There’s a long-running debate among media insiders: Who did more to power President Trump’s political ascent — Jeff Zucker, the CNN chief who gave him his start in reality TV while at NBC? Or Roger Ailes, the late Fox News chief who integrated Trump into the offerings of the No. 1 cable news network?

Zuckerologists got something of a boost from Tuesday night’s edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News. The host obtained a tape recording of Zucker having a cordial chat in March 2016 with Michael Cohen, the attorney, former Trump associate, convicted felon and, now, author of anti-Trump book “Disloyal.” As Carlson told the story, these two men have long ties in elite New York circles: Zucker’s wife, Caryn, served on the board of a private school along with Cohen, for example.

Coziness suffuses the call, which occurred on the day of the last Republican primary debate. After Cohen suggested that Zucker email Trump himself, Zucker responded: “I’m very conscious of not putting too much in e-mail, as you’re a lawyer as you understand. And you know, and as fond as I am of the boss, he also has a tendency, like, you know, if I call them or I e-mail him, he then is capable of going out in his next rally and saying that we just talked, and I can’t have that, if you know what I’m saying.”

Those of us who have heard CNN executives blab about how their network plows a middle path between the extremes of MSNBC (avowedly liberal) and Fox News (conservative and corrupt) will recognize one of the pitches that Zucker passed along to Cohen. “Here’s the thing,” said Zucker. “You cannot be elected President of the United States without CNN. FOX and MSNBC are irrelevant — irrelevant — in electing a general election candidate.” That commentary summons a forgotten epoch when CNN and Trump were not declared enemies. In the early primary months, for example, CNN carried Trump’s rallies live — a move for which Zucker later expressed regret — and the candidate appeared for interminable interviews with Chris Cuomo on “New Day.”

Perhaps in that amicable spirit, Zucker mentions to Cohen that he wanted to do a “weekly show” with Trump — whatever that might entail. Could it be that Zucker had been jealous of Trump’s weekly appearances on “Fox & Friends” dating back to 2011? (Those regular appearances ended when Trump became a presidential candidate.)

Carlson bore down on the part of the call where Zucker — who has openly acknowledged political ambitions — dispensed some debate advice.

COHEN: How many times do you think Cruz is going to call him a conman tonight?
ZUCKER: No, Rubio.
COHEN: I mean, Rubio. How many times do you think?
ZUCKER: A lot.
COHEN: I say a hundred.
ZUCKER: You know what you should do? Whoever is around him today should just be calling him a con man all day so that he gets so used to it, so that when he hears it from Rubio, it doesn’t matter. Hey, conman. Hey, conman. Hey, conman.
COHEN: Yeah, great — you want to get smacked in the head?
ZUCKER: He thinks that’s his name, you know?

That Zucker’s debate-prep tip was so dumb doesn’t diminish its ethical depravity. CNN makes a big deal of its journalistic purity, its standards and practices, its protection of sources. Here was a clear violation from a the man who supervises the network’s 3,000 employees at 36 “editorial operations” around the world. Any of those folks could have told Zucker not to pass along tips to a presidential campaign. (We’ve asked CNN for comment and will update this piece if we receive a response.)

“Inside tips on how to navigate the CNN debate from the head of CNN," riffed Carlson. "Jeff Zucker, a man who was supposedly a journalist secretly working as a political consultant. The guy who runs the Democratic Party’s most faithful news network, giving political advice to the Republican front-runner.”

Well, well! How is that different from the guy who has become the star of the Republican Party’s most faithful news network, offering guidance to the president of the United States, as Carlson has? He “privately advised” Trump on U.S. policy toward Iran, noted the Daily Beast in June 2019. And he made a trip to Mar-a-Lago this year to advise Trump in person regarding the coronavirus — a visit that he discussed on the record with Vanity Fair. “I felt I had a moral obligation to be useful in whatever small way I could, and, you know, I don’t have any actual authority,” said Carlson. “I’m just a talk show host. But I felt — and my wife strongly felt — that I had a moral obligation to try and be helpful in whatever way possible. I’m not an adviser to the person or anyone else other than my children. And I mean that.”

The hypocrisy expands with the Fox News schedule: At 9 p.m., Carlson hands off to Sean Hannity, who has become known in White House corridors as the “shadow chief of staff.” As CNN’s Brian Stelter shows in his new book, the partnership between Hannity and Trump is seamless and sprawling, one that supersedes Hannity’s own professional obligations to the news side of the network.

The whole incident shows yet again why Fox News is a poor perch from which to attempt media criticism: Every possible offense to which you’d like to draw attention has likely been committed in batches by your own colleagues.

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