Jeff Zucker on CNN's War With Trump and the "Renaissance" of Cable News

Jeff Zucker - Headshot - H - 2016
Courtesy of CNN

"Doing good journalism has also been good for the bottom line," he said, noting that "viewership has never been higher, our digital reach has never been higher" than under the Trump administration.

For Jeff Zucker, it's the best of times and the worst of times.

As president of CNN Worldwide, Zucker has been directly, and repeatedly, attacked by President Donald Trump as a purveyor of “fake news” and, more notoriously, as a representative of “the enemy of the people.” At the same time, the rise of Trump has been very good for business at CNN. Traditional cable viewership and online reach have hit all-time highs under the new regime.

“It is an extraordinary and important time in American journalism,” said Zucker, speaking at Keshet's INTV media conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday. “There has been a lot of talk about the death of journalism in America, but I think there has never been a more important time [to do journalism] and that many of the organizations in the United States have never done better work or more important journalism. It is really the renaissance of journalism in America because of the nature of what is going on.”

Zucker admitted that “doing good journalism has also been good for the bottom line,” pointing to the fact that "the cable news genre in the U.S. has never been stronger — actual viewership is at an all-time high. This is the heyday of cable news.”

But whatever benefits the Trump government may have brought the cable news business, Zucker warned that attacks on the media  — Trump's infamous comment referring to the press as an “enemy of the people” — are “dangerous, unprecedented and shocking. It's an attempt to de-legitimatize aspects of the American system.... I don't know if it will undermine American democracy, [but] it certainly doesn't help.”

Zucker also took aim at Republican members of Congress for refusing to condemn the president's remarks.

“Frankly it has been shocking to watch how many members of the political establishment have not been willing to stand up to that statement,” he said, “I think many have abdicated their responsibility. With two notable exceptions, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, none of the Republican members have the courage of their convictions to stand up. It's been a complete abdication of responsibility.”

Speaking to his personal relationship with Trump, Zucker acknowledged that, as head of NBC at the time, he was responsible for greenlighting The Apprentice, the reality show that made Trump a TV star. "As a New Yorker, I really understood the appeal of Donald Trump in his ability to create publicity," Zucker said, "so I knew the show would get attention."

Zucker also repeated an anecdote about his salary negotiations with Trump for the second season of The Apprentice, where Trump at first demanded to be paid as much as the actors on Friends, NBC's most successful series at the time.

"At that time on Friends, each cast member was being paid $1 million per episode," Zucker said, "and Donald said, 'I should be paid the same as the stars of Friends. But all six combined.' "

Zucker immediately rejected Trump's pitch. “We told him that day, that's not going to happen, and if that is where you are, the show is over. The next day he called and accepted our [much lower] offer.”

Zucker admitted to making mistakes in CNN's coverage of Trump — he noted that CNN's airing “unfiltered and unedited” versions of Trump's election rallies “probably wasn't the right editorial call." But he argued that the network's impact on Trump's political success was minimal.

And despite the boon the Trump presidency has been for CNN's ratings, Zucker said his and his network's focus remains reporting the news.

“We make the majority of our money through subscriber fees, not anything to do with ratings,” he said. “For us, the most important thing that we do is journalism. I wake up and think about how we are doing journalism and holding those in power accountable. Only after that do I think about attracting a larger audience and growing our digital footprint.”