‘Do you have a problem with the truth?’

Jeff Zucker has asked to meet at Come Prima, a smart Italian restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and it is so empty that I initially wonder if it is closed for the day. The front is deserted but I spot the former CNN chief executive in the back, at a round table behind the bar. His is one of only two tables occupied; the other is taken by a solitary white-haired man, peering at an iPad through dark-rimmed glasses.

“You see who walked in?” Zucker says, discreetly nodding in the direction of the white-haired man. I glance over and realise that it’s Steve Martin, the actor, comedian and banjo player. “Sometimes I go to a diner, up the street,” he says. “And I see him there too.”

Zucker has had more time for chance encounters like this during the past 18 months because it is the longest sustained period in 35 years that he has been away from a television studio. From his stint as a producer for NBC’s Today Show, which he turned into a ratings winner, he went on to launch The Apprentice, starring one Donald Trump, and eventually became chief executive of the company.

In 2013 he landed the top job at CNN, where he steered its coverage of Trump’s ascent to the presidency, turning it into a robust and consistent critic of the lies Trump told once he made it to the White House. He continued to run CNN until last year, when he was forced to resign by the company for failing to disclose a consensual relationship with a colleague.

Since then he has kept a low profile, launching RedBird IMI, a new investment fund focused on sport, entertainment and media. He has stayed out of the limelight, although rumours have swirled that he wants to buy CNN — which he vehemently denies. “Zero truth to it. Zero.”

His former network, meanwhile, has been on its own rollercoaster ride: his successor, Chris Licht, was fired after just 16 months in the chair after participating in a lengthy — and excruciating — profile in The Atlantic magazine, which detailed his ultimately doomed efforts to move the channel away from the Zucker era. The fitness-obsessed Licht tells the reporter “I’m a fucking machine” and in one memorable passage, which takes place in a gym at 6am, lifts a metal pole, declaring through gritted teeth: “Zucker couldn’t do this shit.”

So we have much to discuss. But first we need to order. A waiter arrives at our table and in a thick Italian accent rattles through a list of specials: zucchini flowers filled with mozzarella and parmesan, prosciutto with melon, a beef carpaccio with onions and capers, fresh burrata with arugula and cherry tomatoes. “I have risotto with fresh porcini mushrooms,” he continues. “I’ve got lobster ravioli with clams and cherry tomato sauce.”

“That sounds good,” says Zucker.

The waiter then lists three different pastas and a fish special. “I have the branzino, like Mr Martin here is having,” he says, indicating the table next to us. Without looking up from his iPad, Martin raises his thumb in silent endorsement, which seals the deal: it’s the branzino for me. I choose the zucchini flowers to start; Zucker goes for the burrata and tomatoes followed by the ravioli.


The waiter pours out glasses of fizzy water and I ask if Zucker misses the excitement of being in the middle of the global news agenda at CNN. He pauses, choosing his words carefully. “The biggest difference in my life is the pace. For 35 years, my DNA and metabolism was go, go, go, making 30 decisions a day.” Post-CNN life is, he says, “the opposite of that”.

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Since leaving he has been appointed chief executive of RedBird IMI, a $1bn fund that is jointly backed by Gerry Cardinale, whose other investments include AC Milan and a new production company started by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, and the Abu Dhabi-based International Media Investments group. RedBird IMI has done three deals so far, including buying into a children’s entertainment company formed to turn the stories of author Mo Willems (whose titles include Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive The Bus!) into video. More deals are coming, Zucker says.

Would he buy a news organisation? “I’d love to own the FT. It’s a great brand,” he says, somewhat surprisingly, before acknowledging that he knows it is not for sale. “We’re absolutely interested in news and information, start-ups or established [companies],” he goes on. “But it has to make economic sense.”

“If Nikkei was to put the FT up for sale, I’m sure we would look at it. Be it the FT or CNN . . . we’ll take a look. But we’re not sitting around, chasing or looking at things that are not for sale. I can’t be any more unequivocal.”

As our starters are delivered, I ask him about The Telegraph. He has been linked with a bid for the UK newspaper, which is being sold by Lloyds: the bank seized it this summer from the Barclay family over outstanding debt of more than £1bn. The Telegraph and its sister title, The Spectator, have attracted interest from Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail and General Trust, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Paul Marshall, the co-owner of GB News.

Ken Griffin, billionaire founder of US hedge fund Citadel, is backing the Marshall bid. Is Zucker also in the mix? “I’m not going to talk about that,” he says, flatly. “‘He clammed up before the clams arrived.’ See, I’m writing the whole thing for you.”

Menu

Come Prima Ristorante
903 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021

Two large bottles Pellegrino $22
Buffalo mozzarella $32
Zucchini flower ricotta $35
Lobster ravioli $42
Branzino $44
Spinach $14
Diet Coke $6.50
Espresso $5.75
Total (incl tax and service) $264

I wonder how this new world of dealmaking compares with his previous job. Life is “simpler” since he left CNN, he says.” Then he pauses. It sounds like there’s a “but” coming.

“No, I’m trying to be totally self-aware and candid about it. I’m not trying to pretend.” He hasn’t missed CNN, he says, except for one time. “Which is right now, with what’s going on in Israel and Gaza. I think it’s an incredibly important story . . . this is really the only time since I’ve left where I’ve regretted not being part of it.”

He has praise for his former colleagues, though, who are now led by the former BBC director-general and New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson. “In the time I’ve left I’ve watched very little CNN. But I’ve watched more in the last week . . . and they’ve done an excellent job. I think this [sort of story] is what CNN was built for . . . their resources are unmatched.”

He has praise for Thompson too. “It’s a tough job, at a tough time in all media, but he’s got the right skill set to have a real impact . . . he’ll do great.”

I ask about the brief Licht era and what he thought of the infamous Atlantic piece. “I don’t think there’s anything I can add to everything that’s been said about that already.” Come on, I say. Surely he had a reaction upon reading it? He pauses again. “I felt,” he says, after a moment, “that I had to go to the gym.”

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Martin is walking by our table, a New York Times Spelling Bee baseball cap now on his head. He stops to chat and reminds Zucker that they keep meeting at the same restaurants; Zucker mentions the diner where they’ve previously seen each other. “We have high taste and we have low taste,” Martin calls out as he leaves, walking past the restaurant manager. The manager responds to all of us, with a shrug: “But which one is the high?”

We have polished off the starters and our main courses have arrived. The branzino is off the bone, soft and delicious (thank you, Steve Martin) and Zucker declares the lobster ravioli with clams a success too. I want to ask about the time leading up to his departure from CNN.

The months leading up to his exit in February last year were certainly turbulent, with Zucker suspending and eventually firing Chris Cuomo, one of his star anchors. Cuomo was fired for violating journalistic standards regarding advice he gave his brother Andrew, then governor of New York, over sexual harassment allegations. (Chris Cuomo was separately accused of sexual misconduct, which he denies.)

Zucker was also under pressure from CNN’s new owners, Warner Bros Discovery. It was no secret that they wanted to reposition CNN: John Malone, one of the company’s largest shareholders, even took a swipe at the channel under Zucker, telling CNBC in November 2021 that he wanted CNN to “evolve back to the kind of journalism that it started with, and actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing”.

There were other critics of CNN in the later years of the Trump administration — particularly around the tone and tenor of the news coverage, with some hosts delivering long monologues to camera on the dangers of Trump’s presidency and his habitual lying.

I wonder if Zucker agrees that the network became too sanctimonious or anti-Trump. “Do you have a problem with the truth?” he says, flatly. “I understand why you asked that, and I know that that’s the narrative that people had wanted to paint [but] I don’t really agree with it. We always believed that our most important job was to report the news and stand up for the truth. I think it’s what the FT believes too, is my guess?”

Yes, I say.

“Well, some people wanted to paint that as anti-Trump. We never ever set out to do that or saw that as a strategy . . . we saw it as pro-truth. If sometimes that came off as anti-Trump, that was because we were telling the truth. I think those who may have had other agendas sought to portray that as the narrative. And that’s certainly their prerogative.”


He has a long history with Trump, starting with The Apprentice. I remind him that I interviewed him once before, in the summer of 2016, shortly before Trump secured the Republican nomination for president. At this time CNN was in full Trump mode, broadcasting his rallies live and uninterrupted on a near-daily basis.

This made for great ratings, with Trump’s increasingly outrageous comments drawing viewers in droves and fuelling his popularity. Other news channels and broadcast networks employed the same tactic: at the time, Les Moonves, the former chief executive of CBS, summed up what many broadcasters probably felt about the Trump candidacy, saying: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

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I asked Zucker about this wall-to-wall coverage back in 2016 and press him again now. Was it a mistake? His response is a series of questions he answers himself. “I was in charge. I accept all responsibility. Look, were we in uncharted territory and was he a unique candidate? Yes. Did we make mistakes? Absolutely. Did we give too much unedited free airtime? Yes, of course. By the way, did our competitors do the same thing? 100 per cent yes. Am I the one that takes the blame for that pretty unilaterally? Yes. But that’s OK. I get it.

“Do I think that’s why he won the election? I do not at all. I think that fails to fully appreciate how a large cross-section of this country felt and feels about him. It’s like, everybody wants to blame somebody for the reason why Donald Trump got elected, without actually acknowledging that there’s a good portion of the country that actually agrees with him.”

CNN took a different approach four years later, he points out. Gone were the hours and hours of unedited speeches from rallies. “And would I do things differently [again] in 2024? Of course.”

The 2024 election will be for Thompson to worry about. Now for the big question: about his own departure from CNN. As the Cuomo scandal was blowing up, it emerged that Zucker was in a relationship with a colleague; he was gone soon afterwards. I wonder how he feels about having been forced to resign.

“I don’t really want to talk about it because I don’t dwell on it. But here’s what I’ll say. I made a minor mistake in not disclosing [the relationship]. I own that. I regret that. In no way did I think the punishment fit the crime. They made their decision. I moved on. That’s as much as I want to look back on it. I own that mistake.”

As a boy growing up in Miami, Zucker ran a successful campaign for high school class president under the slogan: “The little man with the big ideas.”

He has, over the years, spoken about his love of politics and a potential run for office. I ask if this is something he will ever do. “I’ve said it for my whole life, that politics is of great interest to me. I’m not doing anything about it . . . politics in the US is pretty broken. It’s hard for one person to make a difference [and] I don’t know that I have an answer. Maybe someday.”

I’ve ordered an espresso (he doesn’t drink coffee) and the waiter brings some biscotti with it. “What is that in it, a raisin?” Zucker says. “I don’t like raisins in my food. I don’t want cranberries in my salad. And I don’t want walnuts in my salad either.”

It’s time to go, but not before he gives me a recommendation for the best bagels in New York, Zucker’s Bagels (no relation), and a hint that he may not be finished with television just yet. I’m not quite sure if I believe that he is suited to staying out of the action for long so I ask if he has ruled out ever going back. “If the right moment were there for me to do something again day in, day out like that, would I accept that? Yes, sure. But if that doesn’t come along, that’s OK too. You can’t force things.”

Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s head of digital platforms

This article has been amended since original publication to reflect that Paul Marshall is the co-owner of GB News

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Source: https://www.ft.com/content/71fdcb4f-2c7f-4de9-aeb2-c6da448e8f6f