Jeff Zucker: Trump's CNN Bashing Has Not Diminished Network's Standing

Courtesy of CNN
Jeff Zucker

Nor has it affected the regulatory review of the AT&T sale.

Donald Trump again took aim at CNN Thursday in a freewheeling — and hastily planned — press conference, telling senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta that his network’s ratings are not “as good as some of the other people waiting” and again asserting that CNN is “very fake news.” Trump also characterized the network’s coverage as having a “tone” of “such hatred,” adding: “The public doesn't believe you people anymore. Now maybe I had something to do with that. I don't know. But they don't believe you.”

Such persistent public criticism from Trump and his surrogates during the campaign, and now from the White House, prompted CNN to undertake a deep-dive brand study last month.

“I was concerned,” conceded CNN worldwide president Jeff Zucker, during a lunchtime conversation with journalists on Thursday at New York City's Time Warner Center. But the survey found “no diminution whatsoever in the strength of our brand.”

It also found that CNN is more trusted than Trump or Congress. According to the survey (conducted Jan. 14-19 with 2,000 adults by Meeting Street Research), 52 percent of respondents trust CNN while 35 percent trust Trump and 30 percent trust Congress.

It’s clear that Trump takes what he views as criticism from CNN very personally, perhaps owing to his history with Zucker, who greenlighted Trump’s The Apprentice in 2004 when Zucker was head of entertainment at NBC. And Trump threw out a non-sequitur yesterday during his back-and-forth with Acosta: “Ask Jeff Zucker how he got his job.”

Trump may have been referring to a 2012 conversation with then-Turner CEO Phil Kent during which he suggested Jeff Zucker for the CNN job. Kent was already in discussions with Zucker at the time.

Zucker has not heard from Trump personally since mid-December. He admitted it was “not a good conversation.” But Trump’s surrogates, including son-in-law Jared Kushner, have continued to make their displeasure known to Zucker and other company executives. CNN’s coverage came up during a recent meeting at the White House between Kushner and Gary Ginsberg, executive vp corporate marketing and communications at CNN parent Time Warner. The men are old friends. And according to the The Wall Street Journal, Kushner specifically complained about CNN contributors Van Jones, an Obama loyalist, and Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who backed Jeb Bush during the 2016 GOP primary and has loudly criticized Trump.

(Navarro responded on Twitter by mocking Kushner with the Trump-esque sobriquets “little Jared” and “baby boy.”)

The latest flare-up came one day after Time Warner’s shareholders voted to approve a proposed $85.4 billion sale to AT&T, one that Trump has in the past threatened to torpedo. Turner CEO John Martin said that with shareholder approval, the companies can now begin strategizing about integration. Despite Trump's rhetoric, Martin said the Justice Department’s regulatory review has been “straightforward”; the department has put in a second round of information requests. Martin added that he does not expect the deal to trigger a formal FCC review since Time Warner plans to divest some of its businesses, including Atlanta TV station WPCH.

But in an interview on Thursday, new FCC chairman Ajit Pai told Fox Business Network that he would be scrutinizing the proposed sale. “We want to make sure that there’s a competitive marketplace,” said Pai. “If there is an anti-competitive harm that is shown to me based on the evidence, then we'll take the appropriate action.”