How Jeff Zucker Made Trump

Jeff Zucker’s resignation from CNN was welcome news to me, at least. I agree with Margaret Sullivan at WaPo:

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.

Yeah, when he was head of NBC Entertainment Zucker helped create “The Apprentice” as a vehicle for Trump. And then as head of CNN Zucker helped make Donald Trump president. Alex Shephard writes at The New Republic,

Speaking to Vanity Fair in 2018, then–CNN chief Jeff Zucker made the case that his decision to transform the network he ran into a near 24/7 Trumpathon was just good business. “People say all the time, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about Trump. I’ve had too much Trump,’” he said. “And yet at the end of the day, all they want to do is talk about Trump. We’ve seen that, anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.”

Zucker was not, I don’t think, the first media executive who sought to package news as entertainment. The networks used to keep the news and entertainment divisions strictly separate and accepted that news coverage would be unprofitable. But that changed in the 1970s. See this 1999 Neiman Reports article for how pressure for television news to be profitable changed television news coverage for the worse.

Before “The Apprentice” debuted in 2004, Trump appears to have been circling the drain as any kind of big-shot executive. He was over his head in debt, and his casinos and hotels were not generating enough money to get out of debt. There were reports he had barely enough cash on hand to keep up daily operations. (See Is Trump Headed for a Fall? from March 2004.) “The Apprentice” literally saved his ass. He still had to walk away from the casinos, dumping his debt load on his gullible investors, but after the show became a hit (or so I’m told; I never watched it) his fortunes looked up. By 2006 he was flush with cash of unknown origin (see Trump’s Mystery Money from May 2018). This was after U.S. banks had stopped doing business with him.

See also Adam Davidson, Where Did Donald Trump Get Two Hundred Million Dollars to Buy His Money-Losing Scottish Golf Club?, The New Yorker, July 2018. By 2018 Trump had spent a few years doing deals all over the world and buying properties with cash, and there literally was no way to know where all that money was coming from. It couldn’t be accounted for through available information. Did “The Apprentice” somehow make all that possible, whatever “all that” was?

And then came the 2016 election, and Zucker was head of CNN Worldwide. In 2017 Warren Olney wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Trump owed his election victory to  Zucker.

During the election season, I saw entire Trump rallies carried live by CNN, interrupted only for mandatory commercials. Not only was there no critical fact-checking, there was no serious effort to provide context for viewers. Never raised, let alone answered, was the question: Why should a developer with a shaky reputation and no relevant experience be seriously considered for the most powerful job in the world?

It wasn’t just CNN, of course, as I described in a 2017 post, Are Our News Media Learning? They all managed to “normalize” Trump, giving him billions of dollars of free air time for the sake of ratings. But CNN led the way.

Then came 2020, and I despaired of anything improving. CNN’s hosting of the 2nd set of Democratic candidate debates in August 2019 was just awful. See John Delaney, Tim Ryan, and Other Tools (about the first night) and CNN’s Hot Mess, Night 2. See also David Dayen, CNN’s Debate Fail. It begins:

Everyone working for CNN should walk into network president Jeff Zucker’s office and resign en masse on Wednesday morning. A “debate” that spent its opening 25 minutes less efficiently than a Super Bowl pre-game show got dramatically worse as the actual questions got started. Jake Tapper then delivered instructions, warning the candidates not to go over time after CNN saw fit to run the national anthem and then a commercial break after the scheduled start time. The only ones wasting time on debate night would be CNN.

It would give Tapper and his other moderators too much credit to say that their relentless right-wing framing of the questions was animated by a desire to protect the insurance industry and the border patrol. But that’s not really it. CNN has no politics. CNN has no understanding of politics or policy. I doubt the combined firepower of the 20-person post-game panel could name a bill currently before Congress. The CNN debate was an inevitable by-product of turning news into an entertainment and cultural product.

So you can assume I’m not weeping any tears over the departure of Zucker. Let’s just hope whoever replaces him isn’t just as bad.

There’s a lot of speculation that the stated reason for Zucker’s resignation, that he’d had a secret relationship with an employee, was not the real reason he left. There is talk that Zucker’s resignation has something to do with the the Cuomo brothers, Chris and Andy. Especially Chris. The Daily Mail thinks that CNN fired Zucker at the insistence of a billionaire stockholder who is also a Trump donor, who wanted to end the network’s “left-wing bias.” To which all one can say, is …

But I really don’t care how it happened. Zucker, the Man Who Made Trump, is gone. Let’s just hope CNN doesn’t get even worse.

In other news: Here’s today’s new Trump insurrection revelation, ironically reported by CNN:  Newly obtained records show Trump and Jim Jordan spoke at length on morning of January 6. This is a matter that has strangely eluded Rep. Jordan’s memory.