Many questions still swirl around Wednesday’s startling announcement that, after nine years, Jeff Zucker’s reign as CNN president was over.
It will all eventually be revealed — teams of reporters are racing to dig into one of the biggest media stories in recent memory. But we already know one thing: When the dust settles, Zucker’s relationship with Donald Trump will define his legacy.
Zucker, as much as any other person in the world, created and burnished the Trump persona — first as a reality-TV star who morphed into a worldwide celebrity, then as a candidate for president who was given large amounts of free publicity.
The through line? Nothing nobler than TV ratings, which always were Zucker’s guiding light, his be-all and end-all and, ultimately, his fatal flaw.
Two decades ago, as an NBC executive searching for a way to goose the floundering network’s popularity, he gave the green light to a reality show, “The Apprentice,” featuring a flashy mogul whose soon-to-be-famous tagline was “You’re fired.” Trump had a checkered history of bankruptcies, racism and failed real estate projects, but his confident bluster made him a natural on television.
“The show was built as a virtually nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle,” Washington Post journalists Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish wrote in their 2016 book, “Trump Revealed.” The stunning rise of Donald Trump had begun.
Zucker created Trump the TV sensation, which was the necessary foundation for Trump the candidate. Years later, after moving from NBC to CNN, Zucker recollected very well that Trump was a self-proclaimed “ratings machine” — a rare instance of Trumpian truth-telling.
CNN infamously took his campaign speeches live, sometimes going so far as to broadcast images of an empty lectern with embarrassing chyrons such as “Breaking News: Standing By for Trump to Speak.” You can’t buy that kind of media.
Zucker also brought on the air Trump surrogates who should have had no place on a national news network: people like the bully Corey Lewandowski, the sycophant Jeffrey Lord (who praised Trump as the Martin Luther King of health care) and Kayleigh McEnany, who later became a White House press secretary bad enough to somehow make one pine for Sean Spicer.
When Trump became the Republican nominee for president and started trashing Zucker’s network and staff with invective about its “fake news,” it was too late for second thoughts. By then, the standard had been set. Every Trump utterance became breaking news, and CNN, like many other news organizations, never figured out how to responsibly cover Trump throughout his democracy-damaging presidency.
Zucker expressed a modicum of regret in late 2016. “If we made any mistake last year,” he said, “it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.”
But he excused his decision-making: “You never knew what he would say.” Audiences were riveted, so what could he do?
The same motivation cropped up in 2020, early in the pandemic, when CNN’s prime-time star Chris Cuomo was driving audience numbers via his cozy chats with his older brother, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D). That was an unwise break with the policy that had been in place since the younger Cuomo arrived from ABC News: He would not be allowed to cover his politician brother.
But, again, how could Zucker say no to those ratings?
His ill-advised decisions about Cuomo and Trump have only backfired.
Trump celebrated Wednesday in a predictably nasty statement: “Jeff Zucker, a world-class sleazebag … has been terminated for numerous reasons, but predominantly because CNN has lost its way with viewers and everybody else.”
Cuomo apparently has knives out, too, or at least is keeping all options open, after Zucker fired him for being too involved in trying to salvage his older brother’s career last year as the governor tried to fend off allegations of sexual misconduct. A lawyer for the former host has sent a “hold letter” to CNN, asking network executives to preserve any communications between CNN and the former governor or members of his staff. “Cuomo’s team is hoping to prove that CNN executives … knew about the extent of his involvement with his brother’s cleanup effort,” The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
There are kinder ways of looking at Zucker and his legacy. One CNN host, Alisyn Camerota, speaking on air, called him a visionary leader with “this uncanny ability to make, I think, every one of us feel special and valuable in our own way, even though he is managing an international news organization of thousands of people.”
And I’ll note that CNN recently has done important work, including specials about the Jan. 6 insurrection and a new “Democracy in Peril” show in the 9 p.m. slot recently occupied by Chris Cuomo.
But why is American democracy in peril? Some portion of the blame — not a tiny portion — belongs to the network executive who couldn’t resist the “ratings machine.”