This is one in a series of Nebraska News Service stories about election and voting issues in the state and the efforts of people and organizations who are working to strengthen democracy. This series is part of a national initiative — USDemocracyDay.org — in which more than 300 news outlets published stories on Democracy Day, Sept. 15, to bring attention to the crisis facing American democracy.
Jeff Zeleny was born and raised on a family farm in Exeter, Nebraska, which is 52 miles away from Lincoln, Nebraska with a 2020 census population of 562 people. He attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and graduated from the College of Journalism and Mass Communications in 1996.
After graduating, Zeleny worked for The Des Moines Register, where he originally planned to be a sports reporter but chose to become a political specialist. He then worked for the Chicago Tribune, where he and a team of colleagues won a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism in 2001. After that, Zeleny worked for a few different media outlets, such as The New York Times and ABC, before becoming CNN’s Chief National Affairs Correspondent in January 2021.
“I’ve always wanted to be a reporter, and I loved history and politics,” Zeleny said. “But, if you would have told a young me that I would be doing this, I probably wouldn’t have necessarily believed it because I’m from a small town in Nebraska and didn’t really know it was possible.”
For the last 20 years, Zeleny has worked in Washington D.C. but said voters questioning the legitimacy of the election and the position of our democracy was something that he had never experienced before.
Every four years, on Jan. 6 at 1 p.m., a joint session of the United States Congress meets to tally the Electoral College votes of the presidential election. The process is mainly ceremonial and does not usually garner much media or public attention. However, the former president encouraged his supporters to come to D.C. and stated that then Vice President Mike Pence would be able to overturn the election results by stopping the certification in favor of Joe Biden.
More than a thousand supporters of the former president marched from the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol building. They overran Capitol police, scaled scaffolding, climbed over walls, and smashed in windows and doors.
Zeleny recounts being 90 minutes away in Wilmington, Delaware, as the Capitol riot took place, and in complete disbelief. President-Elect Biden scheduled a speech on the economy at the time that Zeleny was present to cover, but then the chaos at the Capitol began to unfold. Zeleny and the entire world waited for former President Donald Trump to address the nation and end the violence, but Trump was silent.
Biden then went on live television and called on Trump to end the violence that was taking place, which he did shortly after, but what took place had never happened in modern history before. In the months that followed, investigations revealed more to the attack on the Capitol than was previously known.
“(It was) sort of disbelief, right, but at the time, it wasn’t quite known how planned and methodical this was,” Zeleny said. “It’s definitely something that most mainstream reporters and news organizations missed.”
Shortly after Jan. 6, Trump was impeached a second time by the House but acquitted by the Senate.
Two weeks after Jan. 6, Chief Justice Roberts swore Biden in as the 46th President of the United States. Although Biden’s inauguration occurred as scheduled, the country was still deeply divided by Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, according to a study by Poynter.org.
“Watching the inauguration, I think, was a great sign that democracy did hold and was resilient,” Zeleny said. “But (it) turns out that was not the end of the story, in many respects, that was just the beginning of the story, which we really didn’t know at the time.”
Covering the 2020 election and current midterm elections has allowed Zeleny to speak to voters around the country. He said most Democrats and Republicans in swing states have concluded that the election was not stolen or fraudulent. In addition, judges and election officials have debunked the claims made by former President Trump that widespread fraud occurred. However, some candidates for offices around the country are winning nominations while supporting the former president’s claims.
Zeleny said he believes the former president’s influence in government will continue throughout the midterm elections, into 2024, and possibly beyond.
“I think, once he leaves the stage, regardless of when that is, I think that will be an opening for a new generation of Republicans,” Zeleny said.
Moving forward, Zeleny said his reporting style has not changed and has remained consistent when interviewing voters. One thing that became clear to him after speaking to so many people, is the varied perception some people have of the day. He said some do not view Jan. 6 as serious as others.
Zeleny said American democracy is something many believed would always be there and not questioned. However, the events that took place on Jan. 6 have led him to cover this topic more than previously in his reporting for CNN.
“It kind of made everything more real, as opposed to theoretical, just about the threats or potential attacks on democracy,” Zeleny said. “Before that, it just kind of seemed like more of an academic question.”
Zeleny said the part that worries him the most about democracy is at the local level.
Many clerks, election observers and poll workers have decided not to volunteer in what they saw as their civic duty anymore because of the backlash and threats they received. Some even testified before the Jan. 6 committee and recounted their stories of being targeted by the former president’s supporters.
As a journalist for one of the world’s leading media outlets, Zeleny said he believes he has a responsibility and role in democracy and feels humbled to have a front row to watch history unfold.
“Everyone has a role (in) helping to protect and preserve democracy — first and foremost, being informed citizens. That’s a central part of our job as journalists — covering the news and bringing to light the truth, through investigations and daily reporting,” Zeleny said. “We have a responsibility to keep the public properly informed — without fear or favor — on elections and other elements of our political process.”