UPDATED, 6:19 PM: So much for that “threat.” Donald Trump now says indeed he will take part in CNN’s next GOP debate on December 15 in Las Vegas. “When you’re leading in the polls, I think it’s too big of a risk to not do the debate,” the Republican front-runner told the Washington Post in an interview today. “I don’t think I have the kind of leverage I’d like to have in a deal, and I don’t want to take the chance of hurting my campaign. So, I’ll do the debate.”
PREVIOUSLY, 9:28 AM: CNN will not pay GOP frontrunner Donald Trump $5M to appear at the cable news network’s December 15 debate, despite the fact Trump claims he’s responsible for 99.9% of CNN’s debate ratings, network chief Jeff Zucker said this morning.
Zucker sat down with Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith at Paley Center in New York to field questions and snark. Smith, for instance, noted that among Zucker’s “many media legacies is Donald Trump, who you helped create at NBC.”
“Game on!” Zucker shot back.
Smith goaded Zucker, saying Trump “takes personal credit for 99.9% of your ratings” and asked Zucker if he had “any regrets for the role you played in his career” and the “bigoted, lying campaign he’s been running.”
“Why don’t we put a little context around that question, which is to explain the role that I played in his career, right?” Zucker shot back. “I think what you’re referring to is when I was at NBC Entertainment, I am the one who put The Apprentice on the air… The reason that I greenlit it was, I was from New York and working in L.A. at NBC Entertainment at the time and I understood that The Apprentice was Survivor in a different jungle – in the boardroom. That’s the way it was pitched, Survivor had been this huge phenomenon for several years at the time and everybody was looking for their Survivor… I understood immediately what Donald Trump was, and what it meant to have him at the center of that show, in a way, the folks who were running the other entertainment divisions in Los Angeles at the time didn’t fully appreciate, because they weren’t from New York… I had lived every day with the New York Post and the New York culture and understood the magnet for attention that he was. That’s why we wanted it: Survivor, you add Donald Trump, and that sounds like a pretty good combination. It turned out to be a phenomenon. It did great.”
While acknowledging “there is no question that The Apprentice made Trump even a bigger celebrity than he already was,” Zucker insisted. “I have no regrets about The Apprentice or any of that. It was absolutely the right decision… I have no regrets about the part that I played in his career.”
Asked if he would cough up $5M if Trump follows through on his latest threat to demand he be paid to appear at CNN’s next GOP debate on December 15, Zucker responded, “No. We do not pay candidates to appear at debates.” (Trump has said he would give the money to military veterans),
Zucker defended the amount of free publicity CNN has given Trump during his campaign in the form of flood-the-zone coverage of rally speeches, etc. “I don’t think it’s our role to take a point of view. It’s our role to report what he says, what he does, to fact check what he says, what he does. Really it’s not our role to build up a campaign, or take down a campaign. It’s our role to be skeptical of what every candidate puts out there and says,” Zucker said.
“It’s not our role to editorialize the way that some of those comments are,” Zucker added, in re Smith’s reference to Trump as a lair and demagogue.
Smith also asked Zucker about his own political aspirations. It’s previously been reported Zucker would entertain the idea. “I would still think about that,” Zucker answered. Smith wondered if he had a particular political job in mind. “I would consider anything,” the exec responded coyly. Asked how long he intended to stay at CNN, Zucker responded, “I love what I’m doing, I have no plans to leave…I will be here for the foreseeable future,” then added, “but… my eyesight is not that good.”