If Jeff Zucker had gotten his way, it now appears Trump would have gotten a pass — right into a CNN studio.
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efore Jeff Zucker devoted his channel full-time to attacking President Trump, he did his best to ensure candidate Trump’s rise, according to newly revealed audio recordings of the CNN chief’s pandering to the Trump campaign.
Like his network’s talking heads, Zucker has long claimed that CNN’s coverage to Trump is guided by a commitment to the Truth and nothing else.
“We’re not pro-Trump and we’re not anti-Trump — we’re pro-truth,” he told the Los Angeles Times last October. “I want to thank the entire organization for its collective sense of purpose. CNN has never been more essential. CNN has never been stronger,” he said in a memo to employees this May.
Despite his paeans to journalistic integrity, Zucker’s programming decisions are guided by the bottom line, as with any cable-news executive. Before it was financially expedient to bash Trump non-stop, it was ratings gold to turn the mic over to candidate Trump for much of the day and fill the rest of the airtime discussing his latest antics. During the 2016 Republican primary, CNN anchors mentioned Trump eight times more than frequently than Ted Cruz and provided wall-to-wall coverage of almost every rally he held.
While it’s long been clear that the network benefitted enormously from Trump’s takeover of Republican politics, new reporting from Tucker Carlson has revealed that Zucker personally tried to board the Trump train in 2016, and only avoided becoming a personal adviser to the then-candidate for fear that his true motives, which seem curiously unrelated to Truth, would be revealed. On Tuesday night, Carlson played recordings of Zucker praising Trump in a March 2016 conversation with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. The CNN head called Trump “the boss” and claimed he wanted to offer the fledgling politician a “weekly show.”
“I’ve just got to be careful. I just don’t want him talking about it on the campaign trail,” Zucker can be heard saying to Cohen. “But you know what? I’m going to give him a call right now and I’m going wish him luck in the debate tonight. . . . I have all these proposals for him. Like, I want to do a weekly show with him, and all this stuff.”
Later in the recording, Cohen suggests that Zucker pass along some advice ahead of the Republican debate and Zucker demurs, saying he would speak to Trump “every day” if he wasn’t worried the famously loose-lipped candidate would blab about it to his supporters at a rally.
As it turns out, @CNN‘s Jeff Zucker is a big fan of President Trump.
Here is the full segment from Tucker. pic.twitter.com/1Bl9yYxCBf
— Daily Caller (@DailyCaller) September 9, 2020
The revelations reinforce an extended line of criticism that Zucker has faced during the Trump era: Despite his network’s public posturing, his desire for ratings boosted the president’s 2016 campaign past the point of no return. “It’s a not-unfair knock on CNN to say that they went all in on Trump and helped him enormously,” Ken Lerer, co-founder of HuffPost and BuzzFeed, said in a 2016 interview. “I think it was a strategy, a programming strategy.”
And stories of Zucker’s former role at NBC, where he played an integral role in raising Trump’s profile with the hit drama The Apprentice, which in turn helped further his own career, have only bolstered speculation that Zucker understood and capitalized on Trump’s ability to keep eyes glued to the television.
Zucker, who has publicly admitted that he respects Trump — “I like Donald,” Zucker told the New York Times in 2017. “I guess I shouldn’t call him that. I like President Trump. He’s affable. He’s funny.” — has tried to play off his early platforming of the candidate as par for the course.
“We didn’t bend over backward for Trump; we did what we felt was in the best interest of our viewers and readers to understand the story,” he explained in a January 2017 interview with New York magazine. “The reason we hired a number of voices to reflect the Trump point of view was to help the audience understand who he was, where he was coming from, and what he was thinking. Given the results of the election, it turns out we were exactly right to do so.”
In an ideal world, the personal preferences of an executive would have no bearing on an outlet’s coverage of a certain political candidate, which would be dictated strictly by journalists. But Zucker is intimately involved in day-to-day coverage decisions at CNN, in stark contrast to his predecessor Jim Walton, who reportedly stayed out of editorial decisions. In fact, he leads the morning news calls at CNN each day and the channel’s on-camera stars have praised him for the influence he’s had on their work.
“I hate to sound like a fanboy, but he’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” Jake Tapper has said. “He completely changed CNN,” Chris Cuomo admitted. (On Wednesday, Carlson revealed that Cuomo had reportedly coached Cohen through an interview that was to air on CNN, and promised Cohen that “you don’t get in trouble legally . . . I’m going to make some phone calls on that and make sure that you can’t get f***ed.”)
While his conversation with Cohen was previously unreported, Zucker has been asked about his dealings with Trump, and took a defensive stance in the 2017 New York interview. “Obviously we’ve known each other for a long time. Just because I’ve known somebody for more than 15 years doesn’t mean they get a pass,” he stated.
Well, if Jeff Zucker had gotten his way, it now appears Trump would have indeed gotten a pass — right into a CNN studio.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated with additional reporting.