At 3:58 on a recent Wednesday afternoon in Washington, CNN's largest control room was mostly empty but for a handful of producers hunched over control panels and, hovering behind them, a short, barrel-shaped, restless-looking man in a dark pinstriped suit and open white dress shirt: the president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker.
Zucker had spent most of the day holed up in a conference room, prepping two anchors who would be moderating a CNN Town Hall on Obamacare that night. Right now, though, his mind was elsewhere. It was two minutes until airtime for "The Lead With Jake Tapper," and Tapper's featured guest was the President Trump counselor and noted CNN adversary Kellyanne Conway.
Conway's last interview on CNN, about a month earlier, had generated fireworks; she and Anderson Cooper spent nearly 25 minutes arguing about CNN's report on the secret dossier of Trump's ties to Russia. (Conway: "I know CNN is feeling the heat today, but I'm gracious enough to come —" Cooper: "I think you guys are feeling the heat.") The tension between Conway and the network had since become a kind of B story in the larger narrative of Trump's ongoing war with CNN, which the president had taken to characterizing as "fake news." In response to calls for media outlets to boycott her, Conway told The Hollywood Reporter that she could "put my shoes and pantyhose back on and go on any show at any time." And yet, when the White House offered Conway for Tapper's Sunday morning talk show, CNN declined, questioning her credibility.
But that was a few days ago.
"She looks shiny to me," one of the producers said as Conway's face appeared on a feed from the South Lawn of the White House. "Do they have powder out there?"
"Don't worry about it," Zucker assured him. "She looks fine."
The monitor next to Conway's featured a close shot of Tapper, starting his show in the studio down the hall. His opening line, a lightly self-deprecating reference to Trump's latest howler — "President Trump says the media doesn't report terrorist attacks. Wait, I thought he watched a lot of cable news?" — brought a smile to Zucker's face. He was soon chuckling and then laughing out loud as Tapper unspooled a few more one-liners before introducing the main event: "Joining me now live from the White House, counselor to the president, Kellyanne Conway."
Zucker, now 51, became the executive producer of NBC's "Today" show at the almost unheard-of age of 26 and eventually took over the entire network. Along the way, he survived two bouts of colon cancer and Bell's palsy, was blamed for killing quality television and has been accused of enabling the rise of Donald Trump. But he still loves TV. And he especially loves the adrenaline rush of producing live television. It's a job that demands a unique kind of situational awareness: You are guiding the unscripted scene unfolding on the bank of monitors in front of you, shaping the event in real time to maximize the emotional impact of the moment.
"Stay on your doubles!" Zucker said to the director. "Stay, stay."
Tapper had just shown a montage of various CNN correspondents covering a number of the very terrorist attacks that Trump claimed the media hadn't reported and had asked Conway to explain the contradiction. Zucker didn't want the director to abandon the split screen and zoom in on Conway — and thus miss Tapper's facial expressions as she tried to respond. While Conway spoke, CNN trolled the Trump administration with a chyron: "CNN EXTENSIVELY COVERED MANY ATTACKS ON WH LIST."
As Tapper cross-examined Conway — "the White House is waging war on people who are providing information" — Zucker paced behind the show's production team like a coach on the sidelines, his hands alternately stuffed into his pockets, pressed up against the sides of his bald head, then squeezing the shoulder of one of the producers seated in front of him.
CNN's Washington bureau chief, Sam Feist, told Zucker that the interview had been going for six minutes, the length they agreed to with the White House.
"Fine," Zucker said. "Go 12."
The director was again preparing to cut away from Tapper to focus on Conway, this time as she explained that the administration had "a very high respect for the truth."
"Hey, doubles!" Zucker said. "Doubles."
Zucker prodded a producer to pass along a question to Tapper through his earpiece: "Have you guys ever made any mistakes?"
Tapper obliged, with a slight rephrase: "Have you or President Trump ever said anything incorrect?"
Feist, meanwhile, was staring at his phone, looking agitated. He was receiving unhappy texts from a CNN producer at the White House.
Jeff Zucker in his office in New York.
Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
"The White House wants her to stop," he said.
"She wants to talk," Zucker answered. "Let him finish."
CNN's communications director, Lauren Pratapas, who happened to be in the control room, had an idea. She fed it to Zucker, who instantly repeated it to the producer: "Does she consider us fake news?"
"Are we fake news, Kellyanne?" Tapper asked seconds later. "Is CNN fake news?"
"I don't think CNN is fake news," Conway replied.
A new chyron soon appeared on-screen: "CONWAY: I DON'T THINK CNN IS FAKE NEWS."
Zucker's instincts about Tapper's facial expressions were right: His look of wry disbelief instantly became an internet meme. Tapper talked about the interview — "The Tapper-Conway Interview You Need to See," the lead headline on CNN's home page read — the following night on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert." It even inspired a skit on "Saturday Night Live," a play on "Fatal Attraction" in which Conway was reimagined as the Glenn Close character. "I don't do this for me," the Conway character said. "I do it for you. You need me."
"We blew up commercials for that," the real Tapper told the real Conway after finally wrapping up the 25-minute interview.
"Thanks, Jake," Conway replied, as a producer moved in to detach the microphone from the lapel of her cream-colored coat. "That was great."
Video by CNN
CNN made its debut on June 1, 1980, and has been continuously transmitting news pretty much every minute of every day since then. The network's riveting coverage of the gulf war in 1991, beginning with a live broadcast from the Al-Rasheed Hotel — as the first American smart bombs exploded in the background — established the potential power and immediacy of 24-hour news, and elevated CNN to a cultural institution in the process. By the end of the '90s, though, it had lost its monopoly on the cable-news business. CNN's original mission was to "make the news the star," but this was not enough to guarantee an audience now that Fox News, with its decidedly nonneutral take, was an option. CNN needed an identity. Fox was the hearth, keeping the homes of conservatives warm; MSNBC would eventually become the consoling voice of perpetual liberal outrage. But what was CNN?
As the network groped for an answer to this question, its increasingly desperate attempts to attract viewers, to turn news into BREAKING NEWS, transformed it into something of a late-night punch line. CNN still made plenty of money; the majority of its revenue comes not from advertising but from the fees cable providers pay to include it in their basic packages. And every now and then, a real breaking news event — a war, a natural disaster — would boost the network's ratings and justify its continued presence in the bundle. But an existential threat was looming. In a world where cable cutters were consuming their news in bite-size portions on their phones and streaming free video over the internet, how much longer would anyone be willing to pay for expensive cable packages? Real breaking-news events happened only every so often, and people lost interest in them quickly; more quickly than ever, in fact, now that there was so much else to distract them.
Jake Tapper in his office in Washington.
Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
But then along came a presidential candidate who was a human breaking-news event. Trump provided drama and conflict every time he opened his mouth. So too did his growing band of surrogates, who were paid by either the campaign or the network, and in one case both, to defend his statements. Indeed, it often seemed disconcertingly as though Trump had built his entire campaign around nothing so much as his singular ability to fill cable news's endless demand for engaging content.
Had Trump lost the election, CNN would probably have returned to its previously scheduled struggle for survival. Instead, it has become more central to the national conversation than at any point in the network's history since the first gulf war. And the man who is presiding over this historic moment at CNN happens to be the same one who was in some part responsible for Donald Trump's political career. It was Zucker who, as president of NBC Entertainment, broadcast "The Apprentice" at a time when Trump was little more than an overextended real estate promoter with a failing casino business. That show, more than anything, reversed Trump's fortunes, recasting a local tabloid villain as the people's prime-time billionaire. And it was Zucker who, as president of CNN, broadcast the procession of made-for-TV events — the always news-making interviews; the rallies; debates; the "major policy addresses" that never really were — that helped turn Trump into the Republican front-runner at a time when few others took his candidacy seriously.
CNN was hardly the only news organization to provide saturation coverage of the Trump campaign. The media-measurement firm mediaQuant calculated that Trump received the equivalent of $5.8 billion in free media — known as "earned media," as opposed to paid advertising — over the course of the election, $2.9 billion more than Hillary Clinton. Nor is CNN the only cable-news network that has benefited from Trump's incarnation as a politician. MSNBC and Fox News each had a surge in ratings during the election that has shown no signs of slowing since then. Fox, the president's preferred outlet, is coming off the best quarter in the history of 24-hour cable news. MSNBC, the network of the resistance, has been thriving, too, often even beating CNN during prime time.
But CNN was the first major news organization to give Trump's campaign prolonged and sustained attention. He was a regular guest in the network's studios from the earliest days of the Republican primaries, often at Zucker's suggestion. (For a while, according to the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, Trump referred to Zucker as his "personal booker.") When Trump preferred not to appear in person, he frequently called in. Nor did CNN ever miss an opportunity to broadcast a Trump rally or speech, building the suspense with live footage of an empty lectern and breathless chyrons: "DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE." The TV News Archive calculated that CNN mentioned Trump's name nearly eight times more frequently than that of the second-place finisher, Ted Cruz, during the primaries.
It's hard to imagine that either Trump or Zucker would be where he is today without the other. Trump's foray into reality TV gave Zucker a prime-time hit when he badly needed one; now, Trump's foray into politics has given Zucker a big story when he badly needed one. It's a symbiotic relationship that could only thrive in the world of television, where the borders between news and entertainment, and even fantasy and reality, have grown increasingly murky.
In a sense, no one is better suited to navigate the terra incognita of Trump's America than Zucker. He made his name in television by turning an ailing "Today" show into a $450-million-a-year juggernaut with a mix of news and stunts, like staging weddings in Rockefeller Center and putting Matt Lauer in a copy of the Versace dress that Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammys. At NBC Entertainment, he helped usher in the age of reality TV, first with the gross-out show "Fear Factor" and then with "The Apprentice." Now he's running CNN at a moment when straight news has also become a form of entertainment.
Zucker likes to quote an early mentor at NBC, the late Tim Russert, considered by many the dean of the Sunday morning talk shows: "The primary responsibility of media is the accountability of government." But Zucker is also using the power of his medium in a very different way than the network has used it in the past. CNN's defining moments have historically involved another one of the responsibilities of journalism: bearing witness. The network's cameras have illuminated the darkest corners of the world, recording history as it was being made, whether it was in Iraq, Tiananmen Square or flood-ravaged New Orleans.
What Zucker is creating now is a new kind of must-see TV — produced almost entirely in CNN's studios — an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations. "I've always been interested in the news, but I've always been interested in what's popular," Zucker says. "I've always had a little bit of a populist take on things. Which I know is interesting when you talk about Donald Trump."
A CNN control room in New York.
Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
Zucker wakes up every day at 5:15 a.m., without the help of an alarm clock or coffee. When I met him outside his Upper East Side apartment building early one morning in late February, he had been up for a couple of hours, watching the morning shows and reading the papers online. Even when he was working in Hollywood, Zucker was a news junkie; former colleagues at NBC remember him keeping one eye on cable news during pitch meetings, a habit that didn't always endear him to agents and writers.
That night, Trump would be delivering his first address to Congress. As we rode through Central Park in the back of a black Escalade toward CNN's offices, Zucker told me he was worried that CNN wasn't giving the event the attention it deserved. He showed me an email that he wrote to his morning and daytime hosts and producers at 6:41 a.m. "I think we are underplaying how big a day this is from Trump," it concluded. "Gets another shot to start again."
Zucker's predecessor was a CNN lifer named Jim Walton, who worked out of the network's longtime home in Atlanta. Walton was more businessman than newsman; employees and former employees don't recall him having a hand in editorial decisions. Zucker's fingerprints are on almost everything CNN does. Over the course of the weeks I spent with him, he was constantly thumbing his Blackberry, emailing producers and correspondents with suggestions and feedback. Walton rarely attended the daily 9 a.m. news meeting; Zucker presides over it. As the network's different departments and shows run through their preliminary plans for the day, he makes it clear which stories he wants them to play up and which ones he doesn't.
When we arrived at CNN's offices on the Upper West Side, the daytime set — built right in the middle of the newsroom, to give the broadcast a vérité feel — was still dark. "It's quiet now, but it won't be for long," Zucker said. "Come on, let's go upstairs." In a studio two floors up, Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota, the hosts of "New Day," were broadcasting live from a set designed to look like a living room. Cuomo was grilling Representative Steve King, the Iowa Republican, who was inside the Capitol, about the repeal of Obamacare.
Zucker's last TV job, as president and chief executive of NBC Universal, came with a huge corner office atop Rockefeller Center. At CNN, his setup is comparatively modest but seems to suit his metabolism and inclination toward micromanagement: His small office opens onto the newsroom, his desk positioned to face a wall of 11 television screens, so he can constantly monitor his network and its competitors. Zucker was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and wariness when he arrived at CNN in 2013. He had a reputation for intensity and competitiveness, which were both in short supply at CNN. But he was also known for being obsessed with ratings. "You could feel the ground shaking," one former CNN producer told me. "This iconic television producer was coming."
Zucker's tenure at CNN started inauspiciously. He talked about the need to "broaden the definition of news" and joked about replacing a pillow in one executive's office that said "CNN = Politics" with one that read "CNN > Politics." There were several short-lived experiments in programming, including the return of a warmed-over "Crossfire," starring Newt Gingrich. Zucker's news judgment was publicly and repeatedly called into question: In 2015, Jon Stewart devoted a large part of "The Daily Show" to mocking CNN for broadcasting the White House Correspondents Dinner rather than covering the protests after a black man, Freddie Gray, died in the custody of the Baltimore Police.
Absent a war or a natural disaster, Zucker cast around for an event that might capture the national attention. For 24 hours, the network went all-in on a cruise ship that was adrift with a broken sewage system and then devoted weeks to the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian airplane. Don Lemon interviewed a llama in prime time.
The era of searching is over. Zucker has found a story to ride, "the biggest story we could ever imagine," he says. And as it turns out, the only thing better than having Donald Trump on your network is having him attack it. Far from hurting CNN, Trump's war against it has amounted to a form of product placement — "earned media," you could say — giving its anchors and correspondents starring roles in the ongoing political drama, turning them into camera-ready warriors for the First Amendment. Zucker has not shied away from the conflict, which has been reassuring, even inspiring, to his staff. "I hate to sound like a fanboy, but he's the best boss I've ever had," Tapper, a former senior White House correspondent at ABC News, told me. It has also been good for business. Last year, CNN's average daytime audience was up more than 50 percent, and its prime-time audience 70 percent. The network earned nearly $1 billion; it was the most profitable year in CNN's history. Ratings are up again this year, which is expected to be more profitable still. And CNN's newfound relevance may not be fully monetized until a few years from now, when its parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, renegotiates subscription fees with a variety of cable providers.
Anderson Cooper, left, Jeffrey Lord and Kirsten Powers at CNN in Washington.
Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
In his early months on the job, Zucker laid off journalists. Lately, he has been on a hiring spree, in particular for CNN's digital operation. He brought on the veteran investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and James Steele to write for CNN's website and appear on TV and poached BuzzFeed's four-person investigative political-research team, "K-File," led by Andrew Kaczynski. CNN.com has scored some big scoops in recent months. It was the first to report on the existence of Trump's Russia dossier, and it broke the story that the White House had asked the F.B.I. to publicly reject media reports that people close to Trump were in contact with the Russians during the campaign. Not only do stories like these generate traffic for CNN's website, but they provide news for its hosts to discuss on-air. And while the numbers are dwarfed by those on the TV side, the network's digital operation has become a revenue generator in its own right, bringing in $300 million in 2016.
Perched on the window sill of Zucker's office, among the pictures of his family, is a framed cartoon of him shaking hands with Trump. "Another Trump stooge on the payroll, Don Don!" a plump-looking Zucker says. "Big league move, Zucker," Trump replies. It was drawn by the political cartoonist Sean Corcoran last summer, when CNN hired the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a contributor just days after he was fired by the campaign. I was surprised to find it in Zucker's office. His critics saw the hiring of Lewandowski — who was accused of assaulting a female reporter and was still getting paychecks from the campaign during his five-month stint at CNN — as emblematic of everything that was wrong with Zucker and CNN. Namely, that he was more interested in staging fights and creating spectacles than in producing journalism. But Zucker doesn't engage in second-guessing, let alone soul-searching.
"I don't like that cartoon," said CNN's chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust, who was in Zucker's office when I asked about it. "I don't know why you framed it."
"I like it," Zucker replied. "I think it's funny."
In the 1960s, the vice president for audience measurement at NBC developed the theory of the "least-objectionable program," which held that most TV watchers were basically passive consumers, looking less for something that they wanted to watch than for something that didn't offend them. For years, this theory governed programming decisions at all of the networks. But by the time Jeff Zucker left "Today" to take over as president of NBC Entertainment in 2001, it was beginning to feel outdated. People just had too many choices now, with the proliferation of cable channels like HBO, which were producing content of their own. The economics of the business were also changing. The stars of hit shows like "Friends," the centerpiece of the network's "Must See TV" lineup, were demanding bigger paychecks, even as the networks' overall audiences were shrinking. It was becoming too expensive to produce sitcoms and dramas with ensemble casts.
About two years into Zucker's tenure, the producer Mark Burnett walked into his office on the NBC lot in Burbank, Calif., with a possible solution: A new reality-TV show called "The Apprentice," in which a group of contestants would compete for a job with Donald Trump. Zucker, who spent the 1990s in New York, knew that Trump would ensure that the show received no shortage of publicity. But Burnett was the real object of his pursuit. A former British paratrooper, Burnett was responsible for "Survivor," which introduced the reality game-show genre to American television. Zucker was already broadcasting a "Survivor" knockoff, "Fear Factor"; it was one of his few successes since arriving in Los Angeles.
Trump wasn't at the pitch meeting for "The Apprentice," and it was unclear if he would even return for the second season. But after watching the rough cuts a few months later, Zucker and his top reality-TV executive, Jeff Gaspin, could see that the scenes of Trump sitting in judgment inside the ersatz boardroom that NBC had built for him inside Trump Tower were the best part of the show. ("Sex sells," Trump declared at the conclusion of the first episode, after the show's women fared better than its men at running lemonade stands.) "Everything was just the catalyst for the boardroom," Gaspin recalls. "The rest of it was pretty standard contestant dynamics, but the boardroom was tense and really engaging." Gaspin and Zucker asked Burnett to expand these set pieces, and Trump became the star of the show.
Zucker had found his replacement for at least one of NBC's Thursday-night hits. Instead of watching a charming group of 20-somethings navigate the bumpy transition to adulthood, a large swath of the country now watched a politically incorrect loudmouth berate aspiring entrepreneurs. If there were any lingering doubts, "The Apprentice" proved that the era of the "least-objectionable program" was over. In fact, the one thing audiences didn't want was neutral programming. They wanted intrigue, cattiness, chaos and Darwinian, winner-take-all battles for success and survival. It didn't matter what was real and what wasn't, and the central characters didn't even need to be likable. They just had to be watchable and, ideally, compulsively watchable.
Before long, Zucker was introducing Trump to advertisers as the man who saved NBC. But Zucker saved Trump, too. He had been through four bankruptcies at this point, with a fifth and sixth around the corner. And yet, in just a few years' time, Trump would have his own star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and would be dreaming of leveraging his new celebrity into a bid for the White House.
Zucker would occasionally visit the set and never missed the live season finales. "They were huge events for us," he says. At the after-parties, his kids posed with Trump at his boardroom table. Zucker half-jokingly tried to persuade Trump to let him televise his wedding to Melania at Mar-a-Lago in 2005. He failed, but attended as a guest and ribbed Trump about the wedding at a Friar's Club roast beforehand. (There would be a cigar room for Trump's friends and a bouncy castle for Melania's, Zucker said.)
Having Trump as "talent" came with certain obligations. There was the weekly phone call, during which Trump would boast about his latest ratings or complain about the performance of the shows leading into "The Apprentice." When Trump wanted to create a scripted fictional show called "The Tower" — like "Dynasty," only about a group of models who live in a Manhattan skyscraper — Zucker instructed his development team to buy the pitch and hire a writer, even though he never intended to put it on TV. (Even before there was a script, Trump had a casting demand: They had to hire real models, not actresses.) When Trump told reporters, incorrectly, that "The Apprentice" was the most popular show on TV, Zucker would roll his eyes and laugh. "Jeff got a kick out of it," Gaspin says. "It was just television."
Last spring, as Trump was steaming toward the Republican nomination, Zucker ran into him in the men's room in the network's Washington bureau. Trump was powdering his face before an interview.
"You think any of this would have happened without 'The Apprentice?' " Trump asked, as Zucker moved past him.
"Nope," Zucker answered.
One challenge of running for president without ever having put forward a policy proposal, let alone assembled a political staff, is that you don't have a natural constituency of talking heads to champion your candidacy. This is a problem for not only the aspiring politician; it's also one for cable-news networks, which rely heavily on choreographed panel debates to provide inexpensive, lively programming.
In the summer of 2015, after appearing on Anderson Cooper's show, Trump complained to CNN that his interviews on the network were always followed by conversations among panelists who all seemed to hate him. The network asked Trump to suggest the names of some people who would defend him. One of those whom he mentioned was Jeffrey Lord.
Trump and Lord had met a couple of years earlier, in 2013. Lord was living with his elderly mother in Harrisburg, Pa., writing unpublished thrillers and screenplays. A former White House associate director for political affairs in the Reagan administration, he also dabbled in radio and TV political commentary and had written a few pieces about Trump for the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, including one headlined "Never Ignore Donald Trump." The Spectator asked Lord to introduce Trump at a dinner at a hotel in Washington. Soon after that, Trump called Lord and proposed that they fly to Washington together on his plane. Lord was excited, but he hesitated; who would take care of his mother? A cousin in Binghamton, N.Y., not wanting Lord to miss the opportunity, offered to cover his caretaking duties for the night. The logistics were complex: Lord drove to Washington, parked his car near the hotel and took the train up to New York to meet Trump. He would fly down to D.C. with Trump and then drive straight home to his mother in Harrisburg when the dinner was over. "I went to Trump Tower and they took me right up, and he was in there in his office," Lord says. "We just hit it off. He took me up to the penthouse while he went to change his shirt."
Lord made his CNN debut in July 2015. Two weeks later, CNN offered him a job as the network's first pro-Trump contributor. (CNN said it was already considering Lord and that Trump's suggestion had no effect on their decision to hire him.) Today, he is one of 12 Trump partisans on CNN's payroll and perhaps the network's most reliable, if mild-mannered, provocateur; he recently defended Trump's tweet that Obama had orchestrated a "Nixon/Watergate" wiretapping plot against him, saying that the president was just speaking "Americanese." The network sends a black town car four days a week to ferry him to Manhattan from Harrisburg and back, a three-hour drive each way. Lord has long since become a celebrity in Harrisburg — he was profiled on the front-page of the local newspaper — and now is recognized pretty much wherever he goes. The only CNN show he prefers not to do is Don Lemon's, because it gets him back to his mother, who is now 97, too late. "I don't get home until 1 in the morning; that gets a little difficult for Mom," he told me.
Jim Acosta, CNN'S senior White House correspondent, on the White House lawn.
Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
CNN's Last-Supper-size panels have become a hallmark of its political coverage. Many of the network's most memorable moments during the campaign were protracted emotional face-offs among paid partisans. Lord was often involved, typically with his anti-Trump sparring partner, Van Jones, another CNN employee. One night when Trump was under fire for failing to immediately denounce David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Lord rallied to his defense with a kamikaze historical attack, calling the K.K.K. "the military arm, the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party." Jones, who is black, responded with an impassioned dressing-down: "I don't care how they voted 50 years ago. I care about who they killed."
As pure TV spectacle, arguments like this were reminiscent of the head-to-head battles pioneered a decade ago by ESPN's daytime talk shows like "First Take," which pitted sports pundits against one another in loud disagreements about the topic of the day. This was not a coincidence. Zucker is a big sports fan and from the early days of the campaign had spoken at editorial meetings about wanting to incorporate elements of ESPN's programming into CNN's election coverage. "The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way," he told me. Toward that end, the network built "pregame" sets outside debate halls with excited crowds in the background and created a temporary rooftop studio for the final weeks of the campaign with sweeping views of the White House and the Washington Monument. An on-screen countdown clock ticked down the days (then hours) to Nov. 8. Trump, the trash-talking (and trash-Tweeting) underdog who inspired raw, powerful feelings among supporters and detractors alike, was the ideal subject for this narrative framework.
Video by CNN
Van Jones told me that he thinks Lord has played a valuable role at CNN, helping its viewers understand the Trump phenomenon. "He's a Trump translator, really, for the whole country," Jones said. But CNN's pro-Trump voices often seem better suited to generating friction than to offering insights. At a postelection panel sponsored by Harvard University, Zucker's alma mater, a political reporter for The Washington Post, Karen Tumulty, drew cheers when she pressed him about his willingness to provide a platform to "nut-job surrogates" like Katrina Pierson, the Trump campaign spokeswoman who asserted on CNN that President Obama invaded Afghanistan. Zucker surely knew that his hiring of Lewandowski would create controversy and in turn give his anchors something to talk about. That is exactly what happened: The hiring became a cable-news story about cable news.
As Zucker sees it, his pro-Trump panelists are not just spokespeople for a worldview; they are "characters in a drama," members of CNN's extended ensemble cast. "Everybody says, 'Oh, I can't believe you have Jeffrey Lord or Kayleigh McEnany,' but you know what?" Zucker told me with some satisfaction. "They know who Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany are."
Zucker lives about 10 blocks from Trump Tower, and three of his four children still attend the same Upper West Side private school as Trump's youngest son, Barron. "I like Donald," Zucker told me, before quickly correcting himself. "I guess I shouldn't call him that. I like President Trump. He's affable. He's funny." He paused, searching for another adjective.
"He's good company?" I suggested.
"He's good company," Zucker agreed. (The White House declined to comment on the record for this article.)
Trump outlasted Zucker at NBC, going on to host "The Celebrity Apprentice" and to co-produce beauty pageants with NBC even as he started dabbling in politics with his "birther" crusade to undermine the legitimacy of the nation's first black president. Zucker was fired after Comcast purchased NBC Universal in 2011. He left with his reputation tarnished, having made a high-profile blunder in the late-night wars: He moved Jay Leno to prime time, an instant ratings debacle.
By the time Zucker's name came up for the CNN job in 2012, both he and the 24-hour news network seemed to some people like relics of a different era in television. One of those who lobbied on his behalf was Trump. He sang Zucker's praises to Turner Broadcasting System's chief executive at the time, Phil Kent, who was in charge of hiring for the position, when the two were seated next to each other at a black-tie charity dinner at the Plaza Hotel hosted by the American Turkish Society.
Zucker and Trump spoke every month or so during the Republican primaries. CNN's anchors — Tapper in particular — did some of the toughest interviews with Trump, who would sometimes call Zucker afterward to complain, often going on expletive-laden rants. After securing the nomination, though, Trump made the calculation that he would be better off simply turning against certain media outlets. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, carried the message to Zucker in June, not long after CNN took the unprecedented step of fact-checking Trump's statements — a large number of which were completely untrue — in real-time with on-screen chyrons. Kushner told Zucker over the phone that in the future, Trump would be doing interviews with only friendly outlets.
Zucker, who attended Kushner's wedding to Ivanka Trump in 2009, said that he thought this was a mistake. He suggested that Kushner speak to one of his contributors, the former Obama campaign official David Axelrod, whose research for Obama showed that CNN's viewers represent a key voting bloc. "You can't win without us," Zucker said.
For Zucker, the thick-skinned TV executive and newsman, it was just business. For Trump, the thin-skinned TV star and now approval-craving politician, it was tactical but also personal: He believed that he had gotten Zucker his job at CNN and that the network's increasingly aggressive coverage of him was an act of betrayal.
Trump actually didn't play a meaningful role in Zucker's hiring. ("The president is certainly entitled to believe whatever he likes about our conversation," Kent wrote me in an email, "however, it was not a factor in the decision to hire Jeff.") But after the second presidential debate in October, when several CNN panelists criticized Trump for dismissing his comments about grabbing women by the genitals as "locker-room talk," Zucker received an email from Trump, via his campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks: "Jeff — Too bad you (CNN) couldn't be honest with how well I did in the debate. The dumbest thing I ever did was get you the job at CNN — you are the most disloyal person. Just remember, I always seem to find a way to get even. Best wishes, Donald J. Trump."
For a network that had self-consciously emulated the drama-ratcheting techniques of sports programming, the election could not have concluded in more fitting fashion than with the underdog Trump defying the oddsmakers, turning what was expected to be a blowout into a nail-biter. Zucker, running CNN's coverage from the Washington control room on election night, kept the network's cameras trained on the anchor John King as he worked the Magic Wall — the large touch-screen map that has been the centerpiece of CNN's election-night coverage since 2008 — pointing, tapping and sweeping his way through the biggest upset in American political history.
Not until midnight, when Trump's victory appeared certain, did Zucker finally redirect the cameras to CNN's panelists for reactions and analysis. Lord declared Trump's probable election a "miracle." Jones congratulated Lord on his candidate's likely victory but then quickly added: "People have talked about a miracle. I'm hearing about a nightmare." A spontaneous, moving monologue followed, with Jones, visibly shaken, calling the results a "whitelash" and wondering how parents would explain the election to their children in the morning. It was a huge night for CNN. They not only beat the other cable-news channels; they also beat the Big Four networks.
Back home in New York a few days later, Zucker called Trump from his son's Saturday-afternoon Little League game to congratulate him.
"I thought I needed CNN to win," the president-elect said.
"Imagine how much you would have won by if you had been on CNN," Zucker replied.
The set of the CNN program ''New Day.''
Philip Montgomery for The New York Times
They spoke for half an hour. "That was the first minute, and the next 29 was an incredibly good and warm and nice conversation," Zucker recalled.
Later that month, Zucker was invited to Trump Tower for a meeting that Trump called with TV news anchors and executives. It was pitched as a kind of rapprochement, but Trump instead used the occasion to berate his guests. He called out CNN in particular, accusing it of dishonest reporting. "He was attacking CNN, but in a little more of a playful way, because he knew me," Zucker says. "He was being an ass but in a playful way."
The other members of the media — who would come under heavy criticism for agreeing to subject themselves to this semipublic scolding, and in an off-the-record setting — dispersed when the meeting was over. Zucker stayed behind for a photo shoot with Trump for CNN's coffee-table book on the election. The network had wanted to photograph both candidates during the campaign and put the winner on the cover, but Trump wasn't willing to sit for a picture until he had won. Zucker went upstairs to Trump's offices and hung around for the shoot. "He was incredibly chummy with me, incredibly friendly," Zucker says. "It was the old Donald-and-Jeff relationship — the relationship of two people who have known each other for 15 years, who had a long relationship, who always had a cordial relationship. And by the way, the photographer took several photos of me and Donald together."
Zucker had breakfast with Kushner a few weeks later in Manhattan. Kushner wanted to know why CNN still hadn't fired anti-Trump commentators like Jones and Ana Navarro, who said on CNN in October that every Republican would have to answer the question of what they did the day they saw a tape of "this man boasting about grabbing a woman's pussy." (The comment elicited an angry response from one of CNN's pro-Trump talking heads, Scottie Nell Hughes: "Will you please stop saying that word?" she demanded. "My daughter is listening.") Zucker tried to explain that even though Trump won, the network still needed what he described as "a diversity of opinion."
Shortly before Trump was sworn in, Zucker heard that he was considering giving Fox News exclusive rights to televise the inauguration and that Kushner was in the process of brokering a deal with Rupert Murdoch, whom Kushner once courted as a mentor. Zucker called Trump. "Bottom line is that I said, 'This is crazy,' " Zucker recalls. "You're just going to give your inaugural coverage to your base of support? It makes no sense."
The men last spoke a few nights before Christmas. The president-elect was home in Trump Tower watching CNN. Earlier that day, he tweeted that he would have run a different campaign and done even better in the election — "if that is possible" — if the outcome were determined by popular vote. Brianna Keilar, sitting in for Wolf Blitzer, asked Rebecca Berg, a reporter for RealClearPolitics and a political analyst for CNN, what she made of Trump's fixation on the election results. She described it as "a little bit unseemly, unflattering."
Trump vented to Zucker one final time. "He completely trashed her for two minutes," Zucker recalls, "says, 'O.K., got it?' and then hung up."
Trump has only stepped up his attacks on CNN since then and has even publicly taunted Zucker, telling the network's senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, on live TV to "ask Jeff Zucker how he got his job."
When Trump gave his first news conference after the election, he refused to call on CNN. Acosta, who was emailing with Zucker, tried repeatedly to get a question in. "Not you," Trump said. "Your organization is terrible."
In February, Zucker commissioned a survey of the public's perception of CNN, to see whether the president's war against the network was having any effect on its reputation. Zucker reviewed the report on a recent morning with the network's senior staff members and audience-research team. The results were not surprising. Few people had been swayed by Trump's criticisms. If they considered CNN a trustworthy source of news beforehand, they most likely still did; if they considered it unreliable or biased, that probably hadn't changed either.
What had changed was that people on both sides had stronger feelings about CNN. "I was taken aback by realizing through this that we are no longer a utility," one member of the network's research team answered when Zucker asked for her take-away. "We actually have a personality now that people either hate or love, whereas we used to be a little more milquetoast in their minds."
It was another way of saying that CNN is no longer neutral programming. There's an obvious correlation between this transformation and CNN's recent success. It's not what's least objectionable that people want, it's what's most objectionable. Controversy and conflict attract attention, especially when Donald Trump is at the center of it all. Not that Zucker needed a survey to tell him that.
During the Republican National Convention last summer in Cleveland, Trump called Jeffrey Lord on his cellphone while he was on live with Anderson Cooper in CNN's studio in the convention hall. Lord paused to take the call and then reported on their conversation on the air.
"Anderson, I've just heard from Donald Trump himself," he said. "He thinks that this convention has been a tremendous convention. He has a message for you, Anderson: He is not pleased. He thinks that we're not accurately representing this convention." Lord moved on to Trump's one indisputable claim: "He specifically said to say that your ratings, our ratings at CNN here, are up because of his presence in this convention. And I think I've more or less delivered the message."
After he finished the segment, Lord left CNN's makeshift studio and bumped into Zucker, sitting in the convention hallway in a golf cart. "I said, 'I guess you didn't see this, but Trump called me on air,' " Lord recalled. "He jumps off the cart, and I tell him the whole story." Having been on the other end of these outraged phone calls from Trump himself, Zucker had only one question. "The very first thing he said is, 'You didn't use an expletive on the air, did you?' I said no. Then he grabs me by the lapels and says, 'That is great television!' "
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of CNN's communications director. She is Lauren Pratapas, not Partrapas.
Jonathan Mahler is a staff writer for the magazine. He last wrote about Leonard Cohen and his song "You Want It Darker."
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of The New York Times Magazine delivered to your inbox every week.
A version of this article appears in print on April 9, 2017, on Page MM40 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: 'That Is Great Television'.