Empty pieces of furniture continue to make their way into the political imagination. “You aired an empty podium!” yelled Todd Harris, Marco Rubio‘s campaign strategist, to an onstage Jeff Zucker during a Harvard University-sponsored Campaign Managers Conference Wednesday night, a post-election debrief that occurs after every presidential election.
Harris was far from the only 2016 campaign manager shouting at Zucker, criticizing the CNN Worldwide president for the network’s obsessive Trump coverage, although along with his evocative empty podium comment he also said, “You showed hours upon hours of unfiltered, unscrutinized coverage of Trump!”
Zucker’s defense, and the small piece of the picture for which he apologized, were similar to what he has said before: he agreed there was too much coverage of Trump rallies, and that CNN should have made sure former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski received the entirety of his severance before they hire him, but continued to defend the hire with his “people who could give us a peek into what people supporting Trump were thinking,” line of reasoning.
As for the claims that Trump got all the attention, “All of the Republican candidates were invited to come on,” he said. “Cable news in general, CNN in particular, should not be held responsible for the fact that Donald Trump said yes to those interviews.”
Jeb Bush strategist David Kochel said that even when other candidates were asked on CNN, it was still about Trump. “Trump was the entire market. When we were asked to go on, we were asked to comment on what he said.”
And Ted Cruz chief strategist Jason Johnson literally called “Bullshit,” adding, “I can tell you for a fact that we requested a call and we were denied. And that’s on the record.”
The other piece of Zucker’s defense was that CNN covered Trump because he made news, and CNN is “in the business of covering news.” It’s kind of a chicken or the egg quandary, or maybe more of a tree falls in a forest situation, with the forest being Trump’s Twitter feed, and CNN always there to hear the sound of Trump bluster.
It could be easy to dismiss the criticisms of the losing campaign managers as a function of their loss, but criticism also came from a fellow panelist, Washington Post national political correspondent Karen Tumulty, who asked Zucker about the “nut job surrogates” that regularly appeared on his show. “At what point do you say you cannot come on our air anymore because you have told too many lies?”
At no point, was the gist of Zucker’s response. “If that is who the Trump campaign sought to put forward as the person who represents them, and they were called out time and time again by our anchors, continuously, I think it is important to have the campaign represented,” he said. “At the end of the day it is up to the viewer, the electorate to decide whether that represents their candidate well,” Zucker added. “So that’s the way we looked at it.”
By allowing flat-out lies to be argued on air, even if anchors vigorously challenge those lies, falsehoods gain credibility. Zucker’s statement that it is up to the viewers to decide whom they choose to believe underscores that point, even when belief is beside the point, as in say, an “Earth: flat or not?” construction. Many things, political or otherwise, have two or more legitimate sides to it, but many things have only one, and when those things aren’t treated as incontrovertible truths, welcome to our post-truth era. Welcome to, in the case of flat-out false allegations of widespread voter fraud, “Well it was all across the media. All across.”