CNN president Jeff Zucker declared on Thursday that President Trump’s comments about the channel being fake news are a “badge of honor” and that aggressive coverage of the new administration has boosted employee morale.
As Zucker was talking over a lunch with reporters at Porter House in the Time Warner Center, Trump was hosting a fiery press conference featuring a memorable back and forth with CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta, who tried to ask a question about the president’s attacks on CNN.
“I’m changing it from ‘fake news,’ to ‘very fake news,’ ” Trump quipped in response.
But both Trump and Acosta seemed to be enjoying the jousting, pointing to one of the odder patterns to emerge from the early days of Trump’s administration: the president engaging in all-out war with the media and both sides seeming energized by it – and, perhaps, benefiting from it.
When Trump made a quip about CNN’s low ratings, Acosta piped up that they actually weren’t bad. And, indeed, CNN’s ratings have been on the rise during the period when the White House has been shunning the network.
“They wear those insults as a badge of honor, because it means they are doing their jobs,” Zucker said, referring to the network’s reporters and employees. “I would say that morale is incredibly high . . . They are not being intimidated, they are not backing down, they know they have my full support and it is a very exciting time, frankly, to be a journalist at CNN.”
Added Zucker, “If there is any issue, it is because they are exhausted. The pace has been non-stop, and it has not let up.”
In his back-and-forth with Trump, Acosta declared “just for the record, we don’t hate you,” while a twinkle-eyed Trump asked Acosta whether he was related to his pick for labor secretary, Alexander Acosta.
Later, Trump told Acosta to “Ask Jeff Zucker how he got his job.”
According to New York Magazine, Trump believes he helped Zucker get the top job at CNN because he mentioned that Zucker would be a good candidate to Turner Broadcasting’s CEO at the time, Phil Kent. At that point, Kent was said to have already decided on Zucker to take over the cable news channel, so Trump’s recommendation was moot.
Zucker, for his part, told reporters on Thursday that he last spoke to Trump in mid to late December and that it was “not a good conversation.”
And Zucker said that while newsroom morale was high, executives at the company were nonetheless concerned about the comments made by Trump and others during the campaign and since the election.
“I have wondered about that, and I frankly was concerned that when you have that constant drumbeat for a year, you know, the President of the United States saying it on a daily basis. I wondered what impact that would have,” Zucker said.
But CNN ordered a major brand study that was conducted throughout the month of January to examine what impact the attacks have had on its credibility with viewers and with the public.
“There has been no diminution whatsoever,” Zucker said the study showed. “The CNN brand is as strong as it has ever been. Incredibly trusted. And we have seen no impact whatsoever in all those attacks on the CNN brand.”
In fact, the presidential campaign and the first few weeks of the Trump Administration have proven to be a boon to the bottom line for CNN and its competition. In many respects, Trump’s vitriol towards the media and the tough coverage of his administration reinforce themselves, driving coverage forward.
Zucker noted that, in the adults 25-54 demographic that media buyers buy ads against, CNN and Fox News were up more than 50 percent so far this year compared to the same period last year, while MSNBC was up by more than 30 percent. In primetime, CNN and MSNBC are averaging well over 1 million viewers this year, while Fox News is averaging nearly three million primetime viewers, according to ratings data from Nielsen.
Trump himself seems fully aware of his role in boosting cable news. During his exchange with Acosta, he said “I know how good everybody’s ratings are right now but I think that actually — I think that’d actually be better [if the media were nicer].”
That ratings boom is impacting CNN’s revenue as well.
“CNN last year had its best year ever in terms of advertising,” Turner president David Levy told reporters Thursday, adding that so far no advertisers have been spooked by the President’s comments about the channel. CNN is hoping to see $1 billion in profit this year, according to Zucker.
“The demand for CNN is incredibly high,” Zucker added. “These are very good times for us, and the money is following.”
Of course, Trump’s tangents have a side effect of being a distraction. While the back-and-forth arguments with members of the press make for entertaining TV, they also push more serious stories, such as about Russia or Syria, below the fold, or out of primetime.
For now, it certainly appears as though the big news story of the day will be Trump’s extended press conference, with the questions surrounding Michael Flynn’s departure, and Rex Tillerson’s first meeting with his Russian counterpart stuck on the back burner.
Fox News Channel’s Shepard Smith, on his program Thursday afternoon, defended Acosta’s questioning of the president during the presser, and suggested that Trump’s answers were meant to deflect from the hard questions.
“It is crazy what we are watching every day. He keeps repeating ridiculous throwaway lines that are not true at all, and sort of avoiding this issue of Russia as if we are fools for asking the question,” Smith said. “That you call us fake news and put us down like children for asking these questions on behalf of the American people is inconsequential. The people deserve that answer, at very least.”
Hadas Gold contributed to this report.