s unsuccessful run atop the struggling news network ended with his firing in May.

The dispute also points to the dangers inherent in the use of confidential sources by journalists. There are at least a dozen claims made in the story that Variety did not attribute to a named source that were denied on the record, either in the story or after publication, leaving it up to readers to decide who to believe.

“There used to be a time when Variety held its content and its reporters to a high standard of truth and facts in journalism, but those days are clearly over,” said Risa Heller, a spokeswoman for Zucker. “It is stunning to read a piece that is so patently and aggressively false. On numerous occasions, we made it clear to the reporter and her editors that they were planning to publish countless anecdotes and alleged incidents that never happened. They did so anyway. The piece is a total joke.”

Variety’s co-editor-in-chiefs, Cynthia Littleton and Ramin Setoodeh, said in a statement Friday that they have been carefully following the conversation about the story.

“The story was heavily vetted and deeply sourced,” they said. “Everyone included in the story was asked to comment and given the chance to respond. We stand by our reporting and our award-winning reporter.”

The piece is also critical of two reporters who have covered CNN, Tim Alberta of The Atlantic and Dylan Byers of Puck. Both of those news organizations complained of inaccuracies and, in the changes made on Friday, Variety added their specific denials.

Zucker’s team hasn’t sought to hide ill feelings toward Licht, but strongly denied he has tried to buy CNN.

The story begins with an anecdote about Zucker, “with tears in his eyes,” approaching David Zaslav in Miami Beach in March. Zaslav is CEO of Warner Bros. Discovery, current owners of CNN, and Variety said Zucker complained that Licht was unfairly maligning him in the press. Zaslav wanted to know if Zucker was trying to assemble investors to buy CNN.

Byers, writing for Puck, said “multiple sources” said no such run-in at the Faena Hotel ever took place and Zucker’s spokeswoman said that anecdote wasn’t checked with them; Variety says it was.

The story outlines several specific efforts made by Zucker, or on his behalf, to convince investors to join him in buying CNN. The story includes his denials: “Any allegation or insinuation that Jeff has made any effort to purchase CNN is unequivocally false,” Heller said. Zucker is now head of a private equity firm, RedBird IMI.

At one point, Variety also floated the theory that a secret group of investors was using Zucker’s name without his knowledge to approach Warner Bros. Discovery about buying CNN.

In a June 4 article, The New York Times reported that Zucker was not in talks to buy CNN, although “he has told some associates he would be interested in acquiring the network” if it came up for sale one day, the newspaper said.

The Variety article “struck me as utterly implausible and sophomoric,” Byers wrote for Puck this week.

Variety’s piece called Byers “a former Zucker disciple at CNN who, by his own admission, wrote about Licht incessantly and even took a victory lap after his exit.” The piece described Byers as a writer of “Zucker fan fiction” and criticized him for a conflict of interest in not disclosing in any of his articles that Zucker once had discussions about funding Puck, an online subscription news service.

In its revision on Friday, Variety quoted Puck’s co-founder, Jon Kelly, saying the discussions with RedBird were not disclosed by Byers because “Dylan was intentionally unaware of them.”

For The Atlantic, Alberta wrote a widely-read story that seen by many as being instrumental in Licht’s dismissal by Zaslav. Variety was critical of Alberta, and accused the reporter of using material in his story that he had agreed to keep off the record — a serious charge of malfeasance against a journalist.

As with Byers, Variety didn’t change what it had written about Alberta. But it added a paragraph to its story using some of what Alberta had written on social media, including a denial that he had used off-the-record material, and disputing Variety’s claim of how many times he had met with Licht while reporting the story.

The story was reposted on Variety’s home page. The only indication that it had been changed was a note at its end: “This story was updated on July 28 to reflect new statements from Kelly and Alberta.”

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