When AT&T moved to buy CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, in 2016, Mr. Trump began attacking his old friend. He did it in public, on Twitter. He also raised Mr. Zucker in a private meeting with AT&T’s then-C.E.O., Randall Stephenson, in early 2017, a comment that hasn’t been previously reported.
The president’s campaign against Mr. Zucker was interpreted — reasonably — by Mr. Zucker as an attempt to get him fired as a condition of the merger, according to three people who spoke to AT&T and Time Warner executives 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 didn’t fire the CNN president.
Mr. Mahler’s piece noted that CNN had become more focused on American politics, ”an unending loop of dramatic moments, conflicts and confrontations” — in other words, it had become Trumpier. He also noted Mr. Zucker’s “strange symbiosis” with Mr. Trump. But that summer, CNN fired Jeffrey Lord, a genial, silver-haired former aide to Ronald Reagan who had been Mr. Trump’s most stalwart defender on the network.
And by the end of that year, the lure of ratings pulled the network in a new direction: resistance. Mr. Trump’s own political theater featured regular televised confrontations with CNN’s White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, a different kind of win-win. But if Mr. Trump and Mr. Zucker sometimes still seemed to be winking, their audiences aren’t in on the joke, and the deadly serious stakes became clear when a deranged Trump supporter mailed a bomb to CNN’s New York headquarters in October 2018.
Mr. Zucker didn’t respond through a spokeswoman when I asked again, five years later, whether he now regrets his role in Mr. Trump’s career.
But this run, too, may be coming to an end. When I spoke to former NBC colleagues of Mr. Zucker about his tenure there, the show they brought up most often wasn’t “The Apprentice”; it was “Fear Factor,” in which contestants were tossed in their underwear into a pit full of rats, among other grotesque stunts. USA Today described it as perhaps “the most vile program ever to air on a major network.”
“Fear Factor” didn’t age well. The show lasted six seasons, and a revival was cut short by public backlash to a stunt in which competing sets of identical twins drank donkey semen. The public got tired of it (and that donkey stunt didn’t air).