No matter where he roams, CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker can’t shake the questions about how his network has used coverage of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump to boost its ratings. “It’s an incredibly dramatic race, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is you have quite a personality in Donald Trump,” said Zucker in a visit to London, “but you also have an American electorate that is displaying its anger and antipathy towards Washington on both the Republican and Democratic sides.”
Study after study has found that CNN has given copious amounts of coverage to Trump, though other news outlets have hardly shied away from the quotable candidate. Zucker and other CNN officials have responded with two lines of argument: Trump is the Republican front-runner, and Trump says yes to interview requests, while his competitors often balk at coming on air.
“We are covering the story, and he’s been the Republican frontrunner for almost a year now,” said Zucker. “I only wish that CNN had that much power to be able to create a frontrunner on either side … The critics of Donald Trump are looking for people to blame for his rise. There are many people who are either surprised by his strength, or don’t like him, and want to blame someone to explain why he has been this popular.”
Obsession with Trump is something of a logical step for CNN, which added more than 40 staffers to its digital politics team in the run-up to the 2016 contest. Those folks have filed fast-twitch stories on the bottomless CNN.com and have helped the network keep up with campaign-trail developments even as it holds endless debates and town-hall events. That said, Zucker has a history with Trump — as the top executive at NBC Entertainment in the early 2000s, Zucker gave the go-ahead to “The Apprentice,” a move that opened the Trump brand to a national television audience. “There is no question that ‘The Apprentice’ made Trump a bigger celebrity than he already was,” Zucker has said.
In a video interview about her experiences interviewing Trump, Charlotte Triggs of People magazine said, “It’s really interesting, when I was at his office six months ago, I was at his office, people were dropping in just to say hi, the head of CNN just walked in.”
Has Zucker’s own ties with Trump driven CNN’s own coverage? That’s hard to say, given Zucker’s own programming instincts. As the whole world learned after Flight MH370’s disappearance in March 2014, the Zucker-led CNN likes nothing more than to promulgate wall-to-wall coverage of a big news event. And when Zucker started scaling up his political reporting operation, the notion of a Trump presidential candidacy was a matter of snickering skepticism among the cognoscenti.
Zucker told the Guardian that CNN was holding Trump’s “feet to the fire” and cited a town hall event in which Anderson Cooper fired tough questions at the candidate. And he spoke of an evolving approach to doing cable news: “It used to be CNN and other television outlets were founded on this idea of a news wheel. You give us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world. But that’s not the way people consume news and information any more. So on television we are going to go much deeper on the one, two or three stories of real significance or interest that day, and we are going to satisfy all your news needs and questions digitally.”
Bolding added to dispute a talking point: Sure, TV news may be focusing its coverage more on just a couple of stories, but that’s not to say that the treatment is “deeper.” It’s just often more repetitive.