“This is an extraordinary time in journalism,” said CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker this morning referencing the Donald Trump era. “Many organizations in the United States have never done better work. This is really the renaissance of journalism in America because of the nature of what’s going on,” he told a packed audience at Keshet Media Group’s INTV conference in Jerusalem.
Zucker also allowed that the Trump era has been financially prosperous. But he wouldn’t necessarily “send a thank you note” to POTUS. Still, “the reality is doing good journalism is also good for the bottom line.”
With regard to Trump having called the media the enemy of the people, Zucker said it was “an incredibly dangerous statement.” The key, however, “is to not be intimidated by it and not back off in any way.” Still, Zucker said he has been shocked “to watch many members of the political set in Washington not stand up to that statement. Many are just afraid in general and afraid of him. Many have abdicated their responsibilities in not standing up for the free media.” Zucker cited two exceptions, Lindsey Graham and John McCain, but still called it “a stunning and complete abdication of responsibility.”
Of CNN’s response, Zucker said, “I don’t think we’re hitting back hard. We’re doing our jobs and there is a difference. I don’t think it’s hitting back hard when you’re reporting and standing up for the facts, telling the truth and standing up for the First Amendment. When you’re calling it the way it is, that’s not hitting back. That’s doing your job.”
Zucker called this the “heyday of cable news” but lamented that “a lot of the attention is on cable news networks and the ratings between them. No doubt that’s part of the story and Fox News has the largest audience because they have the conservative talk point of view all to themselves without any competition. What they do, they do very well. It’s true we want to have the biggest audience possible but we don’t wake up every day saying we need to beat Fox News… It’s not a ratings game day in and day out for us. The most important thing we do is journalism and that’s why this era matters so much. When we wake up every day, it’s about doing journalism and holding those in power accountable. After that, we think about attracting the largest audience and growing our digital footprint.”
Following CNN and other media outlets having been banned from a recent White House briefing, Zucker said, “That’s fine. Honestly it doesn’t bother us. All it does is force us to continue to do our jobs and report the facts. The fact that we don’t have to worry about access and seeking interviews… frees you up to do your job. This has been very liberating. Whatever they want to do is fine… Our ratings have never been better.”
Zucker and Trump have known each other since Zucker bought Mark Burnett’s Apprentice pitch while heading up NBC in the early 2000s. As a New Yorker, he knew Trump as someone who would generate a “tremendous amount of attention.” Other networks were interested in the show, but “we wouldn’t let Mark leave the lot.” And thus Zucker said, “I’m the man who greenlit The Apprentice.” He didn’t, however, give Trump the astronomic raise he sought the following year.
The two last spoke, Zucker said, on December 21 at 7pm. “I was at home watching CNN and my cell phone rings and he says ‘Jeff, Donald.’ I said, ‘Hello Donald’ and he spent the next two minutes railing about a guest we just had on. He yelled at me for two minutes and said, ‘OK, got it. Goodbye.’ It was more of a monologue, but I did say ‘Hello’.” Zucker laughed
The CNN chief said his network recognized early on in the presidential run that Trump should be taken seriously. “It wasn’t just a whim and that’s one of of the reasons we gave him a lot of attention early on.” However, airing Trump’s rallies unedited and without commentary was not such a good idea, Zucker acknowledged. “We probably did too many of them, but I do not think that’s why he is President of the United States. At some level there is a limit to the influence that we do have.” But, “If we could go back, we wouldn’t have done as many.”