The CNN-Trump dynamic is the subject of an in-depth New York Times piece by Jonathan Mahler that’s online this morning and will hit the front page of the paper’s Sunday edition.
A portion of the piece is a behind-the-scenes look at the much-talked-about Jake Tapper–Kellyanne Conway interview on The Lead back in February. CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker, one of the more hands-on network presidents you’ll ever encounter, was in the control room at the time along with CNN’s DC bureau chief Sam Feist, and the network’s comms director Lauren Pratapas, all of whom were feeding questions and suggestions to both the producers and to Tapper himself.
The most recent time Conway had appeared on the network, she and Anderson Cooper went back-and-forth for close to 25 minutes, and as Mahler writes: “The tension between Conway and the network had since become a kind of B story in the larger narrative of Trump’s ongoing war with CNN, which the president had taken to characterizing as ‘fake news.'” This is interview was a big deal, both for the Trump White House and for CNN.
Here’s a play-by-play of what exactly transpired in the control room during the Tapper-Conway interview, which would eventually go viral:
Tapper had just shown a montage of various CNN correspondents covering a number of the very terrorist attacks that Trump claimed the media hadn’t reported and had asked Conway to explain the contradiction. Zucker didn’t want the director to abandon the split screen and zoom in on Conway — and thus miss Tapper’s facial expressions as she tried to respond. While Conway spoke, CNN trolled the Trump administration with a chyron: “CNN EXTENSIVELY COVERED MANY ATTACKS ON WH LIST.”
As Tapper cross-examined Conway — “the White House is waging war on people who are providing information” — Zucker paced behind the show’s production team like a coach on the sidelines, his hands alternately stuffed into his pockets, pressed up against the sides of his bald head, then squeezing the shoulder of one of the producers seated in front of him.
CNN’s Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, told Zucker that the interview had been going for six minutes, the length they agreed to with the White House.
“Fine,” Zucker said. “Go 12.”
The director was again preparing to cut away from Tapper to focus on Conway, this time as she explained that the administration had “a very high respect for the truth.”
“Hey, doubles!” Zucker said. “Doubles.”
Zucker prodded a producer to pass along a question to Tapper through his earpiece: “Have you guys ever made any mistakes?”
Tapper obliged, with a slight rephrase: “Have you or President Trump ever said anything incorrect?”
Feist, meanwhile, was staring at his phone, looking agitated. He was receiving unhappy texts from a CNN producer at the White House.
“The White House wants her to stop,” he said.
“She wants to talk,” Zucker answered. “Let him finish.”
CNN’s communications director, Lauren Pratapas, who happened to be in the control room, had an idea. She fed it to Zucker, who instantly repeated it to the producer: “Does she consider us fake news?”
“Are we fake news, Kellyanne?” Tapper asked seconds later. “Is CNN fake news?”
“I don’t think CNN is fake news,” Conway replied.
A new chyron soon appeared on-screen: “CONWAY: I DON’T THINK CNN IS FAKE NEWS.”
After the interview ended and the program went to commercial, Tapper and Conway were cordial towards one another, something the casual viewer may not have expected after what appeared to be rather contentious back-and-forth:
“We blew up commercials for that,” the real Tapper told the real Conway after finally wrapping up the 25-minute interview.
“Thanks, Jake,” Conway replied, as a producer moved in to detach the microphone from the lapel of her cream-colored coat. “That was great.”