NEW YORK — CNN’s management has taken an aggressive stance against attacks from President Donald Trump after the network was sent explosive devices from a man who allegedly targeted Trump’s perceived enemies.
In a statement, CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker was critical of the White House’s “complete lack of understanding about the seriousness” of its attacks against the media, and it was followed up by another statement this week calling on Press Secretary Sarah Sanders to understand that “words matter.”
The network has responded to specific provocations in the past. Yet it’s still considered unusual for a news organization, as opposed to an individual commentator or columnist, to take on a president. It’s the first time Zucker has done so this year.
Two of its former leaders applauded the approach on Tuesday.
“When it happens to you, it’s difficult to maintain a veneer of objectivity and restraint,” said Jonathan Klein, CNN president from 2004 to 2010. “It wouldn’t make sense for them not to respond in this way. The bomber had ‘CNN sucks’ stickers on his van and it’s clear who has been pushing that idea.”
Zucker’s statement was justifiable, and handling it any other way “would come off as false or a bit odd,” he said.
Zucker spoke on the day that Florida resident Cesar Sayoc allegedly sent the first of three devices to CNN offices. Another statement on Monday, issued through the network’s public relations Twitter feed, addressed Sanders in saying CNN did not suggest that Trump was responsible for the device sent to its office “by his ardent and emboldened supporter.
“We did say that he, and you, should understand that your words matter,” CNN said. “Every single one of them. But so far, you don’t seem to get that.”
The statement followed an exchange in Monday’s White House press briefing between Sanders and CNN’s Jim Acosta, who tried to get Sanders to say specifically who the president meant when he made comments about “fake news” and declared the media “the enemy of the people.” Sanders had said it was irresponsible of any news organization, like CNN, to blame the president for Sayoc’s actions.
“There are a lot of reasons to hold your fire. One of which is you hope people mature,” said Rick Kaplan, CNN’s president from 1997 to 2000. But at some point when you realize that nothing’s going to change, it can make you look wimpy not to respond, he said.
“They’ve been patient and professional,” Kaplan said. “I’m proud of Jeff.”
CNN, which declined comment on Tuesday, generally responds through its Twitter feed when it has specific points to make. In recent months, for example, CNN issued statements when Trump criticized CNN reporter Carl Bernstein and barred CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins from a White House event.
“Jeff has been pretty circumspect about his public statements,” Klein said. “They’ve been few and far between. I would expect that he would continue to keep his counsel and not make any further statements unless there were other extreme provocations.”
CNN’s best bet is to catch its breath and continue to cover the administration objectively, and “I have no doubt they will do that,” he said.
CNN’s coverage also contains plenty of on-air commentary — journalists like Jeff Greenfield have criticized the network for being too Trump-centric — and the commentary is most likely what has gotten on the president’s nerves.
Trump’s biggest supporter in the media, Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, has kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of CNN. “CNN fake news president Jeff Zucker is lecturing the president on civility?” Hannity said on his show Monday night. He said that a weekend discussion between CNN’s Brian Stelter and Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post about the impact of Hannity’s words is “crossing lines into slander.”
“If you call out lies, call fake news for what it is, if you point out a political agenda under the guise of so-called news, that is not a call for violence,” Hannity said. “It is a simple, fundamental truth the media doesn’t want to hear.”
CNN hasn’t officially taken on Fox News Channel, although some of its commentators and show hosts have. For Zucker to do so, like he has with the president, would not be wise, said both Kaplan and Klein.
“If you attack them back, you’re just getting down in the mud with them,” Kaplan said. “You should just hold your ground. It’s one thing to have an exchange of views with the president and another to do it with a group of would-be journalists.”
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Brian Kilmeade and Steve Doocy, hosts of Trump’s favorite morning show “Fox & Friends,” suggested the president should cool it with his criticisms of the press as enemies of the people.
“It doesn’t help anybody,” Kilmeade said. “Too many people get shrapnel with that statement.”