In a rosy profile published Tuesday by Variety, “How Jeff Zucker Made CNN Great Again,” the network chief leveled a Trump-worthy cheap shot on two digital upstarts making waves in new media. “I don’t think Vice and BuzzFeed are legitimate news organizations,” Zucker tells Variety. “They are native advertising shops. We crush both of them. They are not even in our same class.”
CNN has indeed enjoyed a reinvigorated election season thanks to a beefed-up politics team that frequently drives discussion online. Incessant coverage of the campaign—countdown clocks and “BREAKING NEWS” chyrons galore—has also led to a ratings bump, particularly with 25-54 age demo that cable advertisers crave.
Still, Zucker’s hit on his network’s digital competitors raised plenty of eyebrows given his simultaneous praise for Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, who CNN hired as an analyst this summer in a move that drew widespread criticism. Lewandowski led a campaign whose central themes included a blatant disregard for the truth and an open disrespect for a free press. He has a non-disparagement agreement that forbids him from speaking negatively about Trump—if he wanted to, that is—and is still receiving severance payments from the campaign.
“The reason we hired [Lewandowski] is that now that we are in the general election, I think it’s really important to have voices on CNN who are supportive of the Republican nominee,” Zucker tells Variety. “It’s hard to find a lot of those.” [Emphasis ours.]
This would seem to be the textbook definition of false balance: Very few political experts speak favorably of Trump, and yet CNN is stacking the deck to give viewers a veneer of objectivity. To criticisms that Lewandowski is using the cable channel to parrot Trump talking points to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, Zucker replied: “I actually think he’s done a really nice job. He’s come under a much greater spotlight because of who he is, and the relationship he’s had with the media. As a result, people are going to be more critical.”
And rightfully so. Lewandowski has provided the sort of predictable analysis you’d expect from a recently departed Trumpinista. But this week he’s gone a few steps further, just as his former boss has seemed to wilt in the face of prolonged media pressure.
On Monday, Lewandowski told former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn “You gotta relax a little bit” during an argument over Trump’s remarks on a deceased Army veteran’s parents. After Quinn brushed Lewandowski’s hand mid-crosstalk, the former campaign manager snapped, “Don’t touch me.” The irony oozed from Lewandowski’s lips: In March, he was arrested for battery after grabbing a female reporter—an incident he lied about—though a prosecutor opted against filing charges.
Lewandowski returned to action on Tuesday night by resurrecting birtherism, a conspiracy theory, popularized by Trump, that President Barack Obama is not an American citizen. His dalliance with this widely discredited attack line came during a segment on Obama’s recent criticism of the GOP nominee. Here’s a partial transcript of Lewandowski’s exchange with host Don Lemon and commentator Angela Rye, courtesy the liberal watchdog group Media Matters For America:
RYE: Donald Trump has been attacking the president long before he began campaigning for this important office. He is the one who was the spokesperson for the birther movement, and was calling for transcripts for — and saying the president was an affirmative action admittee of Harvard. So let’s —
LEWANDOWSKI: Did he ever release his transcripts from Harvard?
RYE: By the way, tell me about those tax returns, while you’re at it.
LEWANDOWSKI: Well you raised the issue, I’m just asking. You raised the issue, did he ever release his transcripts or his admission to Harvard University? You raised the issue, so just “yes,” or “no.”
After a few more seconds of this back-and-forth, Lemon rightfully interrupts to pose a crucial question for which Lewandowski has no good answer:
LEMON: OK, let me ask you something. Let me ask you something — What is the importance of Barack Obama’s Harvard transcript?
LEWANDOWSKI: It’s not, she brought the issue up.
LEMON: I’m asking you, how is — hold on. How is it germane to the election, and the American people?
LEWANDOWSKI: Look, the only reason it’s germane is because she brought the issue up, and said Donald Trump raised the issue of his Harvard transcripts. And I just simply said “have those transcripts ever been released?” And the question was “did he get in as a U.S. citizen, or was he brought into Harvard University as a citizen who wasn’t from this country?”
Lemon and his other guests rightly teamed up for a smackdown of Lewandowski’s comments. But reasonable people shouldn’t have been put in the position of responding to birtherism in the first place—especially at a “legitimate” news organization.
As for Zucker’s ding on BuzzFeed, Editor in Chief Ben Smith replied in a statement to Politico yesterday: “The most important test of any news organization this year is its coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign. I’m happy to put our tough, fair coverage up against CNN’s decision to turn its platform over to [Zucker’s] friend Donald Trump.”
Smith’s criticism cuts deep for a network that has been lambasted for giving Trump abundant airtime over the past year. And with Lewandowski spewing birtherism on air, it’s certainly harder to argue against the criticism. Zucker may be right when he describes the difficulty of finding television-ready political analysts who favor Trump. Perhaps he should consider why that scarcity exists in the first place.
David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.