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Jeff Zucker Helped Create Donald Trump. That Show May Be Ending.



In December 2015, after the demagoguery of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign became clear, I asked CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, if he regretted his role in Mr. Trump’s rise.

First Mr. Zucker — who put “The Apprentice” on NBC in 2004 and made Mr. Trump a household name — laughed uproariously, if a bit nervously. Then he said, “I have no regrets about the part that I played in his career.”

I was thinking about that exchange when Tucker Carlson of Fox News recently gleefully aired recordings of conversations with Mr. Zucker that Mr. Trump’s fixer, Michael Cohen, had deviously taped in March 2016.

Mr. Zucker is heard speaking in flattering and friendly terms about Mr. Trump, or, as he called him, “the boss.”

“You guys have had great instincts, great guts and great understanding of everything,” Mr. Zucker says to Mr. Cohen of Mr. Trump’s campaign.

And Mr. Zucker shows an eager interest in Mr. Trump’s television stardom. “I have all these proposals for him,” Mr. Zucker says beseechingly at one point. “Like, I want to do a weekly show with him and all this stuff.”

You may have missed the recordings — CNN didn’t cover them, nor did The New York Times — but if you can filter out Mr. Carlson’s spin and Fox’s campaign against CNN, they’re still revealing.

Of course TV executives work for access behind the scenes; of course, under the stirring mood music that fills CNN hour after hour, an old bond thrived between cable television’s defining executive and the president of the United States.

But the story of Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker is a kind of Frankenstein tale for the late television age, about a brilliant TV executive who lost control of his creation. And it illustrates the extent to which this American moment is still shaped not by the hard logic of politics or the fragmented reality of new media, but by the ineluctable power of TV.

Mr. Zucker made his bones as a wunderkind producer for the “Today” show. He took over NBC’s entertainment group in 2000, as the “Friends” era was ending and reality TV was beginning. The network desperately needed a new kind of hit, and Mr. Zucker found it in “The Apprentice” — a corporate boardroom version of “Survivor,” the blockbuster at rival CBS. That show transformed Mr. Trump from a local blowhard into a national figure, and laid the groundwork for his presidential campaign.

When Mr. Trump ran for president, Mr. Zucker briefly dismissed him as a “sideshow” in an early 2015 email to his political team, according to one of its recipients. But as soon as he saw the ratings his old star could still deliver, he spent 2015 and 2016 turning CNN into a platform for his ambitions. He went so far as to turn the camera to the empty podium before Mr. Trump’s rallies (a chyron read: “DONALD TRUMP EXPECTED TO SPEAK ANY MINUTE”), while other presidential candidates seethed and suspected — accurately, it turns out — that the two men maintained a cozy back channel.

“When the folks over there at CNN get all high and mighty about their journalistic integrity — that’s just not real,” said Terry Sullivan, who managed Senator Marco Rubio’s campaign and said he laughed out loud when he heard the recording. “They’re running a reality TV show. That’s what Zucker’s good at.”

The story is not, of course, quite that simple. CNN retains much of its straight news DNA and its tough Washington interview machine, and is indispensable in moments of big breaking news — like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. But the company had hired Mr. Zucker in 2013 to restore its relevance at a moment when the internet had replaced TV as a source of the newest information. Now its signature prime-time broadcasts, from Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo, are nightly cris de coeur, featuring monologues about Mr. Trump’s misdeeds, competing with MSNBC for the same enraged American audience. They feature the occasional true reality TV flourish — notably, the duet between Mr. Cuomo and his brother, the New York governor, and the highly staged exit of the anchor from his basement, where he had isolated himself when he contracted the coronavirus.

In speaking to dozens of people who know Mr. Zucker over the past few weeks, I heard two distinct theories of what is going on now: One is the current version of CNN — amped up outrage and righteousness — is just Mr. Zucker’s latest reflexive adaptation in search of ratings. The other is that Mr. Zucker, TV’s Dr. Frankenstein, has been willing to dent his network’s nonpartisan brand in order to kill his runaway monster, Mr. Trump.

Preston Beckman, who was NBC’s executive vice president for program planning and scheduling just before Mr. Zucker’s ascendancy there, said Mr. Zucker’s thirst for ratings blinded him to the damage he was doing by offering saturation Trump coverage.

“He’s a ratings whore — and I’m telling you that as a ratings whore,” Mr. Beckman told me. “But it’s one thing to be a ratings whore in prime time but it’s another thing to be a ratings whore when it comes to news.”

Mr. Zucker’s friends see a redemption story.

“As a journalist, he has a conscience, a sincere commitment to the First Amendment and a deep sense of citizenship,” said Ben Sherwood, another top morning show producer who went on to lead the Disney-ABC Television Group, and who has known Mr. Zucker since they worked on The Harvard Crimson together 35 years ago.

Mr. Zucker “admits he isn’t the most introspective person,” Mr. Sherwood wrote in a book called “The Survivor’s Club.” The CNN chief is a survivor — of two bouts of colon cancer in his 30s and heart surgery in 2018.

He’s constantly in motion, most at home in the control room, directing shots and popping into his hosts’ ears to suggest aggressive lines of questioning, suggesting stories to his digital team. People who wonder at his professional survival and resilience sometimes miss what an effective leader “JZ,” as he’s known internally, has been at CNN, winning the deep loyalty of many of his staff with the blend of obsessiveness, decisiveness and loyalty that you need in a news leader.

*Jeff is the most decisive and self-assured media executive I’ve ever worked for or covered as a reporter,” said NBC’s Dylan Byers, a former CNN reporter, adding: “But he has a North Star. The North Star is ratings.’’

Mr. Zucker’s professional passion has never been hard news: It’s been ratings, corporate success and winning at every game. His most legendary moments have dramatic tactical thrusts — like his poaching of Meredith Vieira from “The View” on ABC for the “Today” show in 2006. And his relationship with Mr. Trump reflects a certain New York social world that has always blended friendship, talent management and philanthropy. Mr. Zucker’s then-wife, Caryn, lunched with Melania Trump, a mutual friend said, and raised money for the private school both families’ children attended; Mr. Trump wrote a check.

Mr. Zucker’s falling-out with his old star came late. Even in the spring of 2017 — after a presidency that kicked off with an attempt to ban Muslims from traveling to America —  he told my colleague Jonathan Mahler, “I like Donald.”

But the tensions were growing. Mr. Trump had chosen Fox over CNN as the main home of his rolling talk show, giving the conservative network constant access and interviews. His powerful son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was rising inside the administration, lacked Mr. Trump’s affection for Mr. Zucker and pushed the president away from him.

When AT&T moved to buy CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, in 2016, Mr. Trump began attacking his old friend. He did it in public, on Twitter. He also raised Mr. Zucker in a private meeting with AT&T’s then-C.E.O., Randall Stephenson, in early 2017, a comment that hasn’t been previously reported.

The president’s campaign against Mr. Zucker was interpreted — reasonably — by Mr. Zucker as an attempt to get him fired as a condition of the merger, according to three people who spoke to AT&T and Time Warner executives at the time. But Time Warner stood by him, and Mr. Trump’s Justice Department sued to stop the merger. When Mr. Stephenson finally took control of the company in 2018, he didn’t fire the CNN president.

Mr. Mahler’s piece noted that CNN had become more focused on American politics, ”an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations” — in other words, it had become Trumpier. He also noted Mr. Zucker’s “strange symbiosis” with Mr. Trump. But that summer, CNN fired Jeffrey Lord, a genial, silver-haired former aide to Ronald Reagan who had been Mr. Trump’s most stalwart defender on the network.

And by the end of that year, the lure of ratings pulled the network in a new direction: resistance. Mr. Trump’s own political theater featured regular televised confrontations with CNN’s White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, a different kind of win-win. But if Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker sometimes still seemed to be winking, their audiences aren’t in on the joke, and the deadly serious stakes became clear when a deranged Trump supporter mailed a bomb to CNN’s New York headquarters in October 2018.

Mr. Zucker didn’t respond through a spokeswoman when I asked again, five years later, whether he now regrets his role in Mr. Trump’s career.

But this run, too, may be coming to an end. When I spoke to former NBC colleagues of Mr. Zucker about his tenure there, the show they brought up most often wasn’t “The Apprentice”; it was “Fear Factor,” in which contestants were tossed in their underwear into a pit full of rats, among other grotesque stunts. USA Today described it as perhaps “the most vile program ever to air on a major network.”

“Fear Factor” didn’t age well. The show lasted six seasons, and a revival was cut short by public backlash to a stunt in which competing sets of identical twins drank donkey semen. The public got tired of it (and that donkey stunt didn’t air).

“After a while it was like, Jesus Christ,” the host, Joe Rogan, recalled in 2019 interview. “How many times can you throw them off buildings?”

Consuming the news of the last four years has felt at times like watching “Fear Factor” and its cruel and violent strain of reality television. That’s the sensation of doomscrolling on Twitter late at night, the unending outrage cycle that has propelled cable news to its current strong and steady ratings.

When I spoke to people at CNN, they made the point that ultimately they cover and react to the news, they don’t make it. Mr. Zucker may be in the control room, and when we look back at this disorienting era, media leaders will be important, secondary figures. But this isn’t reality TV, it’s reality, and the show’s executive producer is Donald Trump.

And the part of the American electorate that was enjoying the show may get tired of this too. If Donald Trump loses in November, that may also mark the end of this era of cable television, which he had fed and fed off, and which has left its audience divided and exhausted.


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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.



The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.


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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.



The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.


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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.



As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.


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