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Jeff Zucker finally faces the music

His real crime: Giving the world President Donald Trump.

Even the dunes of Great White Sands National Park in New Mexico felt the deep freeze last week (pic by Zach Peterson)

(This is the opening essay from this week's edition of my Sunday Note, which is brought to you by Armory Square Ventures. See their message in this week's newsletter.).

JEFF ZUCKER ONCE INVITED ME TO BREAKFAST. He wanted me to meet, along with “some influential New Yorkers,” a promising elected official from California. The invite:

The invite is quintessential Zucker: Using his powerful media perch — head of NBC at the time — to gather folks so he could be a player in politics.

When it was revealed this week that he was leaving CNN as a result of an affair with a CNN colleague, I told multiple people there’s got to be much more to it than that. And there was, as revealed by Rolling Stone’s Tatiana Siegel (@tatianasiegel27) and edited by Noah Shachtman:

As bad as all of this is (and there are many shoes still to drop), to me, Zucker should be held responsible for something else entirely: Giving us President Donald Trump. Margaret Sullivan’s WashPost column on Zucker’s minting of Trump the candidate is dead-on, and you should read the whole thing.

Zucker gave us — or foisted upon us, depending on your view — “The Apprentice,” which is widely credited with saving both Trump’s bank account and his public persona. Through the magic of television, he and Mark Burnett turned a racist, failed businessman into a successful executive worthy of admiration. A friend of mine who worked on the set for a short time said everything there was so fake that no one thought anyone would take Trump seriously. She also said there are outtakes of Trump saying absolutely horrible, outrageous things that she knows Burnett and Zucker could have easily shut him down. Later, at CNN, Zucker was insistent that the network carry Trump rallies and speeches live, providing him and his and all his deplorable with a level of earned media that a lot of people in the public sphere would cut off a limb for.

The blast radius of all of this was immense, and may yet claim American democracy. The fact that it took some tawdry palace intrigue (between two consenting, divorced adults) to unseat Zucker tells the real story better than any well-sourced reporting could. What Zucker was doing at CNN was journalistic malpractice, and represents everything that’s wrong with news as entertainment. From the Rolling Stone piece:

The source says the investigation suggests Zucker and Gollust were advising the governor at the beginning of the Covid pandemic in ways not dissimilar to what led to Chris Cuomo’s dismissal. As Andrew sparred on a daily basis with then-President Trump over Covid messaging, the couple provided the governor with talking points on how to respond to the president’s criticisms of the New York crisis. They also booked the governor to appear on the network exclusively, which became a ratings boon for CNN, with Chris Cuomo doing the interviewing.

This will be taught in journalism schools for decades as exactly what not to do, or at least it better be. I suspect the aftermath will also make the syllabus, as commentators opine about Zucker’s extramarital affair instead of his role in creating the Trump universe and giving it a steady supply of momentum at every turn.

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