4 Reasons the Guy Who Runs CNN is a Supervillain (Basically)
In a year when MSNBC made your hippie aunt believe that the Trump administration was perpetually on the verge of being arrested en masse, and Fox News made your racist uncle think that America's hippie aunts need to be airlifted to Gitmo for the good of the nation, CNN seemed like the one major news network that wouldn't melt the brains of your loved ones.
But folks, here's the catch: while CNN's reporters have faced death threats for having the gall to state basic facts, CNN president Jeff Zucker helped create the monster who calls them "enemy of the people." Here's how, because someone will probably try it again.
First, He Destroyed NBC
The journey of any great doofus begins with a single step, and Zucker's was getting a job at Today in 1989. Today is the RC Cola of news, but when Zucker became executive producer he gave it a shot in the arm. An obsessive focus on host chemistry and gimmicks like outdoor rock concerts propelled Today from also-ran to years of ratings dominance, and as a reward for his success Zucker was named president of NBC Entertainment. And then the Peter Principle kicked in.
Between 2000 and 2010, Zucker's various NBC roles saw him take the network from first to last. He had a few wins -- Fear Factor, Scrubs, one of the infinite Law and Order spinoffs -- but more losses. As NBC's big shows, like The West Wing, ER, and Seinfeld went off the air, Zucker just couldn't replace them. Remember Joey, which was two seasons of NBC begging viewers to pretend that Friends worked without the friends? Zucker championed that. He was also at the helm during the Leno/O'Brien Tonight Show debacle, which took two smash successes and turned them into expensive duds.
We won't relitigate the whole tawdry kerfuffle here, but O'Brien and his staff were eventually paid $45 million dollars to leave the network and "PR nightmare" was one of the nicer descriptions. The LA Times called it "one of the biggest debacles in television history," and said Zucker was behind "a spectacular fall by the country's premier television network." NBC became a broadcast network that lost to cable shows back when that meant something, and a former NBC executive called Zucker brilliant at marketing but terrible at long-term strategy. They also added "His view is, give people what they want at the time they want it. He's not a long-term strategy guy," which is a statement that violates the legal limit for foreshadowing.
Zucker's continual failures were rewarded with continual promotions, prompting the New York Times to ask why he kept failing upwards even as another network's bigshot called him "a case study in the most destructive media executive ever to exist." Maybe you're one of four people who fondly remembers the Siegfried & Roy cartoon Father of the Pride, watched all seven episodes of the Emeril Lagasse sitcom, and cheered on the XFL's Memphis Maniax, but the numbers tell a clear story of ineptitude. Obviously, then, he was given a $40 million golden parachute in 2010 and took the CNN job in 2013, because who loves failed white men more than the media? But Zucker did take one important lesson away from NBC ...
He Also Unleashed Horrible Reality TV
We mentioned Fear Factor as one of Zucker's hits, but there's a caveat; the gross-out show was huge for three years, ratings began to decline in its fourth season, and by its sixth year people were both exhausted and disgusted. In early episodes, contestants had to brave heights and cuddle with snakes, but by the end people chosen because they were models or had starred on other reality shows were digging through slaughterhouse offal and making rat smoothies.
An attempted revival fizzled out after objections to a stunt that saw identical twin women guzzle donkey urine and semen, just like the ill-fated and wildly atonal Cheers revival. Fear Factor pushed a button until it broke, and now it's an old stain we don't bring up much, the cultural equivalent of not asking why old Grandpa Dietrich spoke fluent Spanish and refused to talk about the war. At least host Joe Rogan is now only the star of the most popular and influential podcast in the world, despite being the equivalent of Dory the fish after doing DMT, getting really into conspiracy theories, and being tricked into thinking that the sharks who advocate for devouring all of the other fish in a righteous purge are actually pretty chill if you get to know them.
Speaking of things that were begrudgingly tolerated until the disgust became overwhelming, at this point we have to mention that Zucker greenlit The Apprentice, which more than anything else is responsible for making Trump a success. Producer Mark Burnett, the creator of Survivor, had to convince him to take the gig; Trump thought reality TV was for "the bottom-feeders of society" until Burnett said the show would focus on showing those bottom-feeders what an infallible genius he was.
The Apprentice saved Trump from financial ruin (years of massive real estate losses were reversed with $427 million in salary and licensing deals) and served as 14 years of propaganda about Trump's supposed corporate genius. It gave Trump the money and taught him the showmanship that he used to win the election. It's unfair to blame Trump's turn to politics on Zucker -- if every reality star got it into their head that they deserved to rule the country with a self-pleasuring iron fist, we'd all be hiding from Chris Harrison's elite Rose Death Brigade right now -- but as we'll see, Zucker treated Trump the candidate the same way he treated Trump the reality host.
Zucker went all in on reality TV, shifting Bravo from a PBS-style arts network to a trash factory. Boy Meets Boy was a gay dating show where the "twist" was that some of the lead's supposed suitors were secretly straight (EW called it "Cruel, offensive, and worst of all, boring"). Everything The Biggest Loser taught about combating obesity was wrong. A scourge of Real Housewives was unleashed upon a damned world. Gallery Girls was one of several shows created solely so that viewers would hate-watch them. Zucker didn't care what kind of bullshit he slapped on the screen, and he didn't care if it was forgotten the moment you saw it as long as you watched it in the first place.
That's the kind of man you want in charge of a newsroom, right?
Then He Treated Trump As Another Reality Show
The Washington Post said that Zucker, in the most genitalia-puckering phrase you will read today, "rode the Trump steed hard." He even managed to out-tasteless Trump, who rejected Zucker's suggestion to broadcast his own wedding. Zucker told the New York Times that he has "no regrets about the part that I played in his career," which was a weird thing to say in September 2020 given, you know, everything. But if Zucker can't be blamed for what The Apprentice did to Trump, he can sure as hell be blamed for what CNN did.
It may be hard to remember after CNN pulled its head out of its ass and treated Trump like a concussed Dracula, but Trump was given endless free coverage during the primaries and election. His rallies and speeches, to use the loosest sense of the word, were aired ad nauseum, and while today they factcheck Trump like it's their doctoral thesis, in 2016 he wasn't challenged on anything. He received free media worth billions more than any of his opponents. The idea that his words might have consequences was just some vague, abstract concept, as though it was absurd to suggest that Trump would actually do all the things he said he was going to do repeatedly and at full volume.
CNN wasn't alone here -- in another quote that's aged like fine cat piss, a CBS executive said "The money's rolling in, and this is fun. It's a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going." But CNN was supposed to be the adult in the cable newsroom, or at least the teenager with the scratchy facial hair capable of saying "This is a bad idea, guys!" as everyone else debated how to break into dad's liquor cabinet. Instead they chugged the tequila and prayed that when morning came the vomit could be blamed on someone else.
This may not be news, depending on how many events of 2016 have been unceremoniously booted from your brain to make room for the screaming banshees that are 2020's precious memories. But maybe it goes a small way towards explaining today, because when you tell a petulant child that they can eat all the cookies they want, then abruptly yank the jar away from them and tell them that they're monstrous for enjoying cookies, they might respond by attacking the Capitol in an attempt to execute Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi on Facebook Live. It's not a perfect metaphor, but you get the idea.
The people who have been shocked -- shocked -- to discover that sedition has consequences may live in another world, but Zucker, in running his news network exactly like his reality shows, let the already tenuous need for an attachment to reality in politics become completely optional. Because by the time CNN said "Oh no, the monster we built has run amok! If only there had been some literary precedent to warn us of this inevitability!" a lot of people had decided that the monster had some good ideas, and they didn't take too kindly to his sudden reversal in reputation.
And Nowadays Screaming Is A Substitute For News
There are rumours that Zucker will be departing CNN soon, another mission accomplished. CNN's ratings spiked when they helped create Trump, and they spiked again when they covered Trump's violent detritus, because the only thing better for them than a blaring sideshow was a cartoonish villain. Profits boomed, people were hired. CNN was struggling, and they needed a story, and well, they made one. Zucker achieved exactly what he set out to do, which he conveniently put into his own awful words: "The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way."
But people don't live and die based on the results of the Clippers game, and Charles Barkley doesn't use Inside the NBA to scream that a crushing loss was actually a historic victory and anyone who says otherwise is a Communist hellbent on destroying your way of life. One of Zucker's hires was Corey Lewandowski, a Trump stooge with a battery charge who would enlighten CNN viewers by promoting birther conspiracies and arguing that there was nothing wrong with Trump sharing propaganda made by virulent anti-Semites. He soon left to pursue opportunities in being accused of sexual assault and mocking an imprisoned child with Down's syndrome, but he did the job Zucker wanted him to: get eyeballs, no matter the cost.
That's Zucker's news legacy, an emphasis on panel arguments where some members don't see what the big deal about acknowledging reality is. The moment someone decides they'd rather "win" than tell the truth, a debate becomes a useless format for the honest exchange of information. Letting two people shout at each other doesn't determine who's right, it determines who can either recall the most out of context data or just pull the most nonsense out of their ass. And for years, while CNN reporters tried to call out Trump's bullshit, Zucker invited a series of snakes in suits to shout "What kind of anti-American bozo believes that?"
If you're wondering why we're bringing all this up as Trump stumbles off into the sunset to spend his final years complaining that golf balls used to be rounder, it's because Zucker encouraged viewers to live in an exhausting, interminable now where what someone did five minutes ago didn't matter. Everyone was just, again in Zucker's conveniently stupid words, "characters in a drama," as though Trump and his cronies all vanished when you turned the TV off for the night. And CNN's ugly success means that politics as Game of Thrones with worse haircuts is going to stick around for a while.
Also, if you read a headline a few months from now that says Jeff Zucker joined some streaming service, that would probably be a good time to unsubscribe.
Top image: Ron Adar/Shutterstock