Donald Trump's improbable political rise has been fueled by the unprecedented free media he's received, particularly from the cable news networks. "When you look at cable television, a lot of the programs are 100 percent Trump," explained Trump.
Among cable networks, CNN has led the way. "Honestly, I think I get better press from CNN than I do Fox," Trump told Fox. "I don't know why."
"I understood who and what Donald Trump was, because I was from New York, and I understood that he was just a one-man wrecking publicity machine."
That was Zucker's explanation for featuring Trump so prominently, not on CNN, but in his previous position as president of NBC Entertainment. Back in 2004, it was Zucker who put Trump in American homes with The Apprentice.
The show provided a ratings boost for a struggling NBC; just as Trump's presidential run would later pump life into Zucker's moribund CNN.
"Why is Trump still number one"? Rick Perlstein asked in a November story for The Washington Spectator. After spending two weeks reviewing episodes of The Apprentice, Perlstein concluded one reason was "hiding in plain sight." In The Apprentice,
"the most sophisticated techniques of Hollywood art were applied to imprinting an image on the minds of millions more citizens than ever paid attention to any politician, with the possible exception of the president."
(For insight into Trump's rise, watch the first two minutes of The Apprentice's intro.)
Trump hosted The Apprentice for 12 straight seasons. The weekly show allowed him to reach millions of U.S. voters, who saw him portrayed as a powerful decision maker. Candidates dream of such exposure; Trump got paid for it: $1 million per episode, over $200 million in total, he says.
"Too Much Handwringing"
Zucker says the media has done "too much handwringing" over coverage of Trump. CNN's coverage, Zucker says, has been appropriate since "the frontrunner always merits the most amount of attention."
But CNN's prioritizing of Trump started from the get-go, before he was on top. The Wall Street Journal examined CNN's coverage from June 16, the day Trump announced, through Sept. 14. During that time, Trump was
"the subject of at least 2,159 CNN reports... almost double the amount of time CNN has spent on former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who was leading the field prior to Mr. Trump's rise."
CNN's focus on Trump has paid off for the candidate and the network. Ratings are up 170 percent, pumping life into what was a dying network. But CNN's approach has also raised questions.
Until recently, Corey Lewandowski was running one of the ugliest presidential campaigns in U.S. history - one which scapegoated Latinos; called for a ban on Muslims; played footsie with white supremacists; incited violence against protesters; and blacklisted and mistreated reporters.
This isn't the only time CNN has reached for higher ratings at the expense of journalistic ethics.
"A Conservative Element"
With a showman like Trump, the Republican presidential debates were sure to be moneymakers. And networks, already struggling financially, weren't in a strong position to stand up to the Republican National Committee's demands. Sponsoring networks, the RNC declared, would have to partner with right-wing media outlets to ensure "a conservative element" in the debates.
Networks nevertheless lined up to sponsor the debates, including CNN, which partnered with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt of Salem Media.
(Fox News was the only network allowed to opt out of the 'chaperone system.' "As a news operation, we were not comfortable with relinquishing any level of control over the editorial process of the debate," said a Fox executive.)
The debates proved highly lucrative. In CNN's first Republican debate, 23 million viewers tuned in, making it the most-watched program in the network's history. CNN's debate-time ads went for $200,000 for a 30-second spot, 40 times its usual $5,000.
As the networks were making money, they were also losing their independence.
When moderators forcefully challenged Republican candidates at a CNBC-sponsored debate in October, the RNC sought swift retribution. The RNC banned the network and its parent company, NBC, from sponsoring further Republican debates.
I just sent this letter to NBC News suspending our partnership for the February Debate: https://t.co/MVke5m2EBm
— Reince Priebus (@Reince) October 30, 2015
The RNC then gave a previously scheduled NBC debate to CNN.
The RNC's tight control was foreshadowed in its 2013 decision to ban both CNN and NBC from hosting Republican presidential debates if they aired planned TV projects about Hillary Clinton. Both networks dropped the projects, claiming it was unrelated to the RNC's request. The RNC subsequently allowed both CNN and NBC to sponsor three Republican debates (with CNN later picking up one of NBC's).
The national exposure Zucker has provided Trump - first at NBC, now CNN - has helped put Trump a step away from the White House, despite widespread discontent with his candidacy.