CNN President Jeff Zucker criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for its strategy of trying to delegitimize the press for political purposes, warning that his network’s reporters now regularly receive threats. But CNN itself has played a key role in that effort, rewarding key figures in the Trump team’s anti-press campaign with jobs at the network.
Zucker told HuffPo that the “shameful” effort “does disservice to this country and its position in the world and ... allows for a heightened sense of rhetoric against journalists and media organizations. And it is unconscionable and dangerous and they should know better.”
CNN's chief is absolutely right. The attacks on the free press from the Trump administration and its media allies are unprecedented in their vitriol. Reporters covering Trump rallies often feared for their physical safety as Trump would whip his crowds into an anti-press frenzy. A Republican congressman’s assault last month on a reporter who sought to ask him a question represented a frightening new turn, with anti-press rhetoric turning swiftly to violence.
But Zucker’s concern for the journalists he employs and their colleagues around the country would be more compelling if he had not previously decided that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who oversaw many of the campaign’s most despicable attacks on journalists, was a great fit for the network.
Lewandowski earned notoriety for his open hostility toward -- and physical altercations with -- journalists trying to cover the campaign. He reportedly pushed a CNN reporter who was trying to ask a question and threatened to pull the credentials of another. He was said to have propositioned female journalists who sought to cover Trump. And most infamously, he was charged with misdemeanor battery after he forcibly grabbed reporter Michelle Fields for the crime of trying to ask Trump a question (the state declined to prosecute).
After all that -- and in spite of a nondisclosure agreement that likely prevented him from criticizing Trump -- Zucker’s CNN hired Lewandowski in June 2016 to represent his former boss on the network. Journalists inside CNN and out promptly savaged the network for its “inexcusable” action.
But Zucker repeatedly defended Lewandowski’s hiring on the grounds that the network needed to have a supporter of the Republican nominee on the payroll. This argument did not meet the smell test: The network already employed several Trump supporters and had no trouble finding others to appear on their airwaves, none of whom had records of physical altercations with journalists.
The reality is that time and time again during the presidential campaign, Zucker was willing to do what it took to curry favor with the Trump campaign, providing the Republican front-runner with an ocean of coverage because he thought Trump gave the network great ratings. Now that Trump is president, he’s stuck in the unenviable position of having to deal with the result: A president willing to publicly declare his network “fake news.”
Meanwhile, the pro-Trump pundits Zucker’s network employs play a key role in the administration’s effort to delegitimize the press by defending that strategy on the network’s own airwaves. CNN’s Jeffrey Lord laughed off Trump’s unhinged February press conference, during which the president launched dozens of attacks on reporters and media outlets, as the “launch of a new reality television show called ‘Beat the Press.’” In October, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Trump campaign aide Jason Miller if he was comfortable with the way Trump lashed out at the press and threatened to sue journalists. Miller responded by blaming the “biased” media. In March, CNN hired him as a political commentator.
It’s great that Zucker now wants to stick up for his reporters when the president’s supporters chant “CNN sucks” at Trump rallies. But the administration's attacks on journalists did not come out of nowhere; they were completely predictable. Instead of punishing the Trump campaign for its actions “against something that is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States” when it could have made a real difference, Zucker rewarded its anti-press lackeys.