Zucker wakes up every day at 5:15 a.m., without the help of an alarm clock or coffee. When I met him outside his Upper East Side apartment building early one morning in late February, he had been up for a couple of hours, watching the morning shows and reading the papers online. Even when he was working in Hollywood, Zucker was a news junkie; former colleagues at NBC remember him keeping one eye on cable news during pitch meetings, a habit that didn’t always endear him to agents and writers.
That night, Trump would be delivering his first address to Congress. As we rode through Central Park in the back of a black Escalade toward CNN’s offices, Zucker told me he was worried that CNN wasn’t giving the event the attention it deserved. He showed me an email that he wrote to his morning and daytime hosts and producers at 6:41 a.m. “I think we are underplaying how big a day this is from Trump,” it concluded. “Gets another shot to start again.”
Zucker’s predecessor was a CNN lifer named Jim Walton, who worked out of the network’s longtime home in Atlanta. Walton was more businessman than newsman; employees and former employees don’t recall him having a hand in editorial decisions. Zucker’s fingerprints are on almost everything CNN does. Over the course of the weeks I spent with him, he was constantly thumbing his Blackberry, emailing producers and correspondents with suggestions and feedback. Walton rarely attended the daily 9 a.m. news meeting; Zucker presides over it. As the network’s different departments and shows run through their preliminary plans for the day, he makes it clear which stories he wants them to play up and which ones he doesn’t.
When we arrived at CNN’s offices on the Upper West Side, the daytime set — built right in the middle of the newsroom, to give the broadcast a vérité feel — was still dark. “It’s quiet now, but it won’t be for long,” Zucker said. “Come on, let’s go upstairs.” In a studio two floors up, Chris Cuomo and Alisyn Camerota, the hosts of “New Day,” were broadcasting live from a set designed to look like a living room. Cuomo was grilling Representative Steve King, the Iowa Republican, who was inside the Capitol, about the repeal of Obamacare.
Zucker’s last TV job, as president and chief executive of NBC Universal, came with a huge corner office atop Rockefeller Center. At CNN, his setup is comparatively modest but seems to suit his metabolism and inclination toward micromanagement: His small office opens onto the newsroom, his desk positioned to face a wall of 11 television screens, so he can constantly monitor his network and its competitors. Zucker was met with a mixture of enthusiasm and wariness when he arrived at CNN in 2013. He had a reputation for intensity and competitiveness, which were both in short supply at CNN. But he was also known for being obsessed with ratings. “You could feel the ground shaking,” one former CNN producer told me. “This iconic television producer was coming.”
Zucker’s tenure at CNN started inauspiciously. He talked about the need to “broaden the definition of news” and joked about replacing a pillow in one executive’s office that said “CNN = Politics” with one that read “CNN > Politics.” There were several short-lived experiments in programming, including the return of a warmed-over “Crossfire,” starring Newt Gingrich. Zucker’s news judgment was publicly and repeatedly called into question: In 2015, Jon Stewart devoted a large part of “The Daily Show” to mocking CNN for broadcasting the White House Correspondents Dinner rather than covering the protests after a black man, Freddie Gray, died in the custody of the Baltimore Police.
Absent a war or a natural disaster, Zucker cast around for an event that might capture the national attention. For 24 hours, the network went all-in on a cruise ship that was adrift with a broken sewage system and then devoted weeks to the mysterious disappearance of a Malaysian airplane. Don Lemon interviewed a llama in prime time.
The era of searching is over. Zucker has found a story to ride, “the biggest story we could ever imagine,” he says. And as it turns out, the only thing better than having Donald Trump on your network is having him attack it. Far from hurting CNN, Trump’s war against it has amounted to a form of product placement — “earned media,” you could say — giving its anchors and correspondents starring roles in the ongoing political drama, turning them into camera-ready warriors for the First Amendment. Zucker has not shied away from the conflict, which has been reassuring, even inspiring, to his staff. “I hate to sound like a fanboy, but he’s the best boss I’ve ever had,” Tapper, a former senior White House correspondent at ABC News, told me. It has also been good for business. Last year, CNN’s average daytime audience was up more than 50 percent, and its prime-time audience 70 percent. The network earned nearly $1 billion; it was the most profitable year in CNN’s history. Ratings are up again this year, which is expected to be more profitable still. And CNN’s newfound relevance may not be fully monetized until a few years from now, when its parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, renegotiates subscription fees with a variety of cable providers.
In his early months on the job, Zucker laid off journalists. Lately, he has been on a hiring spree, in particular for CNN’s digital operation. He brought on the veteran investigative reporters Carl Bernstein and James Steele to write for CNN’s website and appear on TV and poached BuzzFeed’s four-person investigative political-research team, “K-File,” led by Andrew Kaczynski. CNN.com has scored some big scoops in recent months. It was the first to report on the existence of Trump’s Russia dossier, and it broke the story that the White House had asked the F.B.I. to publicly reject media reports that people close to Trump were in contact with the Russians during the campaign. Not only do stories like these generate traffic for CNN’s website, but they provide news for its hosts to discuss on-air. And while the numbers are dwarfed by those on the TV side, the network’s digital operation has become a revenue generator in its own right, bringing in $300 million in 2016.
Perched on the window sill of Zucker’s office, among the pictures of his family, is a framed cartoon of him shaking hands with Trump. “Another Trump stooge on the payroll, Don Don!” a plump-looking Zucker says. “Big league move, Zucker,” Trump replies. It was drawn by the political cartoonist Sean Corcoran last summer, when CNN hired the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski as a contributor just days after he was fired by the campaign. I was surprised to find it in Zucker’s office. His critics saw the hiring of Lewandowski — who was accused of assaulting a female reporter and was still getting paychecks from the campaign during his five-month stint at CNN — as emblematic of everything that was wrong with Zucker and CNN. Namely, that he was more interested in staging fights and creating spectacles than in producing journalism. But Zucker doesn’t engage in second-guessing, let alone soul-searching.
“I don’t like that cartoon,” said CNN’s chief marketing officer, Allison Gollust, who was in Zucker’s office when I asked about it. “I don’t know why you framed it.”
“I like it,” Zucker replied. “I think it’s funny.”
In the 1960s, the vice president for audience measurement at NBC developed the theory of the “least-objectionable program,” which held that most TV watchers were basically passive consumers, looking less for something that they wanted to watch than for something that didn’t offend them. For years, this theory governed programming decisions at all of the networks. But by the time Jeff Zucker left “Today” to take over as president of NBC Entertainment in 2001, it was beginning to feel outdated. People just had too many choices now, with the proliferation of cable channels like HBO, which were producing content of their own. The economics of the business were also changing. The stars of hit shows like “Friends,” the centerpiece of the network’s “Must See TV” lineup, were demanding bigger paychecks, even as the networks’ overall audiences were shrinking. It was becoming too expensive to produce sitcoms and dramas with ensemble casts.
About two years into Zucker’s tenure, the producer Mark Burnett walked into his office on the NBC lot in Burbank, Calif., with a possible solution: A new reality-TV show called “The Apprentice,” in which a group of contestants would compete for a job with Donald Trump. Zucker, who spent the 1990s in New York, knew that Trump would ensure that the show received no shortage of publicity. But Burnett was the real object of his pursuit. A former British paratrooper, Burnett was responsible for “Survivor,” which introduced the reality game-show genre to American television. Zucker was already broadcasting a “Survivor” knockoff, “Fear Factor”; it was one of his few successes since arriving in Los Angeles.
Trump wasn’t at the pitch meeting for “The Apprentice,” and it was unclear if he would even return for the second season. But after watching the rough cuts a few months later, Zucker and his top reality-TV executive, Jeff Gaspin, could see that the scenes of Trump sitting in judgment inside the ersatz boardroom that NBC had built for him inside Trump Tower were the best part of the show. (“Sex sells,” Trump declared at the conclusion of the first episode, after the show’s women fared better than its men at running lemonade stands.) “Everything was just the catalyst for the boardroom,” Gaspin recalls. “The rest of it was pretty standard contestant dynamics, but the boardroom was tense and really engaging.” Gaspin and Zucker asked Burnett to expand these set pieces, and Trump became the star of the show.
Zucker had found his replacement for at least one of NBC’s Thursday-night hits. Instead of watching a charming group of 20-somethings navigate the bumpy transition to adulthood, a large swath of the country now watched a politically incorrect loudmouth berate aspiring entrepreneurs. If there were any lingering doubts, “The Apprentice” proved that the era of the “least-objectionable program” was over. In fact, the one thing audiences didn’t want was neutral programming. They wanted intrigue, cattiness, chaos and Darwinian, winner-take-all battles for success and survival. It didn’t matter what was real and what wasn’t, and the central characters didn’t even need to be likable. They just had to be watchable and, ideally, compulsively watchable.
Before long, Zucker was introducing Trump to advertisers as the man who saved NBC. But Zucker saved Trump, too. He had been through four bankruptcies at this point, with a fifth and sixth around the corner. And yet, in just a few years’ time, Trump would have his own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and would be dreaming of leveraging his new celebrity into a bid for the White House.
Zucker would occasionally visit the set and never missed the live season finales. “They were huge events for us,” he says. At the after-parties, his kids posed with Trump at his boardroom table. Zucker half-jokingly tried to persuade Trump to let him televise his wedding to Melania at Mar-a-Lago in 2005. He failed, but attended as a guest and ribbed Trump about the wedding at a Friar’s Club roast beforehand. (There would be a cigar room for Trump’s friends and a bouncy castle for Melania’s, Zucker said.)
Having Trump as “talent” came with certain obligations. There was the weekly phone call, during which Trump would boast about his latest ratings or complain about the performance of the shows leading into “The Apprentice.” When Trump wanted to create a scripted fictional show called “The Tower” — like “Dynasty,” only about a group of models who live in a Manhattan skyscraper — Zucker instructed his development team to buy the pitch and hire a writer, even though he never intended to put it on TV. (Even before there was a script, Trump had a casting demand: They had to hire real models, not actresses.) When Trump told reporters, incorrectly, that “The Apprentice” was the most popular show on TV, Zucker would roll his eyes and laugh. “Jeff got a kick out of it,” Gaspin says. “It was just television.”
Last spring, as Trump was steaming toward the Republican nomination, Zucker ran into him in the men’s room in the network’s Washington bureau. Trump was powdering his face before an interview.
“You think any of this would have happened without ‘The Apprentice?’ ” Trump asked, as Zucker moved past him.
“Nope,” Zucker answered.
One challenge of running for president without ever having put forward a policy proposal, let alone assembled a political staff, is that you don’t have a natural constituency of talking heads to champion your candidacy. This is a problem for not only the aspiring politician; it’s also one for cable-news networks, which rely heavily on choreographed panel debates to provide inexpensive, lively programming.
In the summer of 2015, after appearing on Anderson Cooper’s show, Trump complained to CNN that his interviews on the network were always followed by conversations among panelists who all seemed to hate him. The network asked Trump to suggest the names of some people who would defend him. One of those whom he mentioned was Jeffrey Lord.
Trump and Lord had met a couple of years earlier, in 2013. Lord was living with his elderly mother in Harrisburg, Pa., writing unpublished thrillers and screenplays. A former White House associate director for political affairs in the Reagan administration, he also dabbled in radio and TV political commentary and had written a few pieces about Trump for the right-wing magazine The American Spectator, including one headlined “Never Ignore Donald Trump.” The Spectator asked Lord to introduce Trump at a dinner at a hotel in Washington. Soon after that, Trump called Lord and proposed that they fly to Washington together on his plane. Lord was excited, but he hesitated; who would take care of his mother? A cousin in Binghamton, N.Y., not wanting Lord to miss the opportunity, offered to cover his caretaking duties for the night. The logistics were complex: Lord drove to Washington, parked his car near the hotel and took the train up to New York to meet Trump. He would fly down to D.C. with Trump and then drive straight home to his mother in Harrisburg when the dinner was over. “I went to Trump Tower and they took me right up, and he was in there in his office,” Lord says. “We just hit it off. He took me up to the penthouse while he went to change his shirt.”
Lord made his CNN debut in July 2015. Two weeks later, CNN offered him a job as the network’s first pro-Trump contributor. (CNN said it was already considering Lord and that Trump’s suggestion had no effect on their decision to hire him.) Today, he is one of 12 Trump partisans on CNN’s payroll and perhaps the network’s most reliable, if mild-mannered, provocateur; he recently defended Trump’s tweet that Obama had orchestrated a “Nixon/Watergate” wiretapping plot against him, saying that the president was just speaking “Americanese.” The network sends a black town car four days a week to ferry him to Manhattan from Harrisburg and back, a three-hour drive each way. Lord has long since become a celebrity in Harrisburg — he was profiled on the front-page of the local newspaper — and now is recognized pretty much wherever he goes. The only CNN show he prefers not to do is Don Lemon’s, because it gets him back to his mother, who is now 97, too late. “I don’t get home until 1 in the morning; that gets a little difficult for Mom,” he told me.