by Armin Rosen
Thursday, 3
February 2022
Profile
14:30

Jeff Zucker, inventor of centrist panic-porn

The CNN president created a captivating imaginary world
by Armin Rosen
The man who degraded the news. Credit: Getty

Jeff Zucker, the impish CNN honcho, resigned yesterday after it turned out he was keeping his affair with Allison Golust, the network’s chief marketing officer, a secret. When Zucker first joined CNN nine years ago, he was a new kind of newsman, closer to a Walt Disney or a David Stern than to a Dean Baquet. He was a world-builder, a moulder of his reality — someone who didn’t merely capture events but who dragged his industry and his society where he wanted to take it.

One of Zucker’s early masterstrokes was “The Plane” — Malaysian Airlines flight 370, which CNN treated as a sensational mystery that only it could solve. Gone was the pretence that CNN was the television equivalent of the New York Times. With the channel all but ignoring the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the likes of Richard Quest would now spend hours on-air, hunched over the controls of a 777 simulator and issuing insane theories about the aircraft’s fate. The Plane was a smash hit, practically doubling CNN’s ratings for the first few weeks of this mostly fake crisis. None of it had anything to do with news, per se, and none of it would have happened without Zucker.

Of course his biggest ‘success’ was Donald Trump. Zucker’s CNN infamously broke into its regular coverage whenever Trump held a rally, a service it extended to no other 2016 presidential contender. Once Trump was elected, CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta became the #Resistance’s avenging angel. Soon even the staid Jake Tapper was sermonising on almost a nightly basis. 

CNN’s political coverage, which replaced just about all other coverage, consisted of cosplaying Republican “strategists”— including the swindlers at the Lincoln Project — vehemently agreeing with various, slightly less-fake professional Democrats. The network committed grievous errors of fact in its efforts to create a sense of constant national crisis, like when it falsely reported that Wikileaks offered Donald Trump, Jr an advance look at emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. Quality didn’t matter, though. The stridently partisan Zucker regime oversaw a ratings bonanza.

It would be simplistic to say that Zucker turned CNN into a centre-Left version of Fox News. What made Zucker a visionary is that he saw the potential for a centrist-branded panic industry and knew how to repurpose a legacy outlet in order to dominate this unexploited market. Before Zucker, aversion to Fox-style anger porn was a core aspect of American centre-Left identity. Consumers of legacy media insisted they weren’t as vulgar and emotional as those people. Zucker knew they were lying to themselves. 

Centrists were no less angry and no less vulnerable to television-induced radicalisation — which is addictive and perhaps even sickly enjoyable for the radicalised — than any other group of people. Zucker’s coverage choices reflected this dark but in retrospect very obvious psychological insight, namely that those who prided themselves on their membership in polite society were every bit as titillated by panic and outrage as the yokels and Trumpists they increasingly despised. 

And they were just as hypnotised by celebrity, too. It was Zucker’s CNN that turned photogenic #Resistance grifter Michael Avenatti into a nationally prominent figure and that boosted his absurd presidential aspirations. Last winter, CNN’s highest rated programme was a Stanley Tucci-hosted culinary tour through Italy, an exemplar of the soft-focus quasi-reality programming that Zucker pushed through the lineup. When it ran out of actual famous and beautiful people to shove onscreen, Zucker’s CNN pioneered the practice of treating random people as if they were important — the network was one of the outlets that settled with Nick Sandmann, the high schooler whose life the national media tried to ruin in early 2020. 

Fittingly enough, it was Zucker’s promotion of cheap celebrity that helped end his run at CNN. Zucker’s hidden relationship was discovered through an internal investigation of former prime-time anchor Chris Cuomo, brother of disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo. The Cuomos memorably and nauseatingly interviewed each other on air several times during the early days of the coronavirus, when the network uncritically lauded the governor as a national hero, the latest in its series of anti-Trumps. 

The Cuomos were a union of centre-Left media and political starpower, catnip for Zucker and the audience he owned. But the governor took a number of people down with him when his career imploded last year, including his brother, who was caught giving him advice about how to handle his unfolding sexual harassment scandal — and maybe including Golust, Zucker’s lover, who had served as Andrew Cuomo’s communications director in 2012, around the time of some of his alleged wrongdoing. 

The Zuckerian view of American media ended up boomeranging on its inventor, though for him the consequences will probably be temporary. Like visionaries ranging from Napoleon to Donald Trump, Zucker left his work in ruins: With a new president in office CNN’s ratings plunged 90% in the year before January of 2022. But a man of Zucker’s special and horrible talents doesn’t stay unemployed for long. It’s the rest of us who will have to live with a news industry that he degraded, within a country that he’s done as much as just about anyone to worsen. 

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago

I think basically he did a very great service to the Nation, and world – by showing the MSM is 100% owned by elites with agendas, and everything they say is as likely to be a lie and misleading, as it is to be true.

His extreme bias turned the corner to complete propaganda, he made the words ‘Fake News’ become part of the language. Now you do not have to be a cynic to doubt the MSM, everyone mistrusts it thanks to this vile man.

Scott S
Scott S
6 months ago

How many presenters and staff at CNN are involved in sex scandals?? I’ve lost count.

George Glashan
George Glashan
6 months ago
Reply to  Scott S

At this point it’d be quicker to list the staff not involved in sex scandals

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
6 months ago
Reply to  Scott S

Elon Musk said he wasn’t perverted enough to appear on CNN.

Sean Penley
Sean Penley
6 months ago

As I saw someone post on another forum when this story came out, it seems that Toobin is the only person at CNN keeping his hands to himself.
Seriously, though, CNN has long had a bias of some form. Ted Turner made that amply obvious when Fox News first began to air. They just tried to be subtle about it in the early years, you really wouldn’t catch it unless it was a story you knew something about yourself. In the early 2000s they began to let the subtlety drop and openly give better coverage to the left. Zucker’s big change was to make them a straight-up propaganda arm of the Dem party. And in that role they were much more dramatic than Fox News. Shortly after the 2016 election someone actually did a rollup of, I believe, about 6-8 months worth of headlines from the major news outlets about the main presidential candidates. Fox News actually had a majority of its stories about Trump being negative, I want to say the percentage was somewhere in the ’70s. CNN was around 98% negative. And during the 2020 presidential debates the session hosted by a Fox presenter (who has since jumped ship, I should note) was very visibly anti-Trump. The main point is that even Fox News was actually being very anti-Trump even in 2016, more so than would be normal for a ‘fair and balanced’ network, but the fact they weren’t at CNN’s own 98% negative was apparently enough to make the network his cheerleader. Which says a lot about the bias of the media at large: if you only agree with them roughly 70% of the time, you are an extremist for the other side.

Michael Coleman
Michael Coleman
6 months ago
Reply to  Sean Penley

You are right. Fox has lost lots of right leaning viewers in the last years because Fox doesn’t play for the Republican team. The 6pm national news on Fox is the most trustworthy news source for that very reason.

Andrea X
Andrea X
6 months ago

Can you still say “impish”?
(As I don’t get/watch CNN I cannot comment on the rest).

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
6 months ago
Reply to  Andrea X

Well ‘impi’ is the word for a collective of Zulu soldiers, so he may be calling him particularly ferocious – and an ‘imp’ is one of those little demons who serve the Devil, or some mischievous kind of little elf thing, so he could be saying he is a little troublemaker instead.

I think he sailed too close to the wind on this one, and deserves some really angry and woke e-mails.

Jonathan Ellman
Jonathan Ellman
6 months ago

I suppose his actions spawned, or at least gave a boost to, the IDW so maybe we should be grateful.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
6 months ago

The news is to current society what the circus was to the Roman world. And the blood is real.

Once you start selling narrative and dont care about fact or balance, how do you come back from that?

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
6 months ago

Zucker created the agenda that his presenters had to follow. Many disagreed with the daily exhortation but were silenced. Given CNN becoming a limb of the DNC, as Biden became unpopular, CNN’s fortunes crumbled. Ted Turner lamented the constant political advocacy thinking it would diminish his creation, and it has. Post Zucker we shall see if they can recover from his toxic approach to news.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
6 months ago
Reply to  Hardee Hodges

With the rabbit hutches of higher education turning out indoctrinated snowflakes bound for journalism in such high numbers, there is little chance the news media will regain even a slice of its former trust.

Jerry Jay Carroll
Jerry Jay Carroll
6 months ago

All of the above can be said about MSNBC and the alphabet networks.