CNN has taken ‘taken tremendous security precautions’ during Trump presidency, Jeff Zucker says

The global head of CNN also had some choice words for Facebook, saying the social media giant needs its ‘feet need to be held to the fire’

CNN chief Jeff Zucker speaking with Women in the World founder Tina Brown. (Women in the World)

CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker may not appreciate what President Donald Trump has to say about his news network, but he sure likes that he’s calling it out by name.

“When he attacks CNN, I just want him to spell CNN right,” Zucker half-joked Monday evening during a dinner and discussion event in Toronto with Women in the World founder Tina Brown.

Zucker said his all-news cable channel is enjoying its best-ever performance and says the timing of that is no coincidence. Ratings and readership are up at many outlets in the face of near-constant vitriol by Trump, he said.

“We are stronger than we’ve ever been and we will stand up and do our jobs and not be cowed in the face of those attacks,” said Zucker, who has led CNN since 2013. He’s a self-professed news junkie who is deeply embedded in editorial decisions.

Brown dubbed him “the man President Trump would most like to deport.”

Yet the relationship between the CNN boss and the president goes back a long time. Zucker is the former head of NBC who gave Trump his first reality TV job as the host of The Apprentice. Many credit that show for giving the real estate businessman a national audience and profile that began to pave his unlikely road to the White House.

Zucker attended Trump’s wedding to Melania Trump and roasted him at the Friar’s Club. The president, at various times, has even taken credit for Zucker getting the top CNN job.

But Zucker says it’s that relationship that is fueling Trump’s particular animosity toward CNN in what has been an all-out war on the media. The 37-year-old all-news network, and its 3,500 employees, are now facing a White House that has barred cameras from some press briefings, a presidential Twitter account filled with allegations of “fake news,” and whose advisors have repeatedly appeared on CNN to bash its coverage of the Trump White House.

“When he attacks me it’s fine. I know him so well and a lot of it is just sport for him. He thinks he should get a free pass based on our relationship. That’s his idea of loyalty, that I should keep our reporters from saying anything negative about him. Obviously, that’s ridiculous,” he said.

“He doesn’t understand why we don’t roll over the way FOX News does for him in the United States. We’re not going to do that.”

So while CNN is in the crosshairs for Trump’s assaults on the media, it’s also been a beneficiary because the 45th president creates an endless stream of news and debate. But he isn’t the cause of a heavily divided nation, said Zucker, or widespread distrust of the mainstream media.

Rather, he’s the product of FOX News and ultra-conservative talk radio. CNN is trying to bridge that gap and start conversations, Zucker said, by hosting a series of town halls with leading Republicans, including Paul Ryan and John McCain.

Zucker, who became the executive producer of NBC’s Today show at 26 and eventually took over the entire network, said it’s the role of the news media to shine light on the truth and call out lies. And while Trump isn’t the first president to have a tense relationship with the media, he said, this time around is different.

“Where it’s corrosive and destructive is in the social media world, it has given permission and unleashed some dangerous people who have threatened our hosts. We’ve taken tremendous security precautions,” he said.

“When it crosses over into threatening people’s safety, it’s way beneath the dignity of the office of the president and completely out of line.”

Zucker says in a media-saturated world of instant communication, he values right over being first on a news story.

“People will find out about something going on on Twitter, but they’ll come to CNN to find out if it’s true.”

So when CNN was wrong on a recent story about a Trump ally’s connection to Russia, three journalists lost their jobs. Zucker says news organizations must own their mistakes and take responsibility.

“We’re under the biggest glare and the strongest microscope. We don’t want to make mistakes and we don’t want to feed that narrative.”

He particularly singled out Facebook for what he called a lack of accountability.

“Facebook has not been forthcoming about their role in the election and their feet need to be held to the fire more. I think it’s outrageous that Facebook won’t be more transparent about advertising they took from Russia … If all of us don’t speak up more about that, then shame on us.”

As Zucker spoke in Toronto, he reflected on the 140 people out in the field reporting on the devastation of Hurricane Irma in Florida, which came close on the heels of the havoc wreaked by Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Keeping news staff safe while telling the story is a challenge, he said. But that’s what reporters do.

“We go in while others evacuate… It’s these times that CNN shines. The audience and traffic has been enormous because people rely on us for this.”

Meredith MacLeod is a national award-winning journalist, university and college educator, freelancer in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, and founder and principal of MacLeod Communications. Follow her on Twitter here.

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