February 8, 2017 by
Photography by Contributed

Thankfully, the presidential horse race was over and the breathless autopsy of the results were ebbing by Thanksgiving. It gave CNN’s senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, a chance for a break—a quick holiday retreat to see his mom on the farm where he grew up outside Exeter, Nebraska, a tiny town an hour southwest of Lincoln.

“A little different pace,” he says wryly on the rainy Monday before Turkey Day. “I try to get back as much as possible. But I haven’t been back much this year. My mom has made me aware of that.”
While his CNN title suggests he is tethered inside the Beltway, Zeleny is, particularly during election season, more of a campaign-trail nomad. Thanks to his dogged work reporting on presidential campaigns for The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, ABC, and CNN, he is one of the most respected political reporters and analysts in the business.

One reason for his gift for in-depth, spot-on work, his colleagues deduce, is his life and career trajectory—from farm boy, to sports reporter, to Midwest journalist, to D.C. insider. That path has made him uniquely qualified to penetrate and make sense of a political landscape deeply divided along urban/rural and white-collar/blue-collar lines.

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“Jeff is a brilliant journalist,” says David Chalian, CNN’s political director and oft-seen on-air analyst who hired Zeleny away from ABC. “He’s a reporter’s reporter. His work is so deeply sourced. He’s addicted to breaking news. He loves getting out on the road to talk to people.

“With all that, he’s such a good guy—he’s never ‘gone Washington,’” Chalian says. “You can’t take the Nebraska out of him… I think that helps him connect to almost anyone he meets.”

“Jeff is a remarkably gifted journalist,” adds Jane Hirt, a fellow University of Nebraska-Lincoln alum of Zeleny’s who was managing editor of The Tribune during his stint in Chicago. “He was born to tell stories.”

Indeed, by the third grade, Zeleny says he was already glued to the television each night, watching Walter Cronkite on CBS nightly news. In high school, he began his journalism career by calling in high school football results to the local newspaper. By his senior year, he, one of 12 Exeter High School prospective graduates that year, was at the other end of the phone, fielding calls from sports correspondents for The York News-Times.

“Sports coverage is the only thing that prepares you for election night,” he says.

Zeleny headed to UNL with dreams of being a broadcaster. Print journalism professors at UNL suggested he first pursue a print journalism path to build his reporting and writing chops. His sophomore year, he quit playing trumpet for the Husker marching band to join the staff of UNL’s college paper, the Daily Nebraskan, where he later became editor. In his summers, he landed prestigious internships, including one at The Wall Street Journal, where, in a crowd of Ivy Leaguers, Zeleny says the editors “really liked the idea that I was from Nebraska.”

“Your Nebraska brand is a really good brand,” he says. “The Midwest mindset and work ethic is something people believe in and respect. It’s an advantage, not a drawback.”

Zeleny’s biggest break, though, may have been back in Des Moines at his first job with The Register. For a young reporter, those bellwether Iowa caucuses, with its stampede of presidential hopefuls crisscrossing the state as the world watches, placed Zeleny’s detailed and astute reporting on the national stage.

Then he was off to Chicago, where he covered the rise of a young U.S. senator to the presidency.
After seven years with The New York Times, during which he increasingly made national television appearances as a guest political analyst, he took a position with ABC. As CNN began expanding its staff to cover the primaries and general election, Chalian went looking for “the top talent out there.”

“Jeff and I had spent a lot of time together on the campaign trail as colleagues in the press corps,” Chalian says. “I knew what a great reporter and great guy he was and I knew he was one of the most respected political reporters there is. I’m thrilled to have him here.”

The trick for Zeleny has been making the jump from being a newspaper reporter to a broadcast journalist—his dream job since his formative years watching Cronkite. A mere three years into diving into broadcast journalism, a time during which he says he’s received “a lot of behind-the-scenes training,” you could argue he still seems a shade stiffer than your typical broadcast journalist. While his reporting and writing is incisive and often witty, he’s still a little off with those affected vocal tone, pitch, and timing mechanics standard in the broadcast business. He doesn’t have the cheekbones of most of the guys in broadcasting. He’s more subdued than many. Basically, you can still kinda see that Zeleny is a newspaper guy doing television.

Good, Chalian says. Times have changed. “Many of the old-school broadcasting rules are less important now,” he says. “The key is great, robust, well-sourced storytelling whether it’s print or television or a podcast.”

Zeleny, good natured through a bit of ribbing from an old print reporter, seconds Chalian’s critique of the evolution of broadcast news. Viewers, he says, increasingly have made it clear that, “the blow-dried look,” as he put it, “isn’t important any more. We like real things.”

For all of Zeleny’s immersion in both rural and urban political landscapes during the last election cycle, he still didn’t predict a Trump victory. But news junkies and CNN fans know he was arguably the most prescient regarding the depth of frustration throughout the rust belt and other parts of the country with the perceived impact of trade deals and environmental regulations on the economy, and the idea of maintaining business-as-usual in D.C.

“Trump was seen as the exterminator,” he says. “It was a change election. Then Republicans came home to him. A lot of things came together.”

Now, Zeleny says, as interesting as this election season was, things may get even more interesting in the coming years.

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“It’s going to be fascinating,” he says.

And rough, and weird. In late November, Zeleny reported there was no evidence to back Trump’s claim that millions of people had voted illegally in the 2016 election.

Trump himself then targeted Zeleny, retweeting a rant from a 16-year-old: “@Filibuster: @jeffzeleny. Pathetic—you have no sufficient evidence that Donald Trump did not suffer from voter fraud, shame! Bad reporter.”

Also, this retweet: “Just another generic CNN part-time wannabe journalist!”

Zelleny, professional and measured as ever, responded: “Good evening! Have been looking for examples of voter fraud. Please send our way. Full-time journalist here still working.”

Much of the battle now, Zeleny and Chalian say, is providing people with real news amid an onslaught of fake news, fake news that even the President of the United States seems uninterested in fact-checking.

“Our job now is to make sure we’re doing the best job possible and holding people accountable,” Zeleny says. “You need people to be there to call a ball a ball, and a strike and strike, and just keep going and going to get it right. It’s a very important time in the country. My job is to keep pushing and keep asking the tough questions.”

Visit cnn.com/profiles/jeff-zeleny-profile for more information.