Tape shows: ethically, CNN chief a little shaky

A conversation between Jeff Zucker and former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen removes all doubt: our hated president is a beloved commodity to network executives

America this week is obsessing about conversations between Donald Trump and Washington Post legend Bob Woodward. It’s a scoop, but a crazier story is being buried.

Beginning on September 1, tapes were released of conversations between former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and top CNN figures, including Chris Cuomo and president Jeff Zucker. The conversations between Zucker and Cohen especially go a long way toward explaining how Donald Trump became president. We see clearly how Zucker, famed now as a supposed stalwart force of anti-Trumpism, actually encouraged him during the 2016 campaign, to the point where he offered Trump help on how to succeed in a CNN-sponsored debate.

The tapes are devastating enough to the media’s pretensions of non-responsibility for the Trump phenomenon that they’ve gone mostly uncovered, outside of Fox. The few outlets that have tackled the tapes focus on the fact that they were released by Tucker Carlson, for example the Washington Post’s “What’s up with Tucker Carlson’s leaked tapes of Michael Cohen’s secret CNN conversations?”

Conventional wisdom about the media role in electing Trump in 2016 focuses most on the quantity of free coverage he received. “Trump rode $5 billion to the White House,” was a typical treatment by The Street in November, 2016, noting that Trump’s best month of “earned media,” May, 2016, was driven by his “infamous Cinco de Mayo message.” That was the one in which he said “I love Hispanics!” over a Trump Tower taco bowl:

The implication with these stories was that Trump was so good at driving social media interest with “controversial” gambits like these, he pushed news outlets to match audience demand. While this is true to an extent, it doesn’t really get at what happened.

Other areas of media behavior in 2016 that have been investigated include the amount of negative versus positive coverage devoted to Hillary Clinton, as well as the greed of network executives like Les Moonves of CBS, who infamously said of the Trump campaign, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

Among reporters, the story of the media’s evolving attitude toward Trump went like this: they thought he was amusing initially, gave him too much coverage in a lust for ratings, then got religion and began “calling him out” once he sewed up the Republican nomination. It is said we adopted a new, more responsible approach to Trump as time went on, featuring “copious coverage and aggressive coverage” in an effort to be “true to history’s judgment,” i.e. to do everything to stop a unique threat from becoming president.

Anyone who wants to understand what the change in editorial attitude toward Trump in 2016 was really about need only listen to these tapes.

The public legend about Zucker, furthered by Donald Trump himself and buttressed by reports in conservative media like Project Veritas, is that he despises Trump. We’ve heard reports in recent years of Zucker ordering staff to be “fully committed” to Trump’s impeachment, for instance.

What these new tapes make plain is that this is likely neither a personal nor political issue with Zucker, who had a relationship with Trump dating back years. Zucker, after all, had made Trump a media star back when he was running NBC. He’d green-lit The Apprentice, which a pair of Washington Post writers would later describe as a “virtually nonstop advertisement for the Trump empire and lifestyle.”

Zucker also had a relationship with Cohen, who served on the board of a Manhattan nonprofit school called Columbia Prep with Zucker’s wife, Caryn. It’s not clear how the tapes got out, but we do know one conversation between Zucker and Cohen took place just hours before the last Republican primary debate, on March 10, 2016.

In that recording, Zucker reassured Cohen that “the boss,” i.e. Trump, was going to do great at the debate, because he always did:

I think the other guys are going to gang up on him tremendously, and I think he’s going to hold his own, as he does every time. He’s never lost a debate. And do you know what? He’s good at this… he’s going to do great.

The 2016 campaign was marked by scores of stories about how terrible a debater and campaigner Trump was. Headline after headline speculated that a trembling Trump might skip debates with Hillary Clinton, despite trailing in polls.

“Will Donald Trump skip the debate with Hillary Clinton?” wondered New York that summer. “Is Donald Trump planning on skipping the presidential debates?” asked the Atlantic. Why might someone so far behind skip debates? Because “he’s not very good at them,” the Washington Post explained, adding Trump won the Republican primary “in spite of his lackluster debate performances.”

Reviews aside, the camera didn’t lie: Trump onstage so bullied GOP rivals that he commanded the most debate airtime by far, in one early case more than doubling the amount of time taken by Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker. No matter the morality of what Trump said — and there were repulsive moments, like the Megyn Kelly episode — voters came away with the impression that he’d been the center of gravity in each debate.

It would have been a journalistic service to explain how this worked. Instead, a legend was created that Trump was inept and his wins were losses. The biggest head-scratcher was the New York Times describing the debate that was clearly fatal to Jeb Bush — when he said his mother was the “strongest woman I know,” and Trump retorted, “She should be running” — as a “slashing attack” by Bush, whose “most forceful performance” left Trump “roundly pummeled.”

Zucker’s private assessment of Trump’s debating was noteworthy for that reason. Cohen went on to joke about what would likely happen in the debate, wondering how many times “Cruz” would call Trump a con man. Zucker corrected him, noting it would be Marco Rubio making such attacks, and offered advice:

You know what you should do? Whoever's around him today should just be calling him a conman all day so he's used to it, so that when he hears it from [Marco] Rubio, it doesn't matter… “Hey conman, hey conman, hey conman, hey conman, hey conman.” So he thinks that's his name, you know?   

Remember, this was a CNN-hosted debate, with Jake Tapper emceeing the festivities:

Typically, any suggestion that a candidate has been prepped in advance about debate questions, or given other aid, is considered a scandal. It was a big deal when two Fox sources told the New Yorker that Trump might have been given questions in advance of the infamous Megyn Kelly debate. Similarly, it was a mini-scandal when Donna Brazile was forced by Wikileaks disclosures to admit she shared topics with Hillary Clinton ahead of a CNN town hall.

In this case, we have the president of the network set to host a debate giving a candidate advice on how to handle a Republican challenger, and the response has mostly been to wonder if Carlson released this story as part of a “long-running… war with the network that once employed him.”

It got worse. Zucker promised Cohen, “I’m going to give him a call right now and I’m going to wish him luck in the debate tonight.”

Why Zucker said he would call, and not email, was the real punchline.

“I’m very conscious of not putting too much on email, as you’re a lawyer, as you understand,” Zucker said, adding:

And, you know, as fond as I am of the boss, he also has a tendency, like, you know, if I call him or I email him, he then is capable of going out at his next rally and saying that we just talked and I can't have that, if you know what I'm saying.

It’s not that I don’t want to talk to him every day. I’ve just got to be careful.

Zucker added:

I have all these proposals for him, like… I want to do a weekly show with him and all this stuff… is he back in New York tomorrow, do you know?

What these recordings reveal is that CNN’s cartoonish role as a determined and vituperative “fake news media” foil to Trump — while perhaps real for some of the reporters and broadcasters involved — is at least to some degree kabuki theater for executives. Even as president, Trump to network leaders is first and foremost a commodity, and an extraordinarily valuable one at that. Were he not president, Zucker might very well be offering him that weekly show.

As the creator of The Apprentice, Zucker surely understands both the nature of Trump’s ratings appeal, and the Reality TV value of having CNN reporters play gesticulating heckler to Trump’s Bill Hicks act:

In late 2015 and early 2016 especially, journalists and network executives began to discuss how to deal with the “threat” of Trump. Columns like Nicholas Kristof’s “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump” led to awesome amounts of public navel-gazing, at the end of which the coverage strategy really did shift.

The Columbia Journalism Review did a study after the election confirming what most of us could feel on the ground: that coverage of Trump increased as the campaign went on, and became more negative as time went on, with particular attention paid to his personal failings. As the CJR explained:

While early in the race Trump won some favorable descriptions as a straight-shooter, depictions of him as a truth-bender became increasingly frequent as Election Day neared, and negative descriptions of his personal character outnumbered positive ones by about six to one overall.

In Hate Inc. I described the formula as shifting from One Million Hours of Trump! to One Million Hours of Trump (is bad)! It was laughable, the way some outlets went from giving Trump regular foot massages, to adopting the furious public posture of democracy’s last defender against the Evil One. Who could forget Mika Brzezinski gushing off air to Trump about what a “real wow moment” his South Carolina rally had been, then just months later denouncing the “Trump train” that would “drive America into the ground”?

When Zucker tells Cohen he’d love to talk to Trump “every day” but can’t, because “I just can’t have that,” he’s explaining exactly what the coverage “change” was about. Going more negative while increasing the raw amount of attention — “copious coverage and aggressive coverage” — allowed networks to retain or even increase the monster ratings Trump offered, without earning the social opprobrium that came with giving him softball coverage.

Zucker loved Trump for the same reason baseball owners once loved the juiced-up homers hit by Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire: he put butts in seats. He just can’t afford to be seen loving Trump.

In another part of the tape, Zucker tried to explain to Cohen the facts of life. One can almost see him wrapping a fatherly arm around Cohen’s shoulder:

Here’s the thing… you cannot be elected president of the United States without CNN. Fox and MSNBC are irrelevant — irrelevant — in electing a general election candidate.

You guys have had great instincts, great guts and great understanding of everything... But you're missing the boat on how it works going forward.

Zucker here was trying to play kingmaker, and doing it for real, not as an act of sabotage.

When it came out in 2016 via the infamous “Pied Piper” memo that Clinton campaign advisers schemed to elevate the “more extreme candidates,” there was outrage that Democrats early on had helped Trump. But the Democrats at least wanted to “cudgel” the Republican field further to the right because they thought it would increase their chances of winning.

Zucker, by contrast, was offering what he thought at the time was sincere advice. Remember this conversation took place on March, 2016. He was telling Cohen, “You’ve done well enough to win the nomination. In order to win the whole election, you need to play things differently.”

Zucker thought Trump needed to win over the CNN audience — as opposed to the “irrelevant” audiences of MSNBC to the left and Fox to the right — in order to win in November. This was pure transactional politics: Zucker was essentially offering a road to the promised land, i.e. positive coverage, if only Trump would sit up, beg, and accept Zucker’s counsel.

Zucker was probably pulling this same media version of a J. Edgar Hoover routine with the Clinton campaign and with every other politician he came into contact with, but that doesn’t change what makes this tape so shaky, ethically speaking.

Zucker was offering Trump better results with his network during general election season, and giving out a free sample in the form of advice for that night’s debate. Why? Because at that level of the game, what isn’t about money is about power. If Trump was headed for the presidency, Zucker wanted Trump to owe him when he got there.

The irony is Trump won in spite of CNN, and it was CNN that ended up changing its tune, not Trump. There may be some genuine political belief behind CNN’s drift in the direction of “irrelevant” MSNBC, but don’t be fooled into thinking that’s the whole story.

CNN these days plays face to Trump’s heel, and vice versa, because that’s where the money is, in this era of WWE politics and hate-for-profit media. Does CNN feel guilty about the record ratings and billions in revenue the Trump era’s earned them? Just listen to the tape. As a business, they’re more than fond of “the boss.” They just can’t have us knowing it.