Has Trump Turned CNN into a House of Existential Dread? – Vanity Fair
Last year, Zucker signed a long-term deal to extend his contract. “It was a relief to a lot of anchors,” the CNN employee told me. Zucker proceeded to subsequently renew a lot of those anchors’ contracts, a sign that if he were staying, they were too. So it was worrying to some in the CNN newsroom when Trump tweeted, on June 27, 2017, that “Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes.” Later that evening, Emily Smith at the New York Post reported that the “specter of a $100 million libel suit scared CNN into retracting” its story linking Trump ally Anthony Scaramucci to a Russian investment fund. In the wake of the retraction, and the resignation of the three journalists responsible for the piece, Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Trump’s elder son, Donald Trump Jr., both called for Zucker’s resignation. A few days later, Trump Sr. appeared at his first big re-election fundraiser, at the Trump Hotel in D.C., where he attacked CNN and Zucker by name. “These are really dishonest people,” he said, according to a recording of his speech that night released by the Intercept. Trump mused to the crowd about whether he should sue CNN. Then, he got personal. “Jeff Zucker, I hear he’s going to resign at some point pretty soon. I mean, these are horrible human beings.”
Some CNN staffers, who worried that this was more than the usual Trump bluster, pointed to a meeting at the White House roughly a week before the fundraiser, when Trump hosted technology and telecom C.E.O.s as part of the much-overlooked Technology Week, organized by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Seated beside Trump at the meeting was none other than AT&T C.E.O. Randall Stephenson, whose company is in the process of trying to buy Time Warner, CNN’s parent company. “I think there’s a real chance that Zucker is being forced out,” said another employee. “That’s going to blow up this organization like nothing in the history of CNN.”
Trump has complained about Zucker and CNN in front of Stephenson, but the two have never had a conversation about the Time Warner deal, Zucker, or CNN, according to a person familiar with the interactions between Stephenson and Trump. This person also added that most anyone who has been in a room with the president has heard him complain about CNN and Zucker, and Stephenson is no exception. An AT&T spokesman told me that “Randall Stephenson and President Trump have never discussed our acquisition of Time Warner, CNN, or Jeff Zucker.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean Zucker has no reason to worry. When I asked the spokesman if Stephenson had given Zucker any assurances that his job was safe should the deal go through, the spokesman said, “No, because Randall and Jeff have hardly spoken since the deal was announced.” (CBS C.E.O. Les Moonves’s recent comment that CNN, if it ever came up for sale, would “enhance” CBS, seemed to signal that there is a potential buyer if things don’t work out with AT&T.) Within Time Warner, CNN’s coverage of the Trump administration has attracted attention. A Time Warner executive told an associate that the company worried that the storm surrounding CNN’s reporting on the infamous dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer regarding Trump’s Russian involvements could have implications for the merger.
And, in the merger, CNN may be surprisingly vulnerable. “I know the AT&T people. CNN is not why they did this deal,” said one longtime media consultant in Washington. “They would spin him off in a minute,” this person added, referring to Zucker. “They don’t care about him.”
Media analysts call the proposed merger a “vertical” deal since it integrates programming and distribution into one shop. Current antitrust law doesn’t give much scrutiny to such deals, provided they do not dampen competition in the market. So it may have been harder, say for 21st Century Fox’s offer for Time Warner to get approval than for AT&T’s, according to multiple industry experts. Regarding the proposed AT&T-Time Warner deal, “I don’t think anyone with clout is opposing this deal,” the media consultant added.
But the Trump administration may change that equation. White House advisers have reportedly talked about CNN’s negative coverage as a possible strike against the deal. The Daily Caller recently reported that “the White House does not support the pending merger between CNN’s parent company Time Warner and AT&T if Jeff Zucker remains president of CNN.” In response to those reports, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is the ranking member of the subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, recently expressed her concern in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in which she outlined that the deal should not be “leveraged for political gain.”
Inside CNN, the attacks from Trump are consuming, especially for the anchors who are tasked with inserting skepticism into the panels that pit Trump surrogates against Democratic operatives. Zucker offered paid gigs to contributors in order to supercharge panel discussions, which are becoming ever more a feature of cable news. He hired Trump’s initial campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, shortly after he was fired, a move that stoked internal dissent among CNN staffers over the use of paid surrogates. “Jeffrey [Lord] and Kayleigh [McEnany] are symptoms of the disease,” said one CNN employee.”If those voters are anti-intellectual and not rational, I guess you could argue that we shouldn’t have those people on television, but they reflect the base.” The presence of those individuals on panels, what one rival executive called a staged “WWE match,” put pressure on the anchors to challenge the guests.
One former employee was not as generous in the assessment of CNN’s use of a certain kind of Trump surrogate on air, and suggested that the panels undercut Zucker’s posture as a newsman. “The Jeffrey Lords of CNN not only degrade the conversation, they inject falsehoods into it. They are paid to say whatever Trump wants them to say,” the former staffer told me. “It is offensive. It is not news.” The former staffer added that neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post would give a platform to such a voice. “Would they employ Corey Lewandowski or Jeffrey Lord?” A CNN executive defended the use of panels, saying that they were a trademark of CNN partly because no other network made an effort to consistently include voices from both sides of the political spectrum.
Video: Nick Offerman’s Common Sense #2: How Fake News Changes Us
The recipe for successful television, however, may not always work so well as journalism. “They care about buzz and ratings and winning, especially under Zucker, and as many digital reporters that they have hired, they are not constructed in the same way as a print news organization,” said one former CNN staffer. CNN has recently cut ties to comedian Kathy Griffin and commentator Reza Aslan, after they both insulted President Trump in vulgar terms. Another CNN reporter and the editor of KFile, Andrew Kaczynski, was targeted by Trump surrogates and alt-right media outlets after he wrote a story on the blogger who created the video depicting Trump pummeling a CNN logo.
One former CNN staffer laid these errors at Zucker’s feet, and suggested that for the written investigative pieces that CNN has tackled under Zucker, the skill set was not right for the chosen medium. “He’s a TV news guy,” the former staffer told me. “Everyone has their formative years that define them.” Zucker has made efforts to reassure journalists and on-air talent that the mission of CNN, to conduct journalism and hold the administration accountable, has never been more clear. He took a recent trip to the D.C. bureau to reiterate to staffers that there should be no chilling effect on their reporting as a result of the attacks from the administration, according to one person who was present.
The resignation of the three CNN journalists over the Scaramucci story has raised questions about CNN’s response to the retracted story. Some commentators praised CNN for taking such decisive action after a journalistic error. Trump himself has dined out on the story for weeks. But some former CNN staffers feel that Zucker may have overreacted, and sacrificed his journalists because of the heightened attention on CNN. “There’s a morning call every day. Jeff is on it every day and on every detail that bubbles up, be it about the Pentagon or Capitol Hill,” said the former staffer, “especially on the Russia stuff. This nugget [on Scaramucci] had been percolating for several days and was put online for a while and then removed. The idea that Jeff and [other CNN news executives] didn’t know that this was out there is stunning to me,” the former staffer concluded. (A CNN executive denies that Zucker knew of the details of the story before it was published.)
One CNN staffer told me that in the reporting ranks, the war with the White House doesn’t feature in determining what to cover, and that the tension between on-air personalities and Trump surrogates plays out almost entirely on air. Cuomo bolstered that notion when he told me, “your ability to do the job is tested not by people who want to make a case. They want to undercut your ability to do that job so they don’t have to be tested.” For Cuomo, Trump “has politicized truth.”