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CNN president Jeff Zucker's relationship with "the boss" Donald Trump is "a kind of Frankenstein tale for the late television age"

  • Zucker, who made Trump a household name by putting The Apprentice on NBC in 2004, was caught referring to Trump as "the boss" in recordings that former Trump fixer Michael Cohen made in March 2016 and recently released. "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," says Ben Smith. "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." Smith adds: "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." After helping create Trump, Smith says that Zucker has been ready to move on from the Trump show. "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)...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." ALSO: No media entity is more responsible for the Trump presidency than CNN and Jeff Zucker.

    TOPICS: Jeff Zucker, CNN, The Apprentice, The Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump, Cable News, Trump Presidency