Trump’s recent wave of attacks against CNN and MSNBC’s Morning Joe are understandably leading to outrage and counterattacks from many in the media, who see it, rightfully, as a dangerous escalation in rhetoric against the press. But despite these condemnations, let us not forget how much of a role these very players had in the rise of President Trump.
Let us begin with CNN president Jeff Zucker. A recent profile of Zucker in the New York Times frames the CNN head as a leader in the Trump resistance. The piece begins by painting Zucker as a sleepless muckraker:
Jeffrey A. Zucker hasn’t been getting a lot of sleep lately. But he says that’s nothing new.
“I don’t sleep that much anyway,” Mr. Zucker, the president of CNN, said on Wednesday in his fifth-floor office, just off the network’s glassy Midtown Manhattan newsroom.
A television executive with a reputation for pugilism — a plaque above his desk reads “Punch Today in the Face” — Mr. Zucker, 52, has weathered decades of battles in his industry. But he and CNN are in the middle of their most intense bout yet: an unlikely public fight with the leader of the free world.
Omitted from this profile is a major section of media history that shows Zucker not as a victim, but as someone who just suffered a massive self-inflicted wound.
It’s no secret that Trump received outsized media coverage early on in the 2016 race, nabbing in 2015 alone nearly $2 billion in free media—much of it from Zucker’s CNN—on his way to securing the Republican nomination. While much of this coverage was negative in tone, there really is no negative coverage. As long as Trump's name remained in the headlines, that’s all that mattered.
CNN rushed to cover, for months, each and every one of Trump’s manufactured controversies, to the tune of record-smashing ratings. CNN even hired Trump aide Corey Lewandowski while he was not only still under contractual agreement not to say anything bad about Trump, but was still collecting checks from the campaign.
Aside from raking in record profits riding the Trump spectacle as president of CNN, Zucker’s role in the rise of Trump is far more direct. Before taking over CNN in 2012, while serving as head of NBC Entertainment in 2004, Zucker hired Trump to be the face of the reality show "The Apprentice." The show not only boosted the Trump brand, it almost certainly saved Trump from the brink of financial and marketing extinction.
As Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan noted in her must-read summation of Zucker’s role in the rise of Trump, Zucker didn’t just help Trump to the White House; he’s probably singlehandedly the person most responsible for doing so:
Looking for someone specific to hold responsible for the improbable rise of Donald Trump? Although there are many options, you could do worse than to take a hard look at Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide.
It was Zucker, after all, who as the new head of NBC Entertainment gave Trump his start in reality TV with “The Apprentice” and then milked the real estate developer’s uncanny knack for success for all it was worth in ratings and profits.
Zucker did so knowing full well Trump’s well-documented record of racism and sexism. Zucker hired Trump long after he stirred up racist sentiment in New York by calling for the Central Park Five to be executed in a 1989 full-page ad (they were later found innocent of all charges). Zucker let Trump stay on as host of "The Apprentice" long after he repeatedly trafficked in the race-baiting of Obama birtherism; long after he bashed “illegal aliens” on Fox News; long after he smeared women with sexist insults for decades; and long after he accused the first African-American president of cheating his way into an Ivy League college.
Zucker knew he had a racist, sexist demagogue on his hands for years but did nothing; indeed, he actively participated in the horror show, because he was making himself and his corporate buddies millions.
The glowing New York Times profile failed to mention any of this. The article briefly touches on Zucker’s role in hiring Trump at "The Apprentice," but doesn’t mention his role in covering up and enabling Trump’s bigoted past. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that without Zucker, it’s very likely Trump would be an also-ran on "Dancing with the Stars," not sitting behind a desk at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Other Trump flacks-turned-#Resistance wannabes include Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, the co-hosts of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. Trump recently lashed out at Brzezinski in a sexist, shocking-even-by-Trump-standards tweet accusing Scarborough and Brzezinski of courting him for an interview at Mar-a-Lago.
"She was bleeding badly from a face-lift. I said no!" Trump tweeted. Immediately, Joe Scarborough fired back, writing an op-ed in the Washington Post titled “Trump is Not Well” and sanctimoniously tweeting how Trump was ruining the otherwise noble traditions of the United States.
The underlying accusation that Scarborough and Brzezinski had courted Trump, if not true in this specific instance, is broadly correct. As with Zucker, Trump was turning on people who had long held him up in order to boost their ratings.
As Occidental College professor Peter Dreier noted in HuffPo:
In late 2015 and 2016, when Trump’s campaign was gaining momentum, [Scarborough and Brzezinski] defended him against his critics and offered him advice. For example, at an event at the 92nd Street Y in New York in November 2015, Scarborough proudly recounted how he frequently called Trump to offer political guidance. Returning the bromance favor, in January 2016 Trump talked about Scarborough with Boston talk radio host Howie Carr. “He’s a great guy, and he has a great show ... and we have a lot of fun,” Trump said. After Trump won the New Hampshire primary in February 2016, Trump appeared on “Morning Joe” and told the co-hosts: “You guys have been supporters, and I really appreciate it.”
Scarborough, and to a lesser extent, Brzezinski, frequently gave Trump sympathetic and often lavishing coverage when they thought him an ally and/or a harmless novelty. Trump’s well-documented racism and sexism were something to be brushed aside and laughed away until that same mean-spirited bile was aimed in their direction. And now they and Zucker want our sympathy? They should get it to the extent no one should be subject to sexist smears, but anything beyond that—any attempt to rebrand them as bold truth-tellers fighting the Trump regime, ought to be dismissed. Those who helped build Donald Trump up cannot be tasked with bringing him down, because, should Trump wake up one day and decide Mika, Jeff and Joe are his friends, there’s nothing in their past to indicate they wouldn’t stop on a dime and happily accept the offer.