One late summer evening, the inner sanctum of the media-entertainment vortex descended upon the expansive garden of David Zaslav’s $25 million East Hampton estate, where the well-connected Discovery C.E.O. hosts an annual Labor Day party. This year’s guest list comprised the standard liberal in-crowd: Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Bon Jovi, Oprah, Alec Baldwin, Barry Diller, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Katie Couric, to name a few. They were treated to a performance by Earth, Wind & Fire, who belted out “September” after the sun went down.
But there was another set of famous faces mingling in the crowd—the people whose job it is to cover the most compelling reality show in history, the Trump administration, for America’s original 24-hour news channel, CNN. Don Lemon, who anchors the network’s 10 P.M. hour, introduced his mom and boyfriend to guests. Brian Stelter, host of Sunday’s Reliable Sources, made the rounds. Carl Bernstein, who had beamed in for contributor segments over the summer from his place in Sag Harbor, was spotted on the dance floor. Most notable of all was Jeff Zucker, the 53-year-old network president under whose stewardship CNN has become a must-watch platform for nonstop coverage of the Trump White House and all of its attendant hysteria. It was Zucker’s first social outing since recovering from heart surgery in early August, and his last before returning to the hellish news cycle.
At the time, Zucker couldn’t have possibly predicted just how hellish things would soon get. Two months later, CNN would be dealing with a horrific bomb scare perpetrated by a MAGA-obsessed Florida man, which prompted a strong statement from Zucker to Trump, himself. “There is a total and complete lack of understanding at the White House about the seriousness of their continued attacks on the media. The president, and especially the White House press secretary, should understand their words matter.”
Weeks before that exchange, Zucker was on the phone talking about why Trump sucks up so much of CNN’s oxygen. “People say all the time, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about Trump. I’ve had too much Trump,’ ” he told me. “And yet at the end of the day, all they want to do is talk about Trump. We’ve seen that, anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events in this era, the audience goes away. So we know that, right now, Donald Trump dominates.”
Zucker, the guy who first brought our president to the small screen when he green-lighted The Apprentice in 2004 while running NBC, had arguably schooled Trump in the art of reality television. Halfway through Trump’s first term, his instincts remain just as acute. If Fox News represents Trump’s base and MSNBC has become a friendly platform for the resistance, CNN is the arena where both sides show up for cantankerous battle. “On Fox, you rarely hear from people who don’t support Trump,” Zucker told me. “On MSNBC, you rarely hear from people who do support Trump. We want to be home to both those points of view.” He continued, as if rebuking a common critique of the network. “It is true some of these folks are not very good with the facts, but that’s O.K. in the sense that it’s our job then to call them out.”
In the current media environment, this is CNN’s hallmark. Of course, it’s still the network people turn to for coverage of massive news events—natural disasters and war zones; a papal visit or royal wedding or missing plane. CNN has also been in the game with regular scoops about the ongoing Trump saga and Robert Mueller probe. But a lot of the action these days unfolds in heated panel discussions between pro- and anti-Trump voices, as well as confrontational interviews with White House officials like Kellyanne Conway. “I have to check her everywhere, because what she’ll do otherwise is flood the zone,” said Chris Cuomo, who hosts the nine P.M. hour on the network. Cuomo and Conway met 25 years ago when they helped create an economic-policy think tank. “She’ll say three things in a row that need a correction. She’s really, really good.” (Conway didn’t return a request for comment.)
The strategy is working. Even though CNN still trails Fox News and MSNBC in prime-time audience size, its ratings have never been better. The average number of people watching on a given day has been above 700,000 each year since 2016, compared to around 400,000 in the pre-Trump news cycle. That’s also considerably larger than any other time over the past 25 years, an astonishing feat given the ubiquity of news and the decline of cable. The ratings of course skew higher in the evening hours, when the most people are watching all at once. The average prime-time audience is around a million, compared to fewer than 600,000 when Zucker arrived, in 2013. According to someone with direct knowledge of the numbers, CNN is projected to turn a $1.2 billion profit on $2.5 billion in revenue this year, making 2018 its most profitable year ever. “When I came on, someone made a joke that I was starting at the best time, because things couldn’t get worse from a ratings perspective. We did not have a news cycle to ride,” said Erin Burnett, who joined CNN’s prime-time lineup in 2011. Now, she continued, “we’ve become a character in this story.”
It doesn’t hurt that the president is a fan, albeit a reluctant one, whose Twitter feed can turn a TV journalist into an overnight celebrity. Lemon told me he wasn’t surprised to read a New York Times report noting that Trump “hate-watches” his show in particular. “I had spoken to John Heilemann and Alex Wagner,” he told me, referring to the hosts of The Circus, on Showtime, “and they had been doing some reporting, and they said that he watches me every night, and one of the main reasons is because he knows what Sean Hannity’s gonna say.” (Hannity’s program used to be pre-taped.) “But he likes to hear about himself in real time, and my show is live and we have different voices talking about him and analyzing what he has done, and he likes it. Anyone we have on from the White House says, ‘The president watches you every night.’ ”
Another CNN journalist summed up the cable-news boom like this: “You know how movie stars used to shit on TV, but now TV is, like, the place to be? We’ve seen that same reversal”—network news, long hallowed ground, is now arguably the farm team compared to cable. Zucker agrees. “Look, I spent 25 years in broadcast news, so I have a pretty good perspective,” he said. “There is so much more news now, and it’s constantly changing, and the news cycle is so fast that cable news is much more relevant today. That’s why cable-news audiences are up dramatically. It’s the nature of the news cycle, the nature of the current president, and the nature of the world we live in.”
In programming this unprecedented news cycle, the cable-news channels have created an entirely new cast of characters. At CNN, that includes administration spin doctors who are invited to come on the air (Rudy Giuliani, Kellyanne Conway); the channel’s own ascendant journalists (Jake Tapper, Chris Cuomo, Jim Acosta); and an increasingly prodigious roster of paid analysts whom viewers have come to love or hate, ranging from scoopy newspaper reporters (Maggie Haberman, Josh Dawsey) and recovering politicians (Rick Santorum, Charlie Dent) to experts on such au courant topics as, say, the Southern District of New York (Preet Bharara, Laura Coates) or the inner workings of the F.B.I. (Asha Rangappa, Phil Mudd). For these contributors, there are benefits to becoming a part of the daily televised drama aside from the generous, often six-figure rates they’re banking for a side gig. Journalists and experts are able to potentially expand their networks of sources and contacts. Even those who aren’t getting paid can substantially boost their profiles—take Michael Avenatti, for instance, who had appeared on CNN 108 times as of September 1, according to a recent survey by Ceros, and is now publicly flirting with running for president.
All told, there are so many guests constantly cycling in and out of CNN’s studios in Washington that the network had to open up a second makeup room there. “Every time I ride to the studio,” a Washington-based contributor told me, “the drivers are talking about, ‘Holy shit, Trump’s the best thing that’s ever happened to our business!’ ”
There’s also a dark side, as illustrated by the Trump-inspired bomb threat, to all of the attention CNN has garnered. It’s the CNN SUCKS placards that are de rigueur at obstreperous campaign rallies. It’s the guy who repeatedly called the switchboard threatening to gun down CNN employees. (No surprise CNN has recently been doing active-shooter trainings.) It’s Trump’s tweets: “The hatred and extreme bias of me by @CNN has clouded their thinking and made them unable to function…. Little Jeff Z has done a terrible job, his ratings suck, & AT&T should fire him to save credibility!” (Zucker, in fact, signed a new contract this year that will take him through the 2020 election. “The more Trump attacked Jeff personally, the more he attacked CNN as fake news,” a person familiar with the talks said, “the more that Jeff dug in.”)
Behind the scenes, even with so many über-polarized personalities rubbing elbows in the greenrooms and makeup chairs of CNN’s studios in New York and Washington, the vibe is mostly polite and friendly, according to numerous contributors I spoke with. “My experience,” said Jeffrey Toobin, the long-serving CNN legal analyst, “is that people who disagree profoundly still treat each other in a civilized way off the air, the only exception being Corey Lewandowski, who would storm around and not talk to anybody.” (Lewandowski, who is no longer a paid CNN contributor but still occasionally appears as a guest, countered: “My relationships at CNN were professional and very good. I enjoyed going out after the shows with many people who were in the greenrooms. I just never saw Jeffrey because he wasn’t a factor on TV during the last election cycle.”)
Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen recalled a recent blow-up with former Republican presidential hopeful and fellow CNN political contributor Rick Santorum, which carried on for several minutes after their segment had ended and a production team was scrambling to prep the set for the next show. But she told me that even with an ideological enemy like Santorum, her off-screen interactions are usually kind and respectful: “CNN is a civil place and we all try to learn from each other, even though I agree with him on virtually nothing and despise his politics.”
The occasional outburst behind the scenes, however, is not entirely out of the ordinary. During the taping of an episode of State of the Union in January, Tapper pressed White House adviser Stephen Miller about claims from Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury, but Miller instead launched into a tirade about CNN’s coverage, prompting Tapper to cut off the interview. After the cameras stopped rolling, as Business Insider first reported, Miller refused to leave the set and had to be escorted away by security. “That had never happened before,” said Tapper, noting that “in the world of pro-Trump advocates, I am perfectly comfortable having on people who represent the Trump point of view.” On Lemon’s show one night in late 2016, a dispute between conservative activist Matt Schlapp and South Carolina Democrat Bakari Sellers escalated into a tense and jaw-dropping moment during the commercial break when Schlapp, according to people present, barked at Sellers, “Come at me, boy!” Schlapp apologized when they were back on air (“Bakari, I’m sorry I snapped at you”), but Lemon told me he hasn’t been invited back on the show since. (Schlapp didn’t return an e-mail. Sellers said: “I don’t have any need to be on air with someone like Matt.”)
According to a senior CNN figure I spoke with, there is “lots of internal debate and disagreement over who should be on air—about whether some people are too much just mouthpieces for the administration, and whether it’s worth paying some of these contributors or giving them an outlet if you feel they are intentionally misleading.” Similarly, a source who works in CNN prime time said, “We’re dealing with a situation where we have to present both sides, but it kind of feels like it’s a no-win game. With the Trump supporters, they either lie or they just can’t seem to be straight. There are a few of them who are more believable, but those are few and far between. It’s absolutely a frustration.” When I was chatting with Lemon before the start of his show one night, in an enviable corner office that previously belonged to Piers Morgan, I asked him if he agreed with that assessment. “Yes,” he replied without hesitation. “You do want to hear the other side, you want to hear what people think, but it’s frustrating.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that CNN was struggling with a miserable ratings slump in the key evening hours. In the few years before Zucker got there, the channel had been stumbling through different prime-time experiments—Eliot Spitzer, Morgan—that ultimately failed to get the numbers up. When Zucker arrived in 2013, he began to create some momentum, with a little help along the way from a missing Malaysian airliner and an incapacitated Carnival cruise ship. Trump’s political rise was the real game-changer.
What will happen to CNN when Trump eventually goes away? Whether it’s 2020 or 2024 or whenever Robert Mueller reveals some smoking gun, the Trump administration has a sell-by date, and in a way, so does cable news. The medium’s core audience is in its mid-60s, and the traditional cable model is being chipped away by each person who cuts the cord in favor of an increasingly palatable spread of streaming options. However, it doesn’t hurt that CNN is now owned by AT&T, whose mobile customers can pull the channel up live on their smartphones with the flick of a thumb. Likewise, the network is better positioned than it was five years ago thanks to its gargantuan digital footprint and an aggressive expansion into original series and films, such as Anthony Bourdain’s critically acclaimed Parts Unknown.
But will it all evaporate when Trump goes away and things go back to normal? “It’s a question we think about a lot,” said Zucker. “Just looking at the past 25 years, these last 3 are among the most successful in CNN history. My view is this: obviously our audience numbers will not stay at this level when he’s not president, either in two years or six years. Nobody should be pretending otherwise. I do believe, though, that we have reset the playing field so that our audience levels will be significantly higher than they were.”
I asked Tapper the same question. “I don’t take any joy in saying this,” he told me, “but I would like to disabuse you of the notion that things are ever going back to normal.”
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