The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CNN’s president has fired a warning shot at Donald Trump

CNN President Jeff Zucker arrived at Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 21 for a meeting with President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Don't mess with CNN.

That's the unvarnished version of a message that the network's president, Jeff Zucker, delivered to President-elect Donald Trump in an interview published on Thursday by New York magazine.

"One of the things I think this administration hasn’t figured out yet is that there’s only one television network that is seen in Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, Tokyo, Pyongyang, Baghdad, Tehran and Damascus — and that’s CNN," Zucker said. "The perception of Donald Trump in capitals around the world is shaped, in many ways, by CNN. Continuing to have an adversarial relationship with that network is a mistake."

Donald Trump vs. CNN. Again.

Media relations experts — or, really, anyone with an ounce of common sense — would probably agree that Trump doesn't help his coverage by attacking CNN and its journalists. Reporters, anchors and producers are human, after all, and being called "terrible" or "fake news" or "wannabe journalist" can't possibly make anyone more sympathetic.

But journalists are called to try as hard as humanly possible to compartmentalize all that stuff and continue to cover Trump fairly. Revenge is not in the job description.

Zucker's warning that it would be a "mistake" for Trump to keep bashing CNN seems to suggest that the network's coverage might change if the president-elect doesn't knock it off. Consider the reverse: If coverage on CNN could not be affected by Trump's behavior toward it, why would more insulting rhetoric be a mistake? Trump would have nothing to lose.

Thus, it is hard to escape the perception that Zucker issued a kind of threat. He also seemed to engage in a bit of trolling when he said this: "It’s just unfortunate that the most powerful person in the world is trying to delegitimize journalism and an organization that plays such a vital role in our democracy. I think he’s entitled to his opinion, but it’s — to use one of his favorite words — sad."

Zucker, let's remember, knows Trump well. He used to be president of NBCUniversal and is the one who put Trump's reality TV show, "The Apprentice," on the air. He told New York magazine that he still talks to Trump about once a month.

So, Zucker might know what he's doing here. He might know exactly the right blend of strength and poking and logic that will resonate with the incoming president.

Yet he also played into Trump's effort to frame news outlets like CNN as entities that pretend to report information as it really is but actually report information in a certain way because they feel a certain way about him or his party or his supporters. The next time CNN airs a critical story about Trump, he can wave it off and say the network is just butt-hurt.

And it will be harder for CNN to rebut the charge because Zucker did warn that continuing to be "adversarial" would be a mistake.