How CNN took on President Trump and lost.
Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical left and Islamic terrorism.
When CNN brought in Jeff Zucker, it wasn’t for his journalistic acumen. Zucker was best known for his work on the Today Show. After billions in losses at NBC, his new Comcast bosses wanted him gone.
CNN and Zucker were perfect for each other. Both were sinking ships looking for an easy way out.
Zucker’s plan for CNN was simple. Get out of the news business.
Or as he put it, “news is how you define it.” Fake, real; it’s all a matter of definition. And Zucker was going to “broaden” the definition of what news is. And the definition was reality shows.
CNN was going to edge away from the news business under its new boss of fake reality television.
Zucker’s plan made sense at the time. MSNBC had the lefty demographic locked up and FOX News spoke to the right. CNN wasn’t going to compete with them. And it wasn’t going to do “vanilla” reporting. Instead it would jump into the reality dogpile. Food shows. Edgy documentaries. “More shows and less newscasts.” If there had to be news, Zucker wanted it to have an “an attitude and a take.”
Before President Trump called out CNN as fake news, its new boss had already turned it into fake news.
But that was a different world. Obama was in the White House. Hillary was going to succeed him. Nothing interesting was going to happen in the world of politics. CNN could just focus on infotainment.
And then Trump emerged and everything changed. Suddenly CNN was going to have to do news again and Zucker, the gimmick guy who had bet big on reality shows on NBC and then on CNN, was completely out of his depth. He understood entertainment, but he didn’t have the faintest clue about journalism.
In the summer of ’16, he had ridiculed BuzzFeed as not being a real news organization. That gave BuzzFeed a whole lot in common with CNN. By October, he had hired on Andrew Kaczynski and his BuzzFeed team of trolls. And it’s that team of trolls that is now at the center of CNN’s latest scandal.
CNN had already lost 3 reporters from its investigative unit over a fake news Trump-Russia hit piece. Instead of enmeshing President Trump in scandals, its investigative unit is deeply enmeshed in scandal.
Zucker was not a journalism guy, but he understood numbers. He lived and died by them. His philosophy at CNN was to stay on anything that its viewers were watching whether it was a missing Malaysian plane or Trump. CNN’s old strategy of “flooding the zone” with meaningless non-coverage of a breaking event was merged with Zucker’s own preference for reality television to create a constant coverage circus.
Hiring a ton of reporters from across the spectrum, from a New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner to the BuzzFeed trolls, would flood the zone with Trump scandals. CNN would have the most Trump scandals and the most viewers. It was a great strategy for manufacturing a whole bunch of fake news scandals.
And things that don’t even qualify as fake news. Like wondering whether Trump is afraid of stairs. The Stairophobia segment appeared on New Day, Zucker’s own baby. Or the accusation that Trump eats too much ice cream.
That’s how Zucker reinvented CNN and went to war with the President of the United States. But he hadn’t grasped that reporting on real people is different than asking reality show contestants to attack each other on camera in scripted segments. This time his reality show really was real. And he isn’t ready.
Jeff Zucker had come to CNN to exploit a brand that was associated in most people’s minds with the “news”. That’s the same reason President Trump has been hammering CNN. Destroying the credibility of CNN will damage the mainstream media. And the media has been happy to line up and lionize Zucker.
It’s quite a comeback for the NBC boss who used to be best known for his spat with Conan O’Brien. But the scandals show that Zucker doesn’t actually know how to handle a news media operation.
And history may be about to repeat itself.
AT&T wants to buy Time Warner. And some AT&T execs aren’t happy with Zucker’s mismanagement of CNN. That’s a familiar story. The last time a major telecom giant bought a company that Zucker was running, they dumped him. Had Comcast succeeded in buying Time Warner, the big boss of fake news would already have been unemployed.
Zucker was hired because CNN’s business model was failing. But his new model is also a wreck. CNN has moved into MSNBC’s loud left-wing space while Maddow’s old home lurches a little to the center. His old bet on reality television no longer looks all that smart. Instead CNN is the new MSNBC where talking heads with “attitude” give their left-wing “take” on the news. And there’s a reason MSNBC let CNN do it.
MSNBC wants more than Maddow & Co. But that’s exactly the model that Zucker is replicating.
MSNBC would rather take CNN’s old position than appeal exclusively to Bernie Sanders fans. The New York Times and the Washington Post were financially desperate enough to climb into that hole. CNN didn’t need to reduce its audience to people who believe President Trump will soon be removed from office. It made that choice because Zucker’s lack of vision trapped the news network in a dead end.
President Trump used CNN’s need and greed for attention against it. He often wins by getting his enemies to give in to their worst instincts. And that’s what Jeff Zucker has been doing. CNN is profiting in the short term, but losing in the long term as its brand becomes a political toxic waste dump.
The Zuckering of CNN was easily foreseen.
Jeff Zucker’s lack of vision manifested itself in the mismanagement of NBC and CNN in the same way. The former Today Show producer had a talent for gimmicks and a weakness when it came to the big picture. His plans all came down to doubling down on a dubious gimmick that was working without considering the long term cost. That’s how fake reality television turned into fake news.
Now Zucker has trashed CNN the way that he wrecked NBC.
President Trump and Jeff Zucker have a history. Zucker thought that he had picked his target, but it was really a case of Trump picking CNN. Trump understood that Zucker’s weakness as an executive lay in taking the easy road to success without thinking ahead. And he’s using that weakness to destroy CNN. And to inflict serious collateral damage on the mainstream media through the attacks on CNN.
CNN couldn’t resist going to war against Trump. Not when the ratings were so good. And now that the war is going badly, it’s too late to disengage. Like the rest of the media, CNN assumed that it made the rules. Now it’s discovering that no one else has to abide by its rules.
Jeff Zucker has complained that President Trump is bullying CNN. That’s not the battle cry of a winner. It’s the big boss of fake news starting to figure out that he bit off more in this fight than he can chew.