Fareed Zakaria Defends CNN: ‘We’re Not a Public Charity Here’

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Photo: Paul Marotta/Paul Marotta

CNN’s recurring problem, put most simply, is what to do when there’s no big breaking news. Having ceded the ratings that come with having a political ideology to Fox News and MSNBC in favor of the mushy middle, it’s why often-inane coverage of Flight 370 gets dragged out over a period of weeks. “Look, there is a challenge to how you fill a 24-hour news cycle,” as network host Fareed Zakaria put it to Intelligencer last night at a Museum of the Moving Image event honoring HBO's CEO. And yet, gifted an out-of-nowhere news event like the shocking defeat of Eric Cantor in Tuesday night’s primary, CNN aired a special on the 20th anniversary of the O.J. Simpson trial. And it doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

The New York Times reports:

CNN claimed to be first to suggest on the air that Mr. Cantor might lose to the Tea Party candidate, David Brat, when, at about 7:50 p.m., it began continuous coverage of the story. Both Fox News and MSNBC mentioned the Cantor race slightly later, Fox just before 8 and MSNBC at about 8:04.

The decision to switch to the Simpson documentary underscored CNN’s recent commitment to prerecorded programs in its 9 p.m. slot. After years of low ratings at that hour, CNN no longer has a regularly scheduled show with a regular host at 9. CNN executives have also said that the network is not in the business of heavy coverage of partisan political developments.

It didn’t really matter either way. While the Simpson special scored its best ratings of the night in primetime, CNN “was still a distant third,” behind MSNBC and Fox News, both of which did see a little bump from the Cantor upset.

“I think that when we have big news that breaks like the Egyptian Revolution or the tsunami and you know that there's going to be public attention, or we think it's important that the public pay attention, we do try,” Zakaria said, speaking not about the lack of Cantor coverage specifically, but on general complaints about the network’s mission. “To all the critics of CNN, I would invite them: You try and fill 24 hours with, you know, with stuff that is informative enough that you fulfill that mandate, but engaging enough that you keep an audience. After all, we're not a public charity here. You know, we do need to balance those two objectives.” (Flooding the zone on the missing Malaysian flight did indeed lead to better ratings.)

“I think that Jeff Zucker is trying in a very imaginative way,” he added. “And for all those who think that this is so easy, I really think, ‘You go run a 24-hour news network.’”

Jenna Marotta contributed reporting.