The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CNN and Jeff Zucker plot 2020 election coverage and promise things will be different

CNN President Jeff Zucker, in the network control room during the Mueller hearings on July 22 in Washington. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

“Side shot! Side shot! Side shot!”

It’s Mueller Day in Washington, and the man calling out instructions in the darkened control room of CNN’s Washington bureau gets his wish as the screens on the wall in front him, along with TV screens across the country, change at his command. These decisions are usually made by one of the network’s many producers, but this particular camera angle was emphatically suggested by none other than network president Jeff Zucker, who came down from New York to prepare for this week’s Democratic primary debate and decided to make a quick stop in the control room. Mueller’s halting testimony was not making for the most riveting TV, and Zucker was doing his best to liven things up.

Zucker has long prided himself on his ability to do just that. He oversaw NBC’s “Today” show in its prime Katie Couric years. He bought the reality show “The Apprentice,” which turned into a monster hit and turned Donald Trump into a TV star. But since he has come to CNN, the network has been in third place in the cable-news ratings race, and someone, somewhere — often but certainly not exclusively the resident of the White House — always seems to be pointing out how CNN is messing up.

The first debates last month on NBC networks set viewership records for Democratic primary season, and now CNN plays host for two nights with 20 candidates in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s the network’s biggest moment yet in the 2020 election cycle — an election cycle that could serve as a sort of do-over for Zucker, for CNN and for the media in general.

Zucker came under intense criticism for CNN’s mode of coverage in the 2016 election. He has acknowledged some mistakes while defending the network overall, and vows that this time will be different.

The network won’t air any candidate rallies live and unedited, as it did repeatedly for candidate Trump. He has put more reporters in the field, to stay closer to the voters in the middle of the country. And CNN has held over 20 town hall events with presidential candidates for 2020 — many of them low-rated — partly as a way to focus on the issues, Zucker said, and partly to make sure that the network is not putting its finger on the scale for any single candidate. “We don’t want to be the one to say” who the leading candidates are, he said in an interview over a takeout lunch in a small conference room as Mueller’s testimony played in the background.

But the muscle memory of cable news as entertainment is hard to retrain. In the lead-up to the debate, CNN decided to hold a live draw for the candidates on the Detroit debate stage. The event, which mimicked the televised NFL draft, was Zucker’s idea. He said the event would provide transparency.

“The Draw” was a live, one-hour special that determined the nightly lineups for the upcoming debate. The network’s Ana Cabrera played the Vanna White-esque role, wearing a white dress, mixing the cards and slowly drawing names — one for the candidates and one for the debate night. To be totally transparent, even when CNN broke for a commercial, the network kept a small corner of the screen focused on the boxes, just to prove there was no funny business going on.

In the era of social media, where “everybody sees a conspiracy and everybody has an opinion, everybody sees the worst, and Twitter is a cesspool of opinion,” Zucker said he felt that the more transparent you can be, “the better you are.”

The cesspool of opinion was negative about the event. ­Mediaite likened it to a Powerball draw. Rolling Stone called it “a new low in campaign media.”

Zucker posited the criticisms as a compliment. People attack CNN “because it matters,” he said. “We were the first cable news network, and I think that’s why CNN gets its fair share of acclaim and a fair share of criticism. And, you know, that’s okay. I mean, I’m totally comfortable with that.”

“Purists who thought the draw took things to the extreme of the sports analogy, none of that criticism bothers me,” he said. “We were fully transparent. None of the campaigns had an issue. The DNC didn’t have an issue. We loved it. It’s okay.”

The network's loudest critic, of course, is the president himself. It wasn't always the case.

In 2012, when CNN was looking for a new leader, Trump tweeted, “@CNN is looking at Jeff Zucker to lead them out of the forest — Jeff would be a great choice.” After Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, the two spoke multiple times a week, according to former campaign officials. (Zucker allowed that Trump called him “frequently,” during that period. The two haven’t spoken in well over a year.)

“He has always had a television on in the background,” said Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer. “And he’s been watching CNN longer than anything else. That’s a main reason he complains about it, because he wants them to approve.”

Zucker concurred. “The things he rails against the most — CNN, ‘Saturday Night Live’ and the New York Times — that’s what he grew up with in New York. That’s what he knows. And that’s whose respect he covets.”

Zucker said that his own ­20-year relationship with the president means that Trump believes Zucker and CNN owe him loyalty, one of the traits the president most values.

“It’s a fair criticism that we took too many of his rallies live and unedited,” Zucker said, but he also credits his relationship with Trump as providing an insight into the candidate that helped the network’s coverage.

“I think it’s one of the reasons going back — and I don’t really want to rehash, although we can talk about it — we recognized earlier than most in 2015 what his appeal would be, and [that’s] why we took him much more seriously as a candidate early on.”

“That’s an insane position,” said Tim Miller, the former spokesman for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign and an outspoken ­never-Trumper. “This idea that Jeff Zucker had some kind of [idea] about Trump’s credibility that other networks did not is just not true. Trump was good TV, so they aired him.”

From the Trump campaign’s perspective, the relationship with Zucker was key early on. “When I was with the campaign, CNN was an asset,” said Sam Nunberg, an early adviser to the campaign, noting that Trump’s ability to go on CNN as a guest helped the campaign’s goal to “saturate the airwaves” and gain early credibility in the race. Fox News, on the other hand, Nunberg noted, was “full of Bush and Weekly Standard types,” and it was harder to break through.

Now, of course, Fox’s prime-time lineup is stacked with Trump supporters, each more strident than the last, and CNN is the president’s least favorite network. About Fox, which handily beats CNN in the ratings, Zucker says that he’s comfortable with CNN’s ratings and asserts that Fox’s ratings derive from its conservative bent.

“When you look at the last 20 years of American society culture and politics, I think they’ve been one of the most destructive voices in that entire process,” Zucker said of Fox. “And I think that they’ve had a terrible influence on the discourse in this country.”

The challenge for the Democratic presidential candidates, this week and going forward, will be to draw attention away from the captivating Trump Show. The president still excels at inserting himself into a news cycle. But events such as the debate are opportunities to liven things up on the Democrats' side, with or without Trump.

The NBC-hosted first Democratic primary debate drew 15 million and 18 million viewers, respectively, over its two nights. CNN is looking to build on that audience and the narratives that have emerged since. While executives won’t discuss the topics they plan to cover, CNN’s Washington Bureau Chief Sam Feist noted that each debate builds on the last one. “This debate doesn’t live in a vacuum — it lives in the political cycle that exists since the last debate,” he said. “We’ll pick up where the political cycle has taken us from the first debates until now.” The debate stage is different, one candidate in and one candidate out, but the polls have also shifted, as have some of the rivalries.

Unlike NBC’s approach — to swap out moderators halfway through the two-hour debate each night, CNN has tapped three of its personalities to moderate throughout the entire two-day event: Dana Bash, Don Lemon and Jake Tapper.

Bash is CNN’s chief political correspondent; Lemon is the opinionated anchor of “Tonight With Don Lemon”; Tapper is the chief Washington correspondent and the anchor of “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” Bash and Tapper are based in Washington, and Lemon, who is based in New York, arrived in Washington last week to prepare in person with his two counterparts. All three flew to Detroit over the weekend to be on-site for the event.

CNN declined to make the moderators available ahead of the debate. “We’ve all been in Washington, and we’re all in the same room and will be in the same room for a while,” said Mark Preston, CNN’s executive editor of political programming, a week before the scheduled debates.

The DNC is in control of the guest list, and it controls which network is picked to host each debate. But the debate stage is CNN’s.

At a recent Trump rally in Greenville, N.C., a teenage rock band played its rendition of a frequent rally slogan, "CNN Sucks." (Selected lyrics included: "Jeff Zeleney, you whine like a girl/Jake Tapper, you make me wanna hurl.")

“I think Trump has hurt our perception among Republicans to some degree,” Zucker said. “I think it’s incredibly unfortunate. You can’t have the most powerful man in the world with his megaphone slamming the network every day and not have it have an effect.”

What does success look like for Zucker the day after the election in 2020? “I want CNN to be a big and important part of the conversation. . . . I want us to make sure that we’re telling the full and complete story so that no one wakes up the day after the election and is surprised by whatever happens.”

Despite Trump’s calls for him to be fired, and rumors that AT&T, which recently purchased CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, would get rid of Zucker because of political pressure, his job appears safe. In fact, AT&T recently gave him a new title: chairman of WarnerMedia News and Sports, an expanded purview that puts Zucker in charge of much of the company’s live television coverage. CNN is on track to deliver another year of record profits.

He has mused in the past about running for office and said he hadn’t ruled it out, though he didn’t specify the office for which he’d like to run. He also joked about his long-standing desire to run the Miami Dolphins. “Yes, if they want me, I’d take that job!” he said.

But he’s not committing to whatever he might do next. First he has election coverage to oversee. “I love CNN. I’m going to be here for a while. I won’t be here for the rest of my life, and at some point I will do something different. I don’t know what that is yet.”