Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan Blames Jeff Zucker for the Rise of Trump

She doesn’t know precisely why CNN boss Jeff Zucker was forced out, but Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote on Friday that “Jeff Zucker’s legacy is defined by his promotion of Donald Trump.” All of CNN’s horror-movie coverage was never enough.

Zucker, as much as any other person in the world, created and burnished the Trump persona — first as a reality-TV star who morphed into a worldwide celebrity, then as a candidate for president who was given large amounts of free publicity.

The through line? Nothing nobler than TV ratings, which always were Zucker’s guiding light, his be-all and end-all and, ultimately, his fatal flaw.

Well, if we are to judge Zucker by the TV ratings then he should be viewed as an abject failure since CNN’s ratings have gone straight into the toilet over the past year.

Two decades ago, as an NBC executive searching for a way to goose the floundering network’s popularity, he gave the green light to a reality show, “The Apprentice,” featuring a flashy mogul whose soon-to-be-famous tagline was “You’re fired.” Trump had a checkered history of bankruptcies, racism and failed real estate projects, but his confident bluster made him a natural on television.

And exactly how would Zucker know that Trump would become a presidential candidate over 10 years after The Apprentice first aired? Then came 2015: 

CNN infamously took his campaign speeches live, sometimes going so far as to broadcast images of an empty lectern with embarrassing chyrons such as “Breaking News: Standing By for Trump to Speak.” You can’t buy that kind of media.

CNN did that, and so did MSNBC. At that time, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats loved the idea of running against Trump, or at least damaging the Republicans by promoting Trump. Sullivan then insists Trump surrogates should have never been allowed on television! 

Zucker also brought on the air Trump surrogates who should have had no place on a national news network: people like the bully Corey Lewandowski, the sycophant Jeffrey Lord (who praised Trump as the Martin Luther King of health care) and Kayleigh McEnany, who later became a White House press secretary bad enough to somehow make one pine for Sean Spicer.

Apparently, Sullivan thinks the ideal “news network” would shut off everyone associated with Trump. Only one side should be aired. And after that censorious outburst, then she had the temerity to lecture about “democracy.”

When Trump became the Republican nominee for president and started trashing Zucker’s network and staff with invective about its “fake news,” it was too late for second thoughts. By then, the standard had been set. Every Trump utterance became breaking news, and CNN, like many other news organizations, never figured out how to responsibly cover Trump throughout his democracy-damaging presidency.

So all of CNN’s trashing Trump as a Russian tool, an American Hitler, a journalist-endangering dictator (and later a COVID mass murderer) wasn’t enough? It’s never enough. Sullivan concluded that she liked their Democracy In Peril shows. “But why is American democracy in peril? Some portion of the blame — not a tiny portion — belongs to the network executive who couldn’t resist the ‘ratings machine.’”

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