CNN and Jeff Zucker helped give us Trump

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CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker, shown in 2019, has announced that he will leave the network at the end of 2021. (Photo by Jason Mendez / Invision /AP, File)

Just a few years ago, CNN seemed intent on giving Donald Trump as much help as possible for his presidential run.

The network obsessively covered the candidate’s raucous speeches in the Republican presidential primary. It treated his campaign like entertainment, rather than a prelude to autocracy. It ran chyrons like “Breaking News: Standing By for Trump to Speak” over footage of an empty stage and hired Trump loyalists such as Corey Lewandowski and Kayleigh McEnany as talking heads to boost his reputation.

These days, the friendly tone is long gone. As the 45th president’s second impeachment trial arrives on Tuesday, viewers can expect a far more aggressive coverage strategy from CNN, exemplified by its lead Washington anchor, Jake Tapper.

Recently promoted and given significantly more on-air prominence, Tapper specializes in truth-to-power confrontation. He spars with Republican lawmakers who don’t accept the results of the 2020 election and delivers jeremiads like one describing the Jan. 6 Capitol attack as “a joint effort by far-right hate groups that the president has been playing footsy with for years, and radicalized, infected Trump supporters and MAGA media.”

Just like in 2016, the audience is on board. CNN’s January ratings have never been higher.

But as they watch, viewers might want to recall how Trump’s presidency came about in the first place. It was in no small part the work of CNN chief Jeff Zucker, who announced last week that he will leave the network at the end of 2021 – in other words, after he gets a chance to direct coverage of the Trump saga’s denouement: his trial for inciting insurrection.

“I cannot imagine not being here right now,” Zucker told his employees. “I have this incredible seat in the very front row of history every day.”

One thing is certain: No matter how CNN covers the trial, and no matter what Zucker does next – whether he runs for mayor or buys a football team or starts a charity – nothing will ever disentangle his legacy from Donald Trump.

It started with Trump’s celebrity breakout on “The Apprentice” two decades ago. Zucker was the NBC executive who used Trump to boost the network’s troubled ratings. In the process, he made Trump himself a household name.

“The show was built as a virtually nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle,” Washington Post journalists Marc Fisher and Michael Kranish wrote in their 2016 book, “Trump Revealed.”

After Zucker moved to the top job at CNN, he, along with others in the media, helped elevate a fringe candidate to the White House. He will forever bear some responsibility for the civic destruction that followed.

No one would mistake Trump and Zucker for friends these days. As president, Trump turned on his enabler, labeling CNN an “enemy of the people” and insulting Zucker and his network at every opportunity.

But no matter the ups and downs, Zucker and Trump shared a common goal: TV ratings.

Trump, quite accurately, has called himself a “ratings machine.” The endless media attention he has commanded is a testament to that.

And Zucker? A former NBC executive once called him a “ratings whore.” A reporter who worked for him at CNN put it more genteelly, telling New York Times columnist Ben Smith that ratings were always the executive’s “North Star.”

And that star is overhead now. In Nielsen figures reported by the Associated Press, CNN averaged nearly two million viewers a day in January, up more than 150 percent from the same month last year. For the first time in two decades, CNN had more audience by that daily measure than MSNBC (1.66 million per day) and Fox News (down 20 percent year over year to 1.37 million viewers per day).

And on Tuesday, when the U.S. Senate begins the impeachment trial, Zucker is poised once again to reap those precious ratings. Even if the trial is likely to end in Trump’s acquittal, people are sure to tune in.

Zucker has displayed some capacity for reflection about his decades-long role producing the Trump Show.

He tepidly expressed second thoughts as early as 2016. “If we made any mistake last year,” he said, “it’s that we probably did put on too many of his campaign rallies in those early months and let them run.”

Of course, he had his reasons: “Because you never knew what he would say.”

I suspect the network’s radical shift in its Trump coverage since then is less about high-minded reform and more about catering to an audience that increasingly despises the former president.

In addition to promoting Tapper, the anchor whom a Fox News article called “one of the most outspoken anti-Trump personalities” on the network, CNN has also given a weekend anchor spot to its former White House correspondent Jim Acosta, Trump’s frequent antagonist and punching bag.

Conventional wisdom says that Trump eventually wrecks anything he touches, like his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison for financial crimes and lying to Congress. Or the hundreds of people whom Trump incited to storm the Capitol, now being hunted by the FBI.

As early as 1979, the late, great investigative reporter Wayne Barrett nailed it, calling Trump, then a real estate developer in his early 30s, “a user of other users.”

But Zucker took Trump’s own game to the next level: using the user of users. If you don’t believe me, just watch CNN’s coverage of the trial and wait for the ratings to roll in.

Because whether Trump is hostile or friendly, whether the public is helped or harmed, he has consistently delivered Zucker the goods.

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