June 17, 2024

Explosive Variety report on behind-the-scenes CNN drama ignites fierce backlash from top industry figures

Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.


Variety is facing a blistering wave of backlash.

The Hollywood trade publication is being confronted with serious questions about its journalism from top industry figures over a feature story it published Tuesday that aimed to offer a fresh look into the behind-the-scenes drama and power struggles that beset CNN over the last 18 months.

Within minutes of publication, the story, written by Tatiana Siegel, the outlet’s executive editor of film and media, ricocheted through the media universe, igniting buzz and raising eyebrows among journalists, executives, television agents, and everyone in between. But, soon after the dust settled, the veracity of the article’s many anecdotes and characterizations came under heightened scrutiny.

The 4,000+ word article chiefly portrayed former CNN chief Jeff Zucker as an emotionally wounded former executive, singularly obsessed with finding an avenue to purchase the network that he once led. The piece contained a number of questionable anecdotes about Zucker searching the globe for the capital to acquire the prized cable news network for himself — all of which the veteran television executive’s camp firmly denied in a series of strong statements that were littered throughout the article. CNN did not comment on the report. (It’s worth noting that CNN’s parent, Warner Bros. Discovery, has repeatedly stated the network is not for sale.)

In an on the record statement to me, Risa Heller, a spokesperson for Zucker, went even further than the statements provided to Variety. Heller denounced Siegel’s reporting practices, describing the published piece as a “total joke.”

“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,” Heller said. “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 story also painted Chris Licht, who was ousted as head of the network earlier this year following a series of astonishing self-inflicted errors, as a victim of shoddy reporting from The Atlantic’s ace reporter Tim Alberta and Puck’s relentless and well-sourced Dylan Byers. In a pair of separate statements sent to me, the editor in chiefs of both The Atlantic and Puck forcefully pushed back against Siegel’s characterization of their reporters.

“The charges leveled by Tatiana Siegel in Variety against The Atlantic’s Tim Alberta are completely false,” Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, said in a statement. “Siegel was informed by The Atlantic that the charges were completely false, but she nevertheless decided to smear Alberta. Siegel’s report is based on false assumptions and false information, and she provides no evidence to support her claims and characterizations.”

“When Siegel reached out to our spokespeople, she was asked for specific examples of the alleged journalistic liberties taken by Alberta, but she did not provide any, apart from the false anecdote about Alberta’s conversation with Chris Licht at his gym,” Goldberg added. “We provided her with a specific refutation of that false charge.”

Goldberg continued:

I would note that no one quoted in Alberta’s 15,000-word story, and no one associated with the issues raised in the piece, has asked us to correct any aspect of the article. This is because Alberta’s article is entirely accurate, and the quotations in the article were all collected under clear guidelines. Alberta met with Licht on seven different occasions (including multiple meetings on single days), and spent more than 12 hours of on-the-record time with Licht. Siegel claims that Alberta held “just four meetings” with Licht, but she did not ask The Atlantic for information about the number of meetings Alberta held with Licht. We would have been happy to provide her with accurate information, had she asked for it. No off-the-record quotes were used in the piece. Our fact-checkers reviewed all notes and recorded interviews, and verified each fact in the article. Licht and his team were given ample opportunity to comment by Alberta, and by our fact-checkers.

Tim Alberta is one of America’s finest reporters, and he is known by colleagues here at The Atlantic and across our industry for his fairness and scrupulousness. His profile of Chris Licht was a model of probing, ethical, and fair-minded reporting.

Jon Kelly, editor in chief of Puck, similarly defended his reporter, who was portrayed in the piece as a Zucker shill.

“Dylan Byers singlehandedly elevated the CNN story into the popular culture through his extraordinary and relentless reporting, which was always fair and unbiased and based, frankly, on virtually innumerable sources,” Kelly said. “Any assertions to the contrary are absurd. But this is life. When you’re the defenestrator, people try to defenestrate you.”

To be fair, when publishing a high-wire piece the length of Siegel’s, it is almost a certainty that someone will contest a detail or two. But it is extraordinary to see this volume of blowback with this degree of contention. And it’s rare to see on-the-record criticism from top industry voices speaking in such plain terms.

Reached for comment, a Variety spokesperson notably offered a defense of the piece that contained far less fervor. The spokesperson simply said, “Variety stands by our investigative story about CNN written by one of the best journalists in the business.”

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