By Jill Vejnoska on Tuesday, October 24, 2017 on the AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
“This is nuts.”
That’s what CNN president Jeff Zucker says it’s like covering news in the era of President Donald Trump.
Appearing at an Atlanta Press Club luncheon on Tuesday, Zucker said it’s virtually impossible to know what will happen next as the man he first helped make a TV star on NBC’s “The Apprentice” now occupies the White House.
“Here’s the amazing thing about this administration, is, honestly, it changes hour to hour,” Zucker said to rueful laughs in a room filled with members of the media. “I can guarantee you there will be a news story tonight that we don’t know about yet.”
Asked to predict a big news story involving Trump a year from now, Zucker said that was equally impossible.
“I would make something up, (but) I can’t make up what’s going to happen tomorrow, OK?” he said with a chuckle.
It’s been nearly five years since Zucker became president of CNN Worldwide, where he oversees CNN domestic, CNN International, HLN and all of CNN”s digital properties. Before that, he spent 25 years at NBC Universal, where he rose to become president and CEO.
But it was in his earlier role as president of NBC Entertainment, where he gave the go-ahead to air “The Apprentice,” that Zucker may have seen some indicators of what a President Trump would be like.
“Could I have envisioned this? No,” Zucker said about Trump’s rise to the White House. “I did know at that time that he was a great marketer. We also knew that every week that the ratings came in, he completely exaggerated the success of the show. And so nothing has changed.”
Zucker’s Q&A session lasted 45 minutes and wasn’t entirely Trump-centric. He also discussed the status of the proposed merger between AT&T and CNN owner Time Warner; the sexual harassment accusations that have hit the Weinstein Company and CNN’s archrival Fox News; and the perennial concern in some quarters that CNN will pick up and leave its birthplace in Atlanta.
Zucker said he still expected Time Warner’s acquisition to happen by the end of the year and that he didn’t really expect any “day to day” changes at CNN as a result.
On the subject of CNN and Atlanta — where Ted Turner founded the cable news network 37 years ago and where a little less than half the current workforce of 3,500 is still based — Zucker was even more emphatic.
“I will reiterate what I said five years ago, what I’ve said for each of the last five years and I’ll say it again,” Zucker said as applause broke out in the packed room at the Commerce Club where the luncheon was held. “CNN is not leaving Atlanta. Our commitment to Atlanta is exactly the same. CNN is an integral part of Atlanta and Atlanta is an integral part of CNN.”
Zucker was equally forthright on the subject of sexual harassment in the workplace, saying the “tone and tenor” is set at the top of those organizations currently under scrutiny.
“Frankly, I think if you look at Fox News or the Weinstein Company, you have to hold those who run those companies responsible,” Zucker said. “Whether it’s the board at the Weinstein Company or, frankly, the family that owns Fox News. That’s where the responsibility lies.”
Still, it was hard to get too far away from the subject of President Trump — in particular, his and some members of his administration’s regular attacks on CNN as a supposed purveyor of “fake news.” In response to an audience member’s question, Zucker admitted to having been concerned about possible fallout from that.
“We’ve done so much brand research this year, because I’ve been worried about whether all the negative attacks on CNN out of the White House has had an effect,” he said. “I can tell you that it has had virtually no impact whatsoever. CNN remains the most trusted source of news in the U.S., so it hasn’t hurt us with regard to that at all.”
In fact, things may be “nuts,” but the news isn’t all bad, Zucker suggested. Just the opposite, in fact.
“I think there is tremendous interest in news and information today,” Zucker said. “All of the cable news networks are enjoying record audiences, the New York Times and Washington Post are enjoying a tremendous resurgence.
“The one thing I can say for sure,” Zucker added with a smile, “Is that Donald Trump has made American journalism great again.”