Jeff Zucker on Donald Trump's Cash Demands: "We Don't Pay Candidates"

The Paley Center for Media Jeff Zucker and  Ben Smith - H 2015
Paley Center for Media/Patrick Lewis/Starpix

The CNN chief also addresses critics who claim the network is over-covering Trump: "It’s our role to report what he does. It’s not our role to build up a campaign or take down a campaign."

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker first exposed Donald Trump to a national audience when, as NBC Entertainment chief in 2003, he commissioned The Apprentice

“Everybody was looking for their Survivor,” explained Zucker, invoking CBS’ once-monster unscripted hit. "There’s no question that The Apprentice made Donald Trump an even bigger celebrity than he already was, but he was already a celebrity. That’s the legacy part that I play in furthering Donald Trump’s career. I have no regrets about that. The Apprentice was a phenomenal hit for NBC for a long time.”

Flash forward 10-plus years, and Zucker is now taking criticism for giving the GOP presidential front-runner a platform on CNN. Of course, virtually every other TV news outlet also has featured the quotable Trump heavily. Meanwhile, Trump has bombastically declared that he is responsible for CNN’s ratings while asserting that the cable news network should pay him to appear at the Republican debates.

What Zucker does have a problem with, he told a gathering of media professionals Thursday morning at the Paley Center’s breakfast series in New York, is the notion that CNN is over-covering Trump.

“Everybody wants to know, 'Why do you talk about Trump? Why do you only cover Trump?'” Zucker scoffed, as his interlocutor, BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith, asserted that Trump was running a “demagogic” campaign.  

"That’s your opinion," Zucker told Smith. "I don’t think it’s our role to take a point of view. It’s our role to report what he does. It’s not our role to build up a campaign or take down a campaign. It’s our role to be skeptical.”

Zucker also brushed off the notion, promoted repeatedly by Trump, that CNN should pay him to appear at the debates. The September GOP face-off on CNN drew 23.1 million viewers. In the run-up to that debate, Trump demanded $10 million, which he claimed he would donate to veterans' charities. The network’s next Republican debate is on Dec. 15, and Trump is asking for $5 million.

“We do not pay candidates to appear at debates,” said Zucker

He also addressed complaints from Republican candidates about the snarky tone of the questioning at the debates, which came to a head with CNBC's debate last month. Without criticizing his competitors, Zucker conceded that tone does matter. 

"I believe that if you’re running for President of the United States, you should have to answer any question," he said. "But if you’re running for President of the United States, you deserve respect and you should be treated fairly. It’s our job to ask questions that are skeptical but ... with the right tone." 

Zucker also discussed the overuse of the "breaking news" banner, cable news competitors Fox News and MSNBC and his network’s digital dominance.

Cracking Down on Breaking News 

He admitted that CNN uses the "breaking news" banner too often and has instituted a crackdown on indiscriminately slapping the chyron on news that does not actually rise to the standard of "breaking." But Zucker noted that the problem is not confined to his network. 

"I do not think that this is a problem that is unique to CNN," he said. "I think every news division is guilty of this. And I think at some point it just loses credibility when it actually is breaking news. And I would much rather spend time breaking actual news than pretending something is breaking news. So we have tried to crack down on the overuse of [the "breaking news" label]. I’m sure we still do it more than we should. But I know we do it less than others who continue to not think it’s a problem."

Digital Dimes Have Turned to Dollars

Zucker noted that CNN is investing heavily in digital and continues to make its international footprint a priority — even if the media industry tends to focus on CNN as a domestic television network. And he came armed with a list of impressive digital statistics. Wednesday, Dec. 2, featuring coverage of the shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., was CNN digital's most-trafficked day ever. There were 28 million video views, the most of the year and the third-biggest of all time; 20 million uniques, second only to last month's Paris attacks; and 162 million page views, among the top 10 of all time. 

"Those are huge numbers," said Zucker, adding that he views CNN as a "multiplatform provider of news and information."

He continued: "We’re making a significant amount of money in digital. It is an important part of what we do. We are paying attention to it."

Asked how CNN would fare in an unbundled, over-the-top media ecosystem, Zucker responded that CNN's robust digital operation positions the company for myriad eventualities. "Nobody knows what the future is exactly going to look like," he said. "But we do think because of our brand equity, that we can exist in whatever world it becomes. In this world where everybody is free with their facts, everybody has a partisan point of view, and everybody wants to play journalist, there does have to be a place that you can count on and rely upon. Credibility and brand equity is the most important thing. Whatever that world is, whether it’s a digital world or a television world, CNN can exist in that world."

No Room for MSNBC's News-Centric Rebrand

After years of trailing MSNBC in the domestic TV ratings, CNN has retrenched and is now the No. 2 cable news network behind Fox News Channel. Meanwhile, MSNBC is reprogramming its daytime hours to focus on news coverage and away from progressive opinion and analysis, which still makes up its primetime schedule. But Zucker, who shares a friendship with MSNBC president Phil Griffin, has been vocal in the past that there is no room for another news network.

"Clearly they’re going through a rebuilding phase," Zucker said of MSNBC. "And it’s been interesting to me that they decided to move more into breaking news and compete more with CNN."

Citing the grisly breaking news out of Paris, Colorado Springs, Colo. (where a gunman went on a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood office) and San Bernardino, Zucker asserted that CNN is "built" for breaking news. And MSNBC may not be.  

"It's a very hard space to compete with us in," he said. "I guess I’ve been surprised that that’s the lane they’ve chosen."

Of Course Zucker Wants to Beat Fox News

If the media blogs closely cover the ratings horse race among the cable and broadcast news divisions, Zucker noted that domestic TV ratings "are not how we judge ourselves on a daily basis," though he conceded that bragging rights are not insignificant and pointed out that CNN has improved its position in the linear TV landscape. 

"We have moved into a very strong second place [behind perennial No. 1 Fox News Channel] in terms of television ratings in the U.S. in cable news," said Zucker. "We were third three years ago. Would it be a goal to be No. 1? I’m competitive. I think it’s always good to have a goal. Our business is so much broader. We are global. We are multiplatform. I don’t want to BS anybody that [domestic TV ratings are] not important.

"We are in our best competitive position to Fox since 2008. We are more dominant over MSNBC than we have been in 11 years. Do I think we can get to No. 1? I have to say yes. I believe we will get there. I don’t know when."