Why Does CNN Seem to Want Donald Trump Re-Elected?

If you don’t follow the news too closely, you might think there was an epic feud between Donald Trump and CNN. After all, Trump’s team once barred CNN’s White House correspondent from press briefings. And, every so often, Trump will say something mean about the network on Twitter.

Sounds like a real grudge, right? It’s not. The next day, CNN host Chris Cuomo will host Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani so he can say anything he pleases on the president’s behalf.

Cuomo, the highest-rated CNN anchor, interviews whomever he thinks might boost his ratings. (Anderson Cooper will, too.) After a particularly egregious lie-fest with Kellyanne Conway or another Trump official, Cuomo might hear a backlash from real journalists (possibly even Don Lemon.)

But since CNN’s entire concept is drama, he’d never be reprimanded. “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way,” CNN president Jeff Zucker, a personal friend of Trump’s, said about the 2016 election.

Heading into 2020, Zucker and his CNN crew are pulling out all the stops to cash in again in the blood-sport style — and Trump is the villain they’ll happily ride to victory.

CNN’s odd approach to ‘being pro-truth’

Donald Trump and Jeff Zucker attend a book party hosted by Caryn & Jeff Zucker at The Loeb Boathouse on October 1, 2008. | NICK HUNT /Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

To understand Zucker, simply follow the history of him and Trump since the turn of the century. In the early 2000s, he gave the green light to The Apprentice as head of NBC. A few years later, he attended Trump’s 2005 wedding, which Zucker hoped to televise.

Starting in 2015, if there was a Trump speech anywhere, CNN (which Zucker began running in 2013) would air it live. The strategy worked, and Zucker’s only expressed occasional remorse for broadcasting Trump’s torrent of lies in real time. However, it depends who’s interviewing him.

Speaking to David Axelrod in late 2018, Zucker sounded noble in his mission at CNN. “We should always set out to be pro-truth,” he said. “And all I encourage our shows and our anchors to be, is to hold those in power accountable and tell the truth.”

In practice, anchors like Cuomo have struggled with this concept. On March 14, Lemon called him out on the air for hosting Conway, “someone who just constantly lies.”

Cuomo’s response — that he’d have no one to interview if he held them to the truth — has to be heard to be believed. If you went by Zucker’s dictate of “holding those in power accountable,” Conway would likely never return. And Cuomo’s audience would not get lied to anymore.

But that’s not what’s happening because it might alienate a few viewers. Maybe Axelrod, who works for Zucker at CNN, didn’t feel like pressing him on the subject. During less friendly interviews, Zucker talks a different game. At SXSW 2019, he said it was “a mistake” to broadcast Trump’s rallies.

But he returned to the fictional concept of being somehow in the middle. “At Fox, Donald Trump can do no wrong. At MSNBC, Donald Trump can do no right. And I don’t think either one of those is right.”

In other words, the when-necessary pro-Trump show must go on.

Zucker’s role as ‘Trump translator’ in 2020

Jake Tapper speaks at The Moody Theater during the 2019 SXSW Conference And Festival on March 10, 2019. | Gary Miller/FilmMagic

When you start from the principle that many things Trump says must be “right,” it means your commentators can repeat his words freely. Zucker happily did that with Jeffrey Lord, a habitual liar who eventually got fired for tweeting a Nazi slogan. (Both sides, folks.)

As Drew Magary wrote in GQ, Zucker approved of Van Jones’s assessment that Lord was merely “a Trump translator” (as opposed to, say, simply some racist liar). Zucker described Lord and other such Trump surrogates as “characters in a drama.” (Pro-truth, folks.)

Then there was this embarrassing spectacle on CNN’s Twitter account: “On the evening Robert Mueller submitted his report to the Justice Department, President Trump was on the tiled patio of Mar-a-Lago, bathed in golden light, with his wife and son Barron, who had reached teenagerhood two days earlier.” (Journalism, folks.)

Somehow, CNN’s editorial staff considered this a form of journalism. However, it came with CNN reporters’ wide acceptance of Attorney General Barr’s summary of the Mueller report as fact. (No one has seen it to date.)

If you needed any greater sign as to where CNN is headed in 2019-20, check in on the backlash following the hire of Sarah Isgur, a GOP operative and spokesperson for Jeff Session. At the time of Isgur’s hire, CNN had said she would be managing 2020 campaign coverage.

The only problem? Isgur has never worked as a journalist before. After a great deal of scrutiny, CNN decided to make Isgur a political commentator. (Trump translators can be journalists is they put their minds to it, we suppose.)

Any way CNN can get more eyeballs and engagement, it will do so between now and November 2020. If returning Trump to the White House is the only available route, the network will go all-in to make it happen. It’s business, folks — the sports business — and CNN wants to win, badly.

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