Hit the road, Jeff
The CNN president who pushed for a politics-as-sports approach resigns for "failing to disclose a workplace relationship."
Hello and happy Wednesday, dear readers,
My phone buzzed. I looked down to see a push notification from The New York Times:
If you’re reading this, you probably know that I’m something of a news connoisseur who has long opposed the infotainment model of the mainstream media apparatus. As such, I’ve never been a fan of ousted CNN president Jeff Zucker. Please allow me to explain why.
The basics: who is Jeff Zucker?
Jeff Zucker is a 56-year-old media executive who was president of CNN between the years 2013 and 2022. Before that, he spent 24 years working at NBC, eventually rising to the rank of president and CEO of NBC Universal. He is credited with turning the Today show into a morning TV ratings powerhouse, and landed shows like Fear Factor and The Apprentice at the network, helping propel the careers of down-on-his-luck Donald Trump and fledgling comedian Joe Rogan.
In his 2005 book, TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald, Bloomberg columnist Tim O’Brien shared a story about Zucker being so desperate to land The Apprentice at NBC that he locked Trump and Mark Burnett in a room until a deal was reached:
And on the next page:
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Required Reading: Jonathan Mahler’s 2017 profile of Zucker for The New York Times Magazine.
Mahler’s profile, “CNN Had a Problem. Donald Trump Solved It,” gives a glimpse into Zucker’s view for TV news.
On CNN’s pre-Trump problem:
Real breaking-news events happened only every so often, and people lost interest in them quickly; more quickly than ever, in fact, now that there was so much else to distract them.
But then along came a presidential candidate who was a human breaking-news event. Trump provided drama and conflict every time he opened his mouth. So too did his growing band of surrogates, who were paid by either the campaign or the network, and in one case both, to defend his statements. Indeed, it often seemed disconcertingly as though Trump had built his entire campaign around nothing so much as his singular ability to fill cable news’s endless demand for engaging content.
Had Trump lost the election, CNN would probably have returned to its previously scheduled struggle for survival. Instead, it has become more central to the national conversation than at any point in the network’s history since the first gulf war. And the man who is presiding over this historic moment at CNN happens to be the same one who was in some part responsible for Donald Trump’s political career. It was Zucker who, as president of NBC Entertainment, broadcast “The Apprentice” at a time when Trump was little more than an overextended real estate promoter with a failing casino business. That show, more than anything, reversed Trump’s fortunes, recasting a local tabloid villain as the people’s prime-time billionaire. And it was Zucker who, as president of CNN, broadcast the procession of made-for-TV events — the always news-making interviews; the rallies; debates; the “major policy addresses” that never really were — that helped turn Trump into the Republican front-runner at a time when few others took his candidacy seriously.
On the Zucker-driven decision to promote Trump:
CNN was the first major news organization to give Trump’s campaign prolonged and sustained attention. He was a regular guest in the network’s studios from the earliest days of the Republican primaries, often at Zucker’s suggestion. (For a while, according to the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Trump referred to Zucker as his “personal booker.”) When Trump preferred not to appear in person, he frequently called in. Nor did CNN ever miss an opportunity to broadcast a Trump rally or speech, building the suspense with live footage of an empty lectern and breathless chyrons: “DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE.” Kalev Leetaru, a data scientist, using information obtained from the TV News Archive, calculated that CNN mentioned Trump’s name nearly eight times more frequently than that of the second-place finisher, Ted Cruz, during the primaries.
On Zucker’s and Trump’s mutual admiration:
Last spring, as Trump was steaming toward the Republican nomination, Zucker ran into him in the men’s room in the network’s Washington bureau. Trump was powdering his face before an interview.
“You think any of this would have happened without ‘The Apprentice?’ ” Trump asked, as Zucker moved past him.
“Nope,” Zucker answered.
On Zucker letting Trump influence CNN hiring decisions:
In the summer of 2015, after appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show, Trump complained to CNN that his interviews on the network were always followed by conversations among panelists who all seemed to hate him. The network asked Trump to suggest the names of some people who would defend him. One of those whom he mentioned was Jeffrey Lord.
On “politics as a sport”:
As pure TV spectacle, arguments like this were reminiscent of the head-to-head battles pioneered a decade ago by ESPN’s daytime talk shows like “First Take,” which pitted sports pundits against one another in loud disagreements about the topic of the day. This was not a coincidence. Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN’s programming into CNN’s election coverage. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” he told me.
On CNN’s pro-Trump cast of characters:
As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are “characters in a drama,” members of CNN’s extended ensemble cast. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, I can’t believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,’ but you know what?” Zucker told me with some satisfaction. “They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are.”
The point of this is that Trump’s anti-CNN act is exactly that: an act. Under Zucker, CNN decided to set its credibility on fire for the sake of making a quick buck. When I first tweeted about this, someone responded by saying that at least CNN wasn’t as bad as Fox News,” to which I responded that people should really try to have a higher bar than “not as bad as Fox News.” On that same note, I do think it’s worth remembering that while Roger Ailes created Fox as a way to achieve specific (if ghoulish) political goals (he was a Nixon-era GOP media consultant), Zucker’s decision to torch CNN’s once sterling reputation was driven by greed and ego, not ideology. Both are extremely bad in their own ways.
I hope CNN changes course, but I’m not getting my hopes up.
It’s not too late to try to undo some of the damage Zucker did during his time at CNN. Get rid of “politics as sports” guys like Chris Cillizza, stop hiring people whose only job is to go on camera and agree with whatever a specific politician says, and get back to reporting the news. CNN has a lot of really good, really talented people who work there. Jake Tapper is a great interviewer, Andrew Kaczynski is a phenomenal reporter, Donie O’Sullivan is an informative delight to watch on TV, and that’s just naming a few of the many CNN people who would benefit under a more news-centric focus.
The world does not need more massive panels of people talking over each other, nor does it need choreographed news events. The world needs a news media that is willing to fight for the truth, to fight for democracy, even if that means upsetting a whole lot of people.
In all likelihood, Zucker’s replacement will be someone with the same broken attitude and idea of what journalism is, but I’m still feeling momentary happiness knowing that he’s gone. To that, I say: hit the road, Jeff.