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How Jeff Zucker Turned CNN Into A Cult

In movies and history books when someone is fighting with the French Resistance against the Nazis nobody cares if they are cheating on their spouse, or engaged in dubious ethical practices. It’s an existential crisis, and normal rules don’t apply. This is the attitude, more than any other, that best explains the astounding decline and fall of the Cable News Network that culminated this week with the toppling of its president Jeff Zucker.

Over the past 5 years, especially surrounding the rise of former President Donald Trump, CNN saw itself less as a news organization and more as a band of superheroes, fearlessly committed to saving our nation from mostly imaginary dire threats to democracy. It was an attitude that came straight from the top, from Zucker, and it earned him the loyalty and respect of a newsroom he badly ran off the rails.

The second worst kept secret in cable news was that Zucker was engaged in a romantic relationship with his subordinate at CNN, marketing head Allison Gollust. The first worst kept secret is that the affair is absolutely not the reason the one-time TV executive wunderkind gave himself the boot. Maybe it was, as anchor Jake Tapper alleged, the fact that former anchor Chris Cuomo was about to go nuclear, telling secrets about Zucker in his attempt to salvage his severance pay after his own firing. 

Maybe it was the fact that CNN is struggling to attract as many viewers as a mid-level video game streamer on YouTube. One is reminded of Bob Newhart’s joke that a Don Rickles sitcom had a negative Neilsen rating. Newhart explained this meant that several people who don’t own television sets were surveyed and said they wouldn’t watch if they had one. 

What the dismay at Zucker’s firing from congressional Democrats reveals is that they understand his CNN was just about the only major outlet willing to constantly parrot absurd talking points about the end of America as we know it.

But again, who has time to worry about ratings and ad revenue when the entire future of democracy and freedom is on the line? Who can think about puerile things like money when Covid “misinformation” is out there killing people? Let’s take two examples. One involving the Capitol riot and another Covid and Andrew Cuomo, that detail the road to irrelevance and mockery traveled by CNN under the leadership of Zucker.

According to details obtained by Vanity Fair, CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel had this to say about the abrupt end of Zucker’s tenure; “The first calls I got this morning were from four members of the January 6 committee, who felt devastated for our democracy, because Jeff was not going to be around to make sure that CNN is able to do its job.” It turned out it was four members of congress and only one committee member, but the point is that this attitude from congressional Democrats is all you need to know about how Zucker was using CNN for political purposes.

If you don’t watch a lot of CNN, and let’s face it most people don’t, you might not understand the bizarre level of obsession the network has with the events of January 6th. Countless news programs lead with it day after day regardless of there being any actual news. If committee member and alleged Republican Liz Cheney sneezes, CNN cuts to a legal analyst who opines about how the development might land Trump and his family in prison by the close of business that afternoon. That is only a slight exaggeration. What the dismay at Zucker’s firing from congressional Democrats reveals is that they understand his CNN was just about the only major outlet willing to constantly parrot absurd talking points about the end of America as we know it.

It really should have come as no surprise that Zucker was running his outlet as a communications arm for the American left. His paramour, Gollust, who some say was being groomed to replace him as president, was literally a communications director for former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. And new details suggest that both she and Zucker were working with the guv to frame his messaging at the outset of the Covid lockdowns.

The problem was not that CNN lacked introspection, that is common enough in the news media, it’s that for the better part of 4 years under Zucker, the network was playing God.

That revelation, that CNN was working with Cuomo to frame him as America’s most competent Covid leader and anti-Trump figure at the onset of the pandemic, may well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back for Zucker. After all, Chris Cuomo was fired for offering just that kind of assistance during his brother’s sexual harassment crisis. What’s interesting is just how closely Zucker’s resignation mirrors that of Governor Cuomo, almost as if it was dreamt up in the same comms shop.

Cuomo resigned amid vague allegations of sexual harassment, there was no smoking gun incident, no cigar or pregnancy, just a string of inappropriate alleged actions that forced him to step down, despite his important leadership and supposed accomplishments. The tawdry tales of the governor also hid from scrutiny his disastrous and deadly nursing home policies. Today, many of the criminal charges against Cuomo have been dropped and a comeback seems like it may be possible.

Zucker seems to be using the same playbook. He has resigned over a consensual relationship that everyone knew about, leading some at CNN to think he has been treated unfairly. Zucker, like Cuomo, is leaving, not as a villain who dragged his office into ignominy, but rather as a martyr who is being punished for fighting the good fight just a little too hard.

To get some insight into the warped thinking that led CNN to become a joke of a news network so blindly partisan that everyone who didn’t work there could see it, we should venture back to the recent past. In October of 2019, there was an event in New York City called ‘Citizen by CNN.’ I was there, and it was the most shocking display of myopic and masterbatory bluster I have ever witnessed. The apex of the insanity was CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter interviewing his boss, Jeff Zucker.

At one point, and I’m not making this up, Stelter asked if there was anything CNN gets wrong, or could do better, and Zucker, absolutely perplexed, could come up with nothing. Stelter broke the awkward silence by reminding Zucker that he sometimes says the network uses the term “breaking news” too much. Mind you, this was the network that perpetuated the Russia collusion hoax, that smeared Brett Kavanaugh, that lost a lawsuit for defaming teenager Nick Sandman, and so forth and so on. The problem was not that CNN lacked introspection, that is common enough in the news media, it’s that for the better part of 4 years under Zucker, the network was playing God, its job was not to report and comment on the news, but to crush the opposition and save the republic.

You can’t rehabilitate the cult after everyone has knocked back the kool aid.

To be sure, what threw CNN off-kilter to begin with was Donald Trump. From early on, the network was clear that it would take an adversarial approach to the 45th president unlike any approach it had ever taken before. Then, in March of 2020, the CNN savior complex got an added shot of steroids with the rise of Covid. At that point, being a traditional, down the middle news outlet that treated both sides fairly not only was a threat to democracy, but would get people killed through pandemic “misinformation.” That is when CNN stopped being a religion and started being a cult.

It was a perfect storm. Trump who had previously been primarily a political threat was now also a genocidal maniac all but cheering on the deadly spread of Covid. He had to be stopped. And like any good cult, CNN needed a figurehead, a creepy, egotistical, know it all to soothe the fears of a weary nation. Enter Andrew Cuomo. For Zucker, who had once polished Trump’s star by creating The Apprentice at his old job at NBC, it was time to make some television history.

Cuomo’s afternoon pressers would become appointment viewing, vying with the marathon White House Covid Task Force programming that appeared each evening. Then, at 9pm the brothers Cuomo would appear on CNN for the Italo-American Comedy Hour, where America was treated to prop gags and gentle ribbing about who Ma loves best. The fact that the Governor of New York State, which had and still has some of the worst Covid numbers in the country, was on TV being interviewed by his own brother, was so wildly inappropriate and contrary to anything even approaching the norms of news coverage that it was basically just accepted as fine. It was so completely and utterly off the wall that it was almost immune to criticism.

What is most amazing, and honestly kind of scary about the trail of humiliation Jeff Zucker led CNN down is that the on-air talent, like a frog in boiling water, seemed and seems to have no idea that any of this happened. They still think they work for a reputable news organization, not a Democrat Party public relations outfit. Zucker stroked their egos for years, assured them they were the most important people not just in journalism, but in America. The sanctimonious apples are not bananas ad campaign the nation rolled its eyes through was not ultimately directed towards the ever declining viewers, but the talent. And the rubes bought it.

The (forced?) resignation of Jeff Zucker is not a bombshell. People in the industry have known for well over a year that he and the network were looking for an offramp for his leadership. The end of the Trump presidency was the natural finish line for his “all Trump, all the time” approach to cable news. But nobody should be fooled into thinking that the end of this shambolic and dangerous era at CNN has anything to do with who Zucker was having sex with. No, Zucker is out because he destroyed the credibility not just of the outlet, but frankly, of everyone who works there.

The big question that remains is what is to become of CNN now? Maybe some of the journalists there can be deprogrammed, though we shouldn’t hold our breath on that. The new proposed corporate leadership from AT&T and Time Warner have given appearances that they want CNN to return to its old role of straight news reporting. But the good old days of Fox News to the right, MSNBC to the left and CNN in the middle will not be easy to replicate. In all likelihood, CNN has played a major role in destroying the myth of objective news which is the model it seeks to return to. You can’t rehabilitate the cult after everyone has knocked back the kool-aid.

In the end, Zucker really did make important television history. Nobody will ever trust the news again the way they did before he decided to make CNN into the special forces of Anti Trumpism and all things Fauci. That might be a good thing. And it only took one megalomaniacal top executive to change how we look at the news forever.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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