Talk about hitting the floor running, Jeff Zucker looks to have arrived at CNN this month in a flat-out sprint.
It’s hard not to be impressed by what he’s already done: Started to make CNN suddenly seem a couple of decades younger. It’s like watching an aggressive and skilled general manager rebuild a baseball team from the bottom up -- first adding younger but already tested major-league talent to the roster while releasing some one-time big names that were no longer productive.
You get Jake Tapper, Rachel Nichols and Chris Cuomo, and you lose Mary Matalin, James Carville and Mark Whitaker. I’ll take that trade in a heartbeat. Oh wait, we’ll throw in Erick Erickson, too.
And all of a sudden, we’ve got some speed on the base paths, and an on-air talent that is talking about today and not telling political war stories from the 1980s and '90s -- and playing over-the-top caricatures of right and left wing partisans.
Tapper is a brilliant hire. I loved him as substitute Sunday morning host at ABC. He should have had the job permanently. And he was a great White House correspondent -- as hard news hard as you want to be, but with some edge, attitude and even whimsy when appropriate.
But I really became a fan when he and I seemed like the only two people in mainstream media criticizing Team Obama for its 2009 campaign to discredit Fox News. I’m sure Tapper didn’t like Fox any more than I did, but he understood that the chief executive doesn’t get to say what is and isn’t a legitimate news organization in a democracy. It was a brave and tough stand to take for someone who had to cover the administration every day. I can’t wait to see Tapper’s daily show.
And I am almost as eager to see what the network-smooth Chris Cuomo, who left ABC News Tuesday to join CNN, looks like as a morning host in cable news. If Zucker offers Erin Burnett the chance to be Cuomo’s co-host, she should grab it and never look back. With Cuomo as co-host and a little help from Zucker, she could be a genuine morning star in a way she will never be in prime time where she seems just a little too unsteady flying solo.
But perhaps the most intriguing hire is Nichols from ESPN, because it suggests that Zucker understands that sports is big news, too. I always wondered why CNN was so lame when it came to sports and pop culture, when huge audiences are there to be had for any cable news channel that can take those areas of American life on with energy and intelligence -- two of the attributes Nichols brings to the table.
All three hires are attractive and engaging on-screen figures, but all three are also journalistically sound. Zucker’s approach so far has allowed CNN to have it both ways.
I don’t pretend to have any inside knowledge as to whom or what Zucker wants to add or drop next. I don’t think too many folks at CNN do either.
But all of sudden, CNN is looking like a contender again -- a news organization that might be on the rise rather than the slow, steady, sad decline.