When AT&T bought CNN’s parent company Time Warner in 2016, Mr Trump started attacking his old friend. He made it public on Twitter. He met Mr. Zucker in a private meeting with Randall Stephenson, then C.E.O. approached by AT&T, a comment not previously reported on.
The President’s campaign against Mr Zucker was interpreted by Mr Zucker – reasonably – as an attempt to sack him as a condition of the merger, according to three people speaking to executives at AT&T and Time Warner at the time. But Time Warner stood by him and Mr. Trump’s Justice Department sued to stop the merger. When Mr Stephenson finally took control of the company in 2018, he did not fire the CNN president.
Mr. Mahler’s play noted that CNN had become more focused on American politics, “an endless loop of dramatic moments, conflict and confrontation” – in other words, it had become Trumpier. He also noticed Mr. Zucker’s “strange symbiosis” with Mr. Trump. But that summer, CNN fired Jeffrey Lord, a brilliant, silver-haired former Ronald Reagan aide who had been Mr. Trump’s best defender on the network.
And by the end of that year, the lure of ratings dragged the network in a new direction: resistance. In Mr. Trump’s own political theater, there were regular television confrontations with CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, another kind of win-win. But if Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker seemed to still blink at times, their audience wasn’t involved in the joke, and the deadly serious stakes came through as a troubled Trump supporter sent a bomb dropped on CNN’s New York headquarters in October 2018.
Mr. Zucker did not respond through a spokeswoman when I asked again five years later if he now regretted his role in Mr. Trump’s career.
But this run could also come to an end. When I spoke to former NBC colleagues of Mr. Zucker about his tenure there, the show they cited the most was not “The Apprentice”. It was “Fear Factor” in which the participants were thrown into a pit full of rats while still in their underwear. USA Today described it as perhaps “the most obnoxious programming ever aired on a large network”.
“Anxiety Factor” did not age well. The show lasted six seasons, and a revival was interrupted by public backlash to a stunt in which competing sets of identical twins drank donkey seeds. The public got tired of it (and that donkey stunt didn’t air).