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As crises mount, Mark Zuckerberg stands his ground in exclusive CNN interview

CNN logo CNN 11/21/2018 By Seth Fiegerman, CNN Business
Mark Zuckerberg wearing a black shirt © CNN

After spending much of this year apologizing for Facebook's many missteps, CEO Mark Zuckerberg was defiantin an exclusive interview with CNN Business on Tuesday.

Zuckerberg resisted growing calls for changes to Facebook's C-suite, reiterated Facebook's potential as a force for good, and pushed back at the some of the unrelenting critical coverage of his company after a year of negative headlines about fake news, election meddling and privacy concerns.

"A lot of the criticism around the biggest issues has been fair, but I do think that if we are going to be real, there is this bigger picture as well, which is that we have a different world view than some of the folks who are covering us," Zuckerberg told CNN Business' Laurie Segall at Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

"There are big issues, and I'm not trying to say that there aren't," he said. "But I do think that sometimes, you can get the flavor from some of the coverage that that's all there is, and I don't think that that's right either."

The interview follows renewed criticism of Zuckerberg and Facebook after a New York Times investigation last week suggested the company had attempted to ignore and conceal Russian interference on its platform. The Times also reported that Facebook had hired a public relations firm that dug up dirt on its competitors.

Zuckerberg was more pointed when addressing the Times report specifically. "It is not clear to me at all that the report is right," he said. "A lot of the things that were in that report, we talked to the reporters ahead of time and told them that from everything that we'd seen, that wasn't true and they chose to print it anyway."

In one exchange, Zuckerberg addressed an assertion in the Times story about why Facebook's executives decided not to remove a particularly controversial 2015 post from then presidential candidate Donald Trump about Muslim immigration.

When asked if the decision was motivated by a desire to appease political leaders, Zuckerberg flatly said no. "I think it's very important that people have the opportunity to hear from what political leaders are saying," he said. Facebook's content policies give "special deference" to newsworthy content, he said. "I think we did the right thing there."

A spokesperson for the Times previously defended the article in a statement after Facebook disputed the report: "Our story is accurate and we stand by it. The monthslong investigation by a team of reporters was based on interviews with more than 50 sources including current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members."

Zuckerberg has reportedly been even more blunt in his assessment inside the company. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Zuckerberg told employees that recent coverage of Facebook is "b------t."

Even before the Times investigation, Zuckerberg and Facebook struggled to move past a series of crises, including Russian election meddling, the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and a massive security breach impacting tens of millions of users.

Facebook stock has plummeted 40% from its all-time high in July as investors worry about the long-term privacy backlash and the company's warnings that its ad sales machine could slow as it "puts privacy first."

Yet, Zuckerberg implied that little is likely to change at the very top of the company anytime soon. When asked if he would consider stepping down as Facebook's chairman, Zuckerberg said, "that's not the plan." He also threw his support behind his No. 2, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, despite criticism of her role in handling Facebook's recent crises.

"Sheryl is a really important part of this company and is leading a lot of the efforts for a lot of the biggest issues that we have," Zuckerberg told CNN Business. "She's been an important partner to me for ten years. I'm really proud of the work that we've done together and I hope that we work together for decades more to come."

For years, Zuckerberg preached the importance of Facebook's efforts to connect the world. On Tuesday, he doubled down on the benefits of that mission despite revelations over the past year about the dark sides of the platform he built in a dorm room when he was 19 years old.

"I think the world will keep moving in this direction. More people will keep on getting a voice. I think that that's good," Zuckerberg said. "There are certainly going to be issues that we need to work through over time, but I think that while we are doing that, we can't lose sight of all of the really positive things that are happening here as well."

CNN Business' Donie O'Sullivan contributed to this report.

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