CNN’s Jim Sciutto is balancing covering a war in the Middle East while building CNN Max’s breaking news format from the ground up.
“When I started with Max, my intention – and I know CNN’s intention – was to make it a CNN network,” Sciutto told TheWrap. “A CNN experience and level of coverage. … No one planned for it to launch in the midst of a war and yet here we are.”
CNN Max launched one month ago today and was immediately thrust into an incredibly fast-paced breaking news environment with the Oct. 7 invasion of Hamas into Israel and the subsequent outbreak of war.
In the first week of coverage on CNN Max of the conflict, the streaming service’s breaking news anchor and CNN’s chief national security analyst Sciutto, alongside anchors Richard Quest and Michael Holmes, ditched planned programming to provide custom breaking news content. CNN Max had over 30 reporter hits from the ground in Israel and around the world, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Zikim, The White House, the Pentagon, and London.
CNN Max programming also included a range of guests of the same caliber as CNN’s linear network. The guests included CNN Military Analyst Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, IDF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post Avi Mayer, and many more.
“We’re able to do that, talk to our reporters in the field, our contributors, with CNN backing,” Sciutto told TheWrap. We can talk to decision-makers both here in the U.S. and there.”
Sciutto is now on the ground in Israel, providing reporting directly from the war zone. On Wednesday, Sciutto reported for CNN Max from Tel Aviv, providing an update on a potential Israeli ground offensive into the Gaza Strip. And on Thursday, the chief national security analyst reported from Northern Israel about the developing situation near the border with Lebanon.
“My attitude from the beginning has been that this is no different from anything I’ve done for the last 10 years on CNN,” Sciutto told theWrap. “Cover the news, take advantage of CNN’s resources, then do my part to report it out and hopefully add some analysis, experience, and perspective as I do it.”
Sciutto spoke to TheWrap about building CNN Max’s breaking news capabilities on the fly while covering the outbreak of war in the Middle East.
How has your background in foreign reporting shaped how you are approaching coverage of the Israel-Hamas conflict?
Well, it’s a story that any journalist would be enormously invested in given the importance and the horrid images from the start of this latest war. But for me personally, I’ve been there. I’ve been to Israel and the occupied territories a couple dozen times in my career. When I was overseas, based in London, I went there all the time. I’ve covered the 2006 war, the 2008-2009 Gaza offensive, and the 2014 Gaza offensive so I felt invested in that conflict. There’s a particular level of interest and just experience behind it that has made me particularly focused on it.
How have you and CNN Max as a whole adjusted to the new programming format while covering a story as important as this one?
I think just running at a very high heart rate. It’s what we would be doing anyway. I was part of hiring a new team for us too. We’re getting on a senior producer, we’re getting on a writer, a booker as this is happening. This often happens when you’re starting a new show, sometimes those folks aren’t there on day one. My senior producer started, I think a day into the war, and then a writer starts a couple of days into the war. Now we had an existing team too, which is already part of the CNN structure. So a lot of names and faces I’ve dealt with for a long time, so I had that confidence. But meanwhile, you’re onboarding, growing the team as it’s happening. So that’s been interesting. It also means no one is sitting around in the midst of this.
Of course, it’s an adjustment because it’s like another network. Covering the story in the way CNN does best. I think on stories like this you see the advantage of having a global operation like CNN. You’ve got not just reporters on the ground, but experienced reporters on the ground and you can dial them up and get them on air. That’s just a fact. It reminds me of the start of the Ukrainian war too. There was a reason why we were on it so much because you had folks who have covered it for a while and our position in a bunch of places allows can to get them on the air and stay this is what I’m seeing happening right now. It’s actually exhilarating as you’re doing it because you feel like you can bring it with immediacy, but it’s also mission-affirming. That’s our essential job, to tell it as it’s happening.
Now that there’s a breaking news format on CNN Max, how has it been sharing guests, experts, and correspondents with the linear network?
We’re working around schedules. One show wants a particular guest at the top of the hour and you might have to wait ten minutes into the show or the other way around. I have found no difficulty. For instance, the 2:00-3:00 pm hour, which is a daily show but also in breaking news coverage, getting reporters on the story. You just have to learn the art of sharing. As a reporter for CNN, I’ve been bounced around from CNN to CNNi to HLN. If you go back to the early days of the Ukraine war, I would do all three of those so it’s not entirely new, frankly. But yes, it requires some sharing of newsmaker guests. My attitude, for our show particularly, we book our own newsmakers, independent of the other shows…So as far as newsmakers are concerned, this is our own show, we do our own thing, and we add value just as the other folks do.
There has been a lot of discussion surrounding reporting information coming out of Gaza, as there is relatively limited sourcing outside of Hamas. Have you seen or felt any internal dispute at CNN over how to cover this war effectively?
I haven’t detected or witnessed an internal dispute. I think that the conversations are certainly happening. I’ve been a foreign correspondent for 30 years, most of my life. When you’re covering conflict, the first reports are not always true. Yet, you have to deal with an uncertain information environment, and often a disinformation environment. We saw that in Ukraine, where you have to run each side’s version of events through some filters. Obviously, some folks have zero credibility. If I’m dealing with stuff from the Kremlin or from Hamas, I start at a zero base. The trouble is what do you do when those are your only reports from certain denied areas. They would say in the intelligence world, it’s hard and the best thing you can do is say the best that you know at a given moment, with caveats. Then if you learn more, you come back and you add that in. It’s the first draft of history at each stage of the game. I have never been in a more uncertain information environment and I’ve been covering these kinds of conflicts for decades. That’s why I’ve got the gray hair. All I know is that this organization works really damn hard to get it right.