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Jeff Zucker on Donald Trump, Fake News, CNN’s ‘Golden Age’

Variety logo Variety 3/8/2017 Debra Kamin
© Provided by Variety

JERUSALEM — CNN president Jeff Zucker isn’t afraid of President Donald Trump. If anything, his network is grateful to him.

Zucker, who is in Jerusalem this week for the media-centric INTV conference at the city’s historic YMCA, told attendees that Trump’s declarations of fake news and his labeling of journalists as “enemies of the people” has helped usher in a golden age for CNN.

Zucker opened Day 2 of the confab, which is run by Israeli media giant Keshet and devoted to exploring innovation and technological advances in television, with Israeli star news anchor Yonit Levi in a conversation dubbed “The War on Truth.”

“They’ve kicked us out of a recent White House press briefing, and they refuse to take our questions, and that’s fine,” Zucker said of the Trump administration. This virtual blacklisting, he explained, has had the snowball effect of releasing journalists from the nonstop grind of interview requests and attending long drawn-out briefings. “This has been very liberating because now we’re just doing our jobs, and they may like it, but they should respect it… CNN’s viewership has never been higher. CNN’s digital traffic has never been higher, CNN’s place in the world has never been more important, our journalism has never been better, so whatever they want to do, that’s fine.”

In a friendly hour-long back-and-forth, Zucker and Levi discussed CNN’s coverage of the election, Zucker’s views on the elevated importance of journalism under the current administration, and also — in an anecdote that drew laughter and gasps from the crowd — the true story of how Zucker himself played a critical role in launching the television career of the current leader of the Free World when, as president of NBC Universal, he ordered “The Apprentice” with Trump as host.

“Mark Burnett brought [‘The Apprentice’] in as a package. It was pitched to us as ‘Survivor’ in a different jungle, the jungle of the boardroom,” Zucker said. “I had lived in New York for all my adult life but I was working in Los Angeles, and as a New Yorker I really understood the appeal of Donald Trump, in terms of his ability to create publicity, his ability to create a big commotion.” He jumped on the pitch.

“So you are the man who made Donald Trump a television star?” asked Levi, to which Zucker simply said, “Well, I am the man who greenlit ‘The Apprentice.’”

Zucker has always understood Trump’s appeal, he told the crowd, which is why CNN gave the real estate mogul-turned president so much coverage early on in the presidential campaign.

“Once he decided to run, knowing him and knowing his charisma and his ability to attract attention, I think we understood earlier than most other news organizations that he should be taken seriously,” Zucker said. “And that it wasn’t a whim. We understood early on that there was something to it in a way that others did not.”

As President, Trump has been relentless in his attacks on CNN, an attitude, Zucker said, that both troubles his organization and also serves as a motivator.

“This is an extraordinary time in journalism,” he said. “The last couple years people have been talking about the death of newspapers, or the death of cable news, or the death of journalism in America. And though each of those [sectors] faces obviously unique challenges at this time I think it’s never been a more important time…. many of the organizations in the United States have never done better work and never done more important journalism.”

Levi, noting that CNN’s ratings and digital traffic are both at an all-time high, suggested that Zucker should send Trump a thank you note.

“I don’t think I would send a thank you note, but the reality is doing good journalism has also been good for the bottom line,” Zucker responded. “It’s really the renaissance of journalism in America because of the nature of what’s going on.”

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