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In a new column out Sunday evening, New York Times media critic Ben Smith analyzes the impact Jeff Zucker has had on CNN these past seven years as the network’s commander in chief, and how his relationship with America’s commander in chief, Donald Trump, has deteriorated over the past four years.
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.”
Smith also says Trump administration senior adviser Jared Kushner played a role in steering Trump away from Zucker, the former NBC Entertainment chief.
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.
Smith also reports that during an early 2017 meeting with AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson about the pending merger with CNN’s parent company Time Warner, Trump raised the subject of Zucker. The CNN president interpreted the move as Trump trying to get him fired as a condition of the merger (and understandably so).
After AT&T took the reins of Time Warner in 2018, Stephenson stood by Zucker and did not fire him, despite Trump instructing his DoJ to sue to stop the merger.
So, what’s the story at CNN right now? The hosts seem to be especially anti-Trump these days.
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.
Elsewhere in this piece, there is ample criticism of the style Zucker has installed at CNN. He’s accused of being ratings-obsessed, to a fault.
“Mr. Zucker’s professional passion has never been hard news: It’s been ratings, corporate success and winning at every game,” Smith writes.
Former NBC evp for program planning planning Preston Beckman told Smith: “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 but it’s another thing to be a ratings whore when it comes to news.”
Not everyone is critical of Zucker. Smith spoke with former ABC News president-turned-Disney-ABC Television Group chief Ben Sherwood, who is a longtime friend and fan of Zucker.
“As a journalist, he has a conscience, a sincere commitment to the First Amendment and a deep sense of citizenship,” said 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.