In December 2015, after the demagoguery of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign became clear, I asked CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, if he regretted his role in Mr. Trump’s rise.
First Mr. Zucker — who put “The Apprentice” on NBC in 2004 and made Mr. Trump a household name — laughed uproariously, if a bit nervously. Then he said, “I have no regrets about the part that I played in his career.”
I was thinking about that exchange when Tucker Carlson of Fox News recently gleefully aired recordings of conversations with Mr. Zucker that Mr. Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, had deviously taped in March 2016.
Mr. Zucker is heard speaking in flattering and friendly terms about Mr. Trump, or, as he called him, “the boss.”
“You guys have had great instincts, great guts and great understanding of everything,” Mr. Zucker says to Mr. Cohen of Mr. Trump’s campaign.
And Mr. Zucker shows an eager interest in Mr. Trump’s television stardom. “I have all these proposals for him,” Mr. Zucker says beseechingly at one point. “Like, I want to do a weekly show with him and all this stuff.”
You may have missed the recordings — CNN didn’t cover them, nor did The New York Times — but if you can filter out Mr. Carlson’s spin and Fox’s campaign against CNN, they’re still revealing.
Of course TV executives work for access behind the scenes; of course, under the stirring mood music that fills CNN hour after hour, an old bond thrived between cable television’s defining executive and the president of the United States.
But the story of Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker is a kind of Frankenstein tale for the late television age, about a brilliant TV executive who lost control of his creation. And it illustrates the extent to which this American moment is still shaped not by the hard logic of politics or the fragmented reality of new media, but by the ineluctable power of TV.
Mr. Zucker made his bones as a wunderkind producer for the “Today” show. He took over NBC’s entertainment group in 2000, as the “Friends” era was ending and reality TV was beginning. The network desperately needed a new kind of hit, and Mr. Zucker found it in “The Apprentice” — a corporate boardroom version of “Survivor,” the blockbuster at rival CBS. That show transformed Mr. Trump from a local blowhard into a national figure, and laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign.
When Mr. Trump ran for president, Mr. Zucker briefly dismissed him as a “sideshow” in an early 2015 email to his political team, according to one of its recipients. But as soon as he saw the ratings his old star could still deliver, he spent 2015 and 2016 turning CNN into a platform for his ambitions. He went so far as to turn the camera to the empty podium before Mr. Trump’s rallies (a chyron read: “DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE”), while other presidential candidates seethed and suspected — accurately, it turns out — that the two men maintained a cozy back channel.
“When the folks over there at CNN get all high and mighty about their journalistic integrity — that’s just not real,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign and said he laughed out loud when he heard the recording. “They’re running a reality TV show. That’s what Zucker’s good at.”
The story is not, of course, quite that simple. CNN retains much of its straight news DNA and its tough Washington interview machine, and is indispensable in moments of big breaking news — like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. But the company had hired Mr. Zucker in 2013 to restore its relevance at a moment when the internet had replaced TV as a source of the newest information. Now its signature prime-time broadcasts, from Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo, are nightly cris de coeur, featuring monologues about Mr. Trump’s misdeeds, competing with MSNBC for the same enraged American audience. They feature the occasional true reality TV flourish — notably, the duet between Mr. Cuomo and his brother, the New York governor, and the highly staged exit of the anchor from his basement, where he had isolated himself when he contracted the coronavirus.
In speaking to dozens of people who know Mr. Zucker over the past few weeks, I heard two distinct theories of what is going on now: One is the current version of CNN — amped up outrage and righteousness — is just Mr. Zucker’s latest reflexive adaptation in search of ratings. The other is that Mr. Zucker, TV’s Dr. Frankenstein, has been willing to dent his network’s nonpartisan brand in order to kill his runaway monster, Mr. Trump.
Preston Beckman, who was NBC’s executive vice president for program planning and scheduling just before Mr. Zucker’s ascendancy there, said Mr. Zucker’s thirst for ratings blinded him to the damage he was doing by offering saturation Trump coverage.
“He’s a ratings whore — and I’m telling you that as a ratings whore,” Mr. Beckman told me. “But it’s one thing to be a ratings whore in prime time and it’s another thing to be a ratings whore when it comes to news.”
Mr. Zucker’s friends see a redemption story.
“As a journalist, he has a conscience, a sincere commitment to the First Amendment and a deep sense of citizenship,” said Ben Sherwood, another top morning show producer who went on to lead the Disney-ABC Television Group, and who has known Mr. Zucker since they worked on The Harvard Crimson together 35 years ago.
Mr. Zucker “admits he isn’t the most introspective person,” Mr. Sherwood wrote in a book called “The Survivor’s Club.” The CNN chief is a survivor — of two bouts of colon cancer in his 30s and heart surgery in 2018.
He’s constantly in motion, most at home in the control room, directing shots and popping into his hosts’ ears to suggest aggressive lines of questioning, suggesting stories to his digital team. People who wonder at his professional survival and resilience sometimes miss what an effective leader “JZ,” as he’s known internally, has been at CNN, winning the deep loyalty of many of his staff with the blend of obsessiveness, decisiveness and loyalty that you need in a news leader.
“Jeff is the most decisive and self-assured media executive I’ve ever worked for or covered as a reporter,” said NBC’s Dylan Byers, a former CNN reporter, adding: “But he has a North Star. The North Star is ratings.’’
Mr. Zucker’s professional passion has never been hard news: It’s been ratings, corporate success and winning at every game. His most legendary moments have dramatic tactical thrusts — like his poaching of Meredith Vieira from “The View” on ABC for the “Today” show in 2006. And his relationship with Mr. Trump reflects a certain New York social world that has always blended friendship, talent management and philanthropy. Mr. Zucker’s then-wife, Caryn, lunched with Melania Trump, a mutual friend said, and raised money for the private school both families’ children attended; Mr. Trump wrote a check.
Mr. Zucker’s falling-out with his old star came late. Even in the spring of 2017 — after a presidency that kicked off with an attempt to ban Muslims from traveling to America — he told my colleague Jonathan Mahler, “I like Donald.”
But the tensions were growing. Mr. Trump had chosen Fox over CNN as the main home of his rolling talk show, giving the conservative network constant access and interviews. His powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was rising inside the administration, lacked Mr. Trump’s affection for Mr. Zucker and pushed the president away from him.
When AT&T moved to buy CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, in 2016, Mr. Trump began attacking his old friend. He did it in public, on Twitter. He also raised Mr. Zucker in a private meeting with AT&T’s then-C.E.O., Randall Stephenson, in early 2017, a comment that hasn’t been previously reported.
The president’s campaign against Mr. Zucker was interpreted — reasonably — by Mr. Zucker as an attempt to get him fired as a condition of the merger, according to three people who spoke to AT&T and Time Warner executives at the time. But Time Warner stood by him, and Mr. Trump’s Justice Department sued to stop the merger. When Mr. Stephenson finally took control of the company in 2018, he didn’t fire the CNN president.
Mr. Mahler’s piece noted that CNN had become more focused on American politics, ”an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations” — in other words, it had become Trumpier. He also noted Mr. Zucker’s “strange symbiosis” with Mr. Trump. But that summer, CNN fired Jeffrey Lord, a genial, silver-haired former aide to Ronald Reagan who had been Mr. Trump’s most stalwart defender on the network.
And by the end of that year, the lure of ratings pulled the network in a new direction: resistance. Mr. Trump’s own political theater featured regular televised confrontations with CNN’s White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, a different kind of win-win. But if Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker sometimes still seemed to be winking, their audiences aren’t in on the joke, and the deadly serious stakes became clear when a deranged Trump supporter mailed a bomb to CNN’s New York headquarters in October 2018.
Mr. Zucker didn’t respond through a spokeswoman when I asked again, five years later, whether he now regrets his role in Mr. Trump’s career.
But this run, too, may be coming to an end. When I spoke to former NBC colleagues of Mr. Zucker about his tenure there, the show they brought up most often wasn’t “The Apprentice”; it was “Fear Factor,” in which contestants were tossed in their underwear into a pit full of rats, among other grotesque stunts. USA Today described it as perhaps “the most vile program ever to air on a major network.”
“Fear Factor” didn’t age well. The show lasted six seasons, and a revival was cut short by public backlash to a stunt in which competing sets of identical twins drank donkey semen. The public got tired of it (and that donkey stunt didn’t air).
“After a while it was like, Jesus Christ,” the host, Joe Rogan, recalled in a 2019 interview. “How many times can you throw them off buildings?”
Consuming the news of the last four years has felt at times like watching “Fear Factor” and its cruel and violent strain of reality television. That’s the sensation of doomscrolling on Twitter late at night, the unending outrage cycle that has propelled cable news to its current strong and steady ratings.
When I spoke to people at CNN, they made the point that ultimately they cover and react to the news, they don’t make it. Mr. Zucker may be in the control room, and when we look back at this disorienting era, media leaders will be important, secondary figures. But this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality, and the show’s executive producer is Donald Trump.
And the part of the American electorate that was enjoying the show may get tired of this too. If Donald Trump loses in November, that may also mark the end of this era of cable television, which he had fed and fed off, and which has left its audience divided and exhausted.