CNN chief Jeff Zucker on Friday took some swipes at Roger Ailes and denied rumors that he wants to hire Jay Leno, while insisting that his struggling cable network is still committed to hard news.
Zucker, a year into his tenure at CNN, appeared before journalists at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, where he conducted a brisk question-and-answer session.
Zucker was asked to respond to a recent story in The Hollywood Reporter in which Ailes, the Fox News chairman and CEO, claimed that CNN was essentially "out of the news business." Zucker called it a "silly attempt to deflect attention" from an soon-to-be-published unauthorized biography of Ailes.
Zucker believes the book, by Gabriel Sherman, will confirm "what we've known all along: The Republican Party is being run out of News Corp. headquarters, masquerading as a cable channel."
"We happen to be in the news business, as opposed to some other 'fair and balanced' networks," he said, referring to Fox's promotional tagline.
Fox News continues to lead the cable news ratings wars by a wide margin, leaving MSNBC and CNN to battle for scraps. Still, Zucker says that it's important that CNN not try to replicate their competitors.
"In the cable news, you have two partisan networks looking out for their audience," he said. "We have to be looking out for the rest of us. ... CNN is not and never will abandon our first and fundamental brand equity, which is news and breaking news -- covering today's news and putting it in context. It's the most important thing we do."
Zucker, however, is open to tinkering with CNN's prime time block. To that end, he wants more documentaries like "Blackfish," which recently won acclaim and high ratings, and more regular series. The network on Friday announced plans for an eight-part series, "Death Row Stories," executive-produced by Robert Redford and due in March.
But his plans don't include a show headed by Leno, who will soon depart NBC.
"A late-night comedy show is not really a priority for us right now," he insisted. "It's not in the cards any time soon. I think Jay is a terrific talent, but that's not where our priorities are."