It has been a week since CNN President Jeff Zucker received a merciless public thrashing from enraged Republican campaign operatives over his cable network’s conspicuous weakness for all things Donald Trump.
But the issues raised by the jeering partisans and even a journalist or two, during a 2016 post mortem hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, are still resonating in the media-political complex.
Jerry Springer, who has been providing on-air analysis opposite Ann Coulter, for ITV’s Good Morning Britain program, told the Daily Beast: “The distinction between entertainment and politics, and even entertainment and news, has been blurring for years.”
What he calls “the Trump phenomenon” is of a piece with the local news values of “car accidents and crimes and the ‘if-it-bleeds-it-leads’ kinda thing. So that isn’t new.”
Springer, host of his own notoriously trashy squabble show, continued: “What was different about Donald Trump is that some of the networks decided he was going to be important before the public did, and that accelerated whatever was already going on. When you had 17 candidates, in order to break through the pack, the networks weren’t just picking who would be in the debates, they were also picking who we’re going to cover tonight.
“Since television is in the entertainment business, it’s not unthinkable that they would move toward Trump more quickly than print media would. When you’re cable news and trying to fill airtime 24-7, Trump was just low-hanging fruit.”
“I’ve been tweeting all year that Hillary Clinton belongs in the White House and Donald Trump belongs on my show,” Springer, a diehard Democrat, added. “Except that he can’t come on—because they pull hair.”
“There’s a lot of money to be made off Trump—and people made it,” said Republican consultant and Daily Beast contributor Stuart Stevens, an impassioned “never Trumper” who was chief strategist for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “The dirty little secret is that the vast majority of [super-PAC] money is going to these media outlets, so they’re making money hand-over-fist in advertising and making money with ratings.”
Indeed, Stevens cited a Politico Magazine essay by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, titled “Why I Blame TV for Trump,” in which she revealed: “I know from personal experience that it is common practice for TV anchors to have substantial bonuses written into their contracts if they hit ratings marks.”
“You put Trump on, you get ratings,” Stevens said. “If I announced that I was going to unload a dump truck full of babies with a pitchfork in Times Square at 4 o’clock, I’ll get coverage. Should I get coverage? I don’t know.”
White House correspondents and other reporters now face the imminent challenge of holding President Trump and his administration accountable with a rigor that Candidate Trump—at least on the dominant medium of television, in contrast to often-illuminating, if less impactful, stories produced by various print and online outlets—managed consistently to elude.
As former Politico editor Susan B. Glasser lamented in a much-discussed essay for the Brookings Institution: “the media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter. Stories that would have killed any other politician—truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him—did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year.”
CNN’s bulldog interrogator Jake Tapper, has been a notable exception in successfully holding Trump’s feet to the fire, at one point pressing him with 23 follow-up questions concerning his “racist” attacks on federal judge Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born son of Mexican immigrants who was presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University.
Yet Tapper’s boss, Zucker, who bravely participated in the occasionally rowdy Nov. 30 dinnertime panel on campaign coverage at Boston’s Charles Hotel, served in effect as a punching bag for critics of the way CNN in particular, and cable and broadcast news in general, reported on the campaign and, they insisted, gave Trump a free ride.
“America Heals Wounds By Agreeing That CNN’s Jeff Zucker Totally Sucks,” was Wonkette’s headline over an account of the epic confrontation, during which strategists for Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Mike Huckabee and others loudly heckled the CNN executive from their banquet tables, accusing him of granting the telegenic Trump an unfair advantage by affording him airtime privileges that were denied to his rivals.
Zucker—who acknowledged that Trump has been ratings catnip, contributing to the most profitable sustained period in CNN’s 36-year history—pugnaciously declared: "I have to respectfully push back on the campaign managers who spoke here today, because frankly, respectfully, I think that’s bullshit. Donald Trump was on CNN a lot. That’s because we asked him to do interviews and he agreed to do them. We continuously asked the other candidates to come on and do interviews"—and they declined, Zucker claimed.
“I don’t remember getting invited to call in, though,” Sarah Isgur Flores, Fiorina’s deputy campaign manager, interrupted from her table, while representatives of other candidates chimed in to agree or mutter profanities.
“That’s not true, you can’t keep saying that,” Huckabee adviser Chip Saltsman yelled at Zucker when he repeated the claim, according to Politico. (In a message to The Daily Beast, Isgur Flores declined to comment further, but added: “props to Jeff for showing up and engaging with us!”)
Rubio adviser Todd Harris had to be cautioned by the panel moderator, Bloomberg’s Sasha Issenberg, after hollering at Zucker, “You showed empty podiums!...You showed hours upon hours of unfiltered unscripted coverage of Trump! This was not about interviews!”
When Issenberg tried to move the discussion along to the problems presented by fake news, Ted Cruz campaign manager Jeff Roe acidly bellowed: “You just covered that!”
CNN is certainly not alone in having ceded its precious airtime to unfettered live coverage of the reality show billionaire’s raucous rallies (which haven’t stopped, by the way, even though Trump is now president-elect and busily taking calls from foreign leaders and forming his Cabinet), and extending to the front-running Republican the unprecedented courtesy of phoning in to Washington Sunday shows and other morning, afternoon and prime-time programs.
MSNBC’s Morning Joe was an early adopter of Trump phone-ins, as was Fox & Friends, where Trump’s chatty phoners were, since 2012, a regular Monday feature.
Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace is the only TV anchor who has required that Trump appear on camera—or not at all.
But Zucker’s network distinguished itself by hiring sacked Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a pundit when he was still receiving severance pay from the Trump campaign and under the strict constraints of a non-disclosure agreement.
“It’s like, ‘I’m going to take this guy in leg irons and have him run a race for me,’ ” veteran Washington Post political reporter, Karen Tumulty, told The Daily Beast.
Tumulty provided Zucker with his most awkward moment at the Harvard dinner, witnesses said, was when she pressed him on why CNN continued to book “nutjob” Trump surrogate Katrina Pierson.
“While I was greatly entertained by watching CNN’s anchors challenge Katrina Pierson over and over again on her nutjob lies,” Tumulty demanded, “at what point do you say, ‘Katrina Pierson, you have come on our air and told 20 or 30 or 40 lies. You cannot come on our air anymore’—as opposed to just bringing her on over and over again?”
Zucker replied, with uncharacteristic meekness, that Pierson was the official surrogate the Trump campaign had offered—so CNN felt obliged to put her on.
Tumulty wasn’t buying it.
“If somebody who was a spokesman for a candidate or elected official lied to me enough times,” she said later, “I would just quit calling them.”
CNN, meanwhile, has continued to stage frequent shout-fests between prominent Democratic and Republican strategists and heretofore unknown Trump supporters (such as Kaleigh McEnany, 28, a freshly minted law school graduate and former Fox News producer for Huckabee) that occasionally devolve into the political equivalent of The Jerry Springer Show.
The 72-year-old Springer—a practicing lawyer and politician in his former life as a council member and the mayor of Cincinnati during the 1970s—also toiled as a local political reporter before launching his syndicated television show in 1991 (more than a decade before Trump, with the encouragement of then-NBC Entertainment President Zucker, premiered his hit primetime reality show The Apprentice in January 2004).
Meanwhile, Trump’s populist, anti-establishment message, Springer argued, played into the assumptions of now-middle-aged voters who grew up believing the maxim in Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inaugural address that “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
“If you raise two generations of kids who grow up believing that everything in Washington is horrible, eventually you would get someone running for president who hated Washington, professed to be outside the circle, anti-government, and anti-establishment,” Springer said.
“In order to run for president you have to be well-known. The only two areas where that is possible are sports and entertainment. Athletes are too young to run for president. So while it wouldn’t necessarily have been Trump, it would have been someone like him. We should have seen it coming.”
As for the ratings-grabbing appeal of Trump’s persona, “it is his rudeness and his braggadocio,” Springer said. “Picture yourself back in junior high school—he’s the kid in the back of the class who would say outrageous things, or the kid in the auditorium who would yell out all these obscene things and stick it to the teacher. You knew that wasn’t appropriate, and was wrong, but you were giggling and laughing, and you knew you weren’t going to get in trouble for it.
“This is funny. This is a guy who’s cursing, who calls a heavyset woman ‘fat.’ You giggle, and you’re not supposed to, and it’s cruel and it’s horrible, but there were enough people who thought that this man is cool. And I don’t think it’s any deeper than that.”
Springer added ruefully: “This has been a junior high school election.”