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 and it’s another thing to be a ratings whore when it comes to news.”