CNN and the Rise of Donald Trump: “Jeff Zucker’s thirst for ratings blinded him to the damage CNN was doing by transforming Trump from a local blowhard into a national figure.”

From Ben Smith’s Media Equation column in the New York Times headlined “Jeff Zucker Helped Create Donald Trump. That Show May Be Ending.”:

In December 2015, after the demagoguery of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign became clear, I asked CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, if he regretted his role in Mr. Trump’s rise.

First Mr. Zucker — who put “The Apprentice” on NBC in 2004 and made Mr. Trump a household name — laughed uproariously, if a bit nervously. Then he said, “I have no regrets about the part that I played in his career.”

I was thinking about that exchange when Tucker Carlson of Fox News recently gleefully aired recordings of conversations with Mr. Zucker that Mr. Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, had deviously taped in March 2016.

Mr. Zucker is heard speaking in flattering and friendly terms about Mr. Trump, or, as he called him, “the boss.”

“You guys have had great instincts, great guts and great understanding of everything,” Mr. Zucker says to Mr. Cohen of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

And Mr. Zucker shows an eager interest in Mr. Trump’s television stardom. “I have all these proposals for him,” Mr. Zucker says beseechingly at one point. “Like, I want to do a weekly show with him and all this stuff.”

You may have missed the recordings — CNN didn’t cover them, nor did The New York Times — but if you can filter out Mr. Carlson’s spin and Fox’s campaign against CNN, they’re still revealing.

Of course TV executives work for access behind the scenes; of course, under the stirring mood music that fills CNN hour after hour, an old bond thrived between cable television’s defining executive and the president of the United States.

But the story of Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker is a kind of Frankenstein tale for the late television age, about a brilliant TV executive who lost control of his creation. And it illustrates the extent to which this American moment is still shaped not by the hard logic of politics or the fragmented reality of new media, but by the ineluctable power of TV.

Mr. Zucker made his bones as a wunderkind producer for the “Today” show. He took over NBC’s entertainment group in 2000, as the “Friends” era was ending and reality TV was beginning. The network desperately needed a new kind of hit, and Mr. Zucker found it in “The Apprentice” — a corporate boardroom version of “Survivor,” the blockbuster at rival CBS. That show transformed Mr. Trump from a local blowhard into a national figure, and laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign.

When Mr. Trump ran for president, Mr. Zucker briefly dismissed him as a “sideshow” in an early 2015 email to his political team, according to one of its recipients. But as soon as he saw the ratings his old star could still deliver, he spent 2015 and 2016 turning CNN into a platform for his ambitions. He went so far as to turn the camera to the empty podium before Mr. Trump’s rallies (a chyron read: “DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE”), while other presidential candidates seethed and suspected — accurately, it turns out — that the two men maintained a cozy back channel.

“When the folks over there at CNN get all high and mighty about their journalistic integrity — that’s just not real,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign and said he laughed out loud when he heard the recording. “They’re running a reality TV show. That’s what Zucker’s good at.”

The story is not, of course, quite that simple. CNN retains much of its straight news DNA and its tough Washington interview machine, and is indispensable in moments of big breaking news — like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. But the company had hired Mr. Zucker in 2013 to restore its relevance at a moment when the internet had replaced TV as a source of the newest information. . . .

In speaking to dozens of people who know Mr. Zucker over the past few weeks, I heard two distinct theories of what is going on now: One is the current version of CNN — amped up outrage and righteousness — is just Mr. Zucker’s latest reflexive adaptation in search of ratings. The other is that Mr. Zucker, TV’s Dr. Frankenstein, has been willing to dent his network’s nonpartisan brand in order to kill his runaway monster, Mr. Trump.

Preston Beckman, who was NBC’s executive vice president for program planning and scheduling just before Mr. Zucker’s ascendancy there, said Mr. Zucker’s thirst for ratings blinded him to the damage he was doing by offering saturation Trump coverage.

“He’s a ratings whore — and I’m telling you that as a ratings whore,” Mr. Beckman told me. “But it’s one thing to be a ratings whore in prime time and it’s another thing to be a ratings whore when it comes to news.”. . .

Mr. Zucker’s falling-out with his old star came late. Even in the spring of 2017 — after a presidency that kicked off with an attempt to ban Muslims from traveling to America —  he told my colleague Jonathan Mahler, “I like Donald.”

But the tensions were growing. Mr. Trump had chosen Fox over CNN as the main home of his rolling talk show, giving the conservative network constant access and interviews. His powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was rising inside the administration, lacked Mr. Trump’s affection for Mr. Zucker and pushed the president away from him. . . .

Mr. Zucker didn’t respond through a spokeswoman when I asked again, five years later, whether he now regrets his role in Mr. Trump’s career.

But this run, too, may be coming to an end. When I spoke to former NBC colleagues of Mr. Zucker about his tenure there, the show they brought up most often wasn’t “The Apprentice”; it was “Fear Factor,” in which contestants were tossed in their underwear into a pit full of rats, among other grotesque stunts. USA Today described it as perhaps “the most vile program ever to air on a major network.”. . .

When I spoke to people at CNN, they made the point that ultimately they cover and react to the news, they don’t make it. Mr. Zucker may be in the control room, and when we look back at this disorienting era, media leaders will be important, secondary figures. But this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality, and the show’s executive producer is Donald Trump.

And the part of the American electorate that was enjoying the show may get tired of this too. If Donald Trump loses in November, that may also mark the end of this era of cable television, which he had fed and fed off, and which has left its audience divided and exhausted.

Ben Smith is the media columnist. He joined The Times in 2020 after eight years as founding editor in chief of BuzzFeed News. Before that, he covered politics for Politico, The New York Daily News, The New York Observer and The New York Sun. Email: [email protected] @benyt


  1. Frenchy Renee says

    Great read! As a former journalist, it is sickening that Zucker has turned CNN into a reality show. People rely on them for “news” when in reality is it nothing but a ratings game. Their motives are blantant attacks on the right to freedom of the press.

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